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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe House Of Seven Gables - Chapter VII - THE GUEST
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The House Of Seven Gables - Chapter VII - THE GUEST Post by :mmoneys Category :Long Stories Author :Nathaniel Hawthorne Date :April 2011 Read :2949

Click below to download : The House Of Seven Gables - Chapter VII - THE GUEST (Format : PDF)

The House Of Seven Gables - Chapter VII - THE GUEST

WHEN Phoebe awoke,--which she did with the early twittering
of the conjugal couple of robins in the pear-tree,--she heard
movements below stairs, and, hastening down, found Hepzibah
already in the kitchen. She stood by a window, holding a book
in close contiguity to her nose, as if with the hope of gaining
an olfactory acquaintance with its contents, since her imperfect
vision made it not very easy to read them. If any volume could
have manifested its essential wisdom in the mode suggested,
it would certainly have been the one now in Hepzibah's hand;
and the kitchen, in such an event, would forthwith have streamed
with the fragrance of venison, turkeys, capons, larded partridges,
puddings, cakes, and Christmas pies, in all manner of elaborate
mixture and concoction. It was a cookery book, full of innumerable
old fashions of English dishes, and illustrated with engravings,
which represented the arrangements of the table at such banquets
as it might have befitted a nobleman to give in the great hall
of his castle. And, amid these rich and potent devices of the
culinary art (not one of which, probably, had been tested, within
the memory of any man's grandfather), poor Hepzibah was seeking
for some nimble little titbit, which, with what skill she had,
and such materials as were at hand, she might toss up for breakfast.

Soon, with a deep sigh, she put aside the savory volume, and
inquired of Phoebe whether old Speckle, as she called one of the
hens, had laid an egg the preceding day. Phoebe ran to see,
but returned without the expected treasure in her hand. At that
instant, however, the blast of a fish-dealer's conch was heard,
announcing his approach along the street. With energetic raps at
the shop-window, Hepzibah summoned the man in, and made purchase
of what he warranted as the finest mackerel in his cart, and as
fat a one as ever he felt with his finger so early in the season.
Requesting Phoebe to roast some coffee,--which she casually observed
was the real Mocha, and so long kept that each of the small berries
ought to be worth its weight in gold,--the maiden lady heaped fuel
into the vast receptacle of the ancient fireplace in such quantity
as soon to drive the lingering dusk out of the kitchen. The country-girl,
willing to give her utmost assistance, proposed to make an Indian cake,
after her mother's peculiar method, of easy manufacture, and which
she could vouch for as possessing a richness, and, if rightly
prepared, a delicacy, unequalled by any other mode of breakfast-cake.
Hepzibah gladly assenting, the kitchen was soon the scene of
savory preparation. Perchance, amid their proper element of smoke,
which eddied forth from the ill-constructed chimney, the ghosts of
departed cook-maids looked wonderingly on, or peeped down the great
breadth of the flue, despising the simplicity of the projected meal,
yet ineffectually pining to thrust their shadowy hands into each
inchoate dish. The half-starved rats, at any rate, stole visibly
out of their hiding-places, and sat on their hind-legs, snuffing the
fumy atmosphere, and wistfully awaiting an opportunity to nibble.

Hepzibah had no natural turn for cookery, and, to say the truth,
had fairly incurred her present meagreness by often choosing to
go without her dinner rather than be attendant on the rotation of
the spit, or ebullition of the pot. Her zeal over the fire,
therefore, was quite an heroic test of sentiment. It was touching,
and positively worthy of tears (if Phoebe, the only spectator, except
the rats and ghosts aforesaid, had not been better employed than
in shedding them), to see her rake out a bed of fresh and glowing
coals, and proceed to broil the mackerel. Her usually pale cheeks
were all ablaze with heat and hurry. She watched the fish with
as much tender care and minuteness of attention as if,--we know
not how to express it otherwise,--as if her own heart were on the
gridiron, and her immortal happiness were involved in its being
done precisely to a turn!

Life, within doors, has few pleasanter prospects than a neatly
arranged and well-provisioned breakfast-table. We come to it
freshly, in the dewy youth of the day, and when our spiritual
and sensual elements are in better accord than at a later period;
so that the material delights of the morning meal are capable of
being fully enjoyed, without any very grievous reproaches, whether
gastric or conscientious, for yielding even a trifle overmuch to
the animal department of our nature. The thoughts, too, that run
around the ring of familiar guests have a piquancy and mirthfulness,
and oftentimes a vivid truth, which more rarely find their way into
the elaborate intercourse of dinner. Hepzibah's small and ancient
table, supported on its slender and graceful legs, and covered with
a cloth of the richest damask, looked worthy to be the scene and
centre of one of the cheerfullest of parties. The vapor of the broiled
fish arose like incense from the shrine of a barbarian idol, while
the fragrance of the Mocha might have gratified the nostrils of a
tutelary Lar, or whatever power has scope over a modern breakfast-table.
Phoebe's Indian cakes were the sweetest offering of all,--in their
hue befitting the rustic altars of the innocent and golden age,--or,
so brightly yellow were they, resembling some of the bread which was
changed to glistening gold when Midas tried to eat it. The butter
must not be forgotten,--butter which Phoebe herself had churned,
in her own rural home, and brought it to her cousin as a propitiatory
gift,--smelling of clover-blossoms, and diffusing the charm of
pastoral scenery through the dark-panelled parlor. All this, with
the quaint gorgeousness of the old china cups and saucers, and the
crested spoons, and a silver cream-jug (Hepzibah's only other article
of plate, and shaped like the rudest porringer), set out a board at
which the stateliest of old Colonel Pyncheon's guests need not have
scorned to take his place. But the Puritan's face scowled down out
of the picture, as if nothing on the table pleased his appetite.

By way of contributing what grace she could, Phoebe gathered
some roses and a few other flowers, possessing either scent or
beauty, and arranged them in a glass pitcher, which, having long
ago lost its handle, was so much the fitter for a flower-vase.
The early sunshine--as fresh as that which peeped into Eve's bower
while she and Adam sat at breakfast there--came twinkling through
the branches of the pear-tree, and fell quite across the table.
All was now ready. There were chairs and plates for three.
A chair and plate for Hepzibah,--the same for Phoebe,--but what
other guest did her cousin look for?

Throughout this preparation there had been a constant tremor in
Hepzibah's frame; an agitation so powerful that Phoebe could see
the quivering of her gaunt shadow, as thrown by the firelight on the
kitchen wall, or by the sunshine on the parlor floor. Its manifestations
were so various, and agreed so little with one another, that the girl
knew not what to make of it. Sometimes it seemed an ecstasy of
delight and happiness. At such moments, Hepzibah would fling out
her arms, and infold Phoebe in them, and kiss her cheek as tenderly
as ever her mother had; she appeared to do so by an inevitable impulse,
and as if her bosom were oppressed with tenderness, of which she must
needs pour out a little, in order to gain breathing-room. The next
moment, without any visible cause for the change, her unwonted joy
shrank back, appalled, as it were, and clothed itself in mourning;
or it ran and hid itself, so to speak, in the dungeon of her heart,
where it had long lain chained, while a cold, spectral sorrow took
the place of the imprisoned joy, that was afraid to be enfranchised,
--a sorrow as black as that was bright. She often broke into a
little, nervous, hysteric laugh, more touching than any tears could be;
and forthwith, as if to try which was the most touching, a gush of
tears would follow; or perhaps the laughter and tears came both
at once, and surrounded our poor Hepzibah, in a moral sense, with a
kind of pale, dim rainbow. Towards Phoebe, as we have said, she was
affectionate, --far tenderer than ever before, in their brief acquaintance,
except for that one kiss on the preceding night,--yet with a Continually
recurring pettishness and irritability. She would speak sharply to her;
then, throwing aside all the starched reserve of her ordinary manner,
ask pardon, and the next instant renew the just-forgiven injury.

At last, when their mutual labor was all finished, she took
Phoebe's hand in her own trembling one.

"Bear with me, my dear child," she cried; "for truly my heart is
full to the brim! Bear with me; for I love you, Phoebe, though
I speak so roughly. Think nothing of it, dearest child! By and by,
I shall be kind, and only kind!"

"My dearest cousin, cannot you tell me what has happened?" asked Phoebe,
with a sunny and tearful sympathy. "What is it that moves you so?"

"Hush! hush! He is coming!" whispered Hepzibah, hastily wiping
her eyes. "Let him see you first, Phoebe; for you are young and rosy,
and cannot help letting a smile break out whether or no. He always
liked bright faces! And mine is old now, and the tears are hardly dry
on it. He never could abide tears. There; draw the curtain a little,
so that the shadow may fall across his side of the table! But let there
be a good deal of sunshine, too; for he never was fond of gloom, as some
people are. He has had but little sunshine in his life,--poor Clifford,
--and, oh, what a black shadow. Poor, poor Clifford!"

Thus murmuring in an undertone, as if speaking rather to her
own heart than to Phoebe, the old gentlewoman stepped on tiptoe
about the room, making such arrangements as suggested
themselves at the crisis.

Meanwhile there was a step in the passage-way, above stairs.
Phoebe recognized it as the same which had passed upward, as
through her dream, in the night-time. The approaching guest,
whoever it might be, appeared to pause at the head of the staircase;
he paused twice or thrice in the descent; he paused again at the foot.
Each time, the delay seemed to be without purpose, but rather from
a forgetfulness of the purpose which had set him in motion, or as if
the person's feet came involuntarily to a stand-still because the
motive-power was too feeble to sustain his progress. Finally,
he made a long pause at the threshold of the parlor. He took hold
of the knob of the door; then loosened his grasp without opening it.
Hepzibah, her hands convulsively clasped, stood gazing at the entrance.

"Dear Cousin Hepzibah, pray don't look so!" said Phoebe, trembling;
for her cousin's emotion, and this mysteriously reluctant step,
made her feel as if a ghost were coming into the room. "You really
frighten me! Is something awful going to happen?"

"Hush!" whispered Hepzibah. "Be cheerful! whatever may happen,
be nothing but cheerful!"

The final pause at the threshold proved so long, that Hepzibah,
unable to endure the suspense, rushed forward, threw open the
door, and led in the stranger by the hand. At the first glance,
Phoebe saw an elderly personage, in an old-fashioned dressing-gown
of faded damask, and wearing his gray or almost white hair of an
unusual length. It quite overshadowed his forehead, except when
he thrust it back, and stared vaguely about the room. After a very
brief inspection of his face, it was easy to conceive that his footstep
must necessarily be such an one as that which, slowly and with as
indefinite an aim as a child's first journey across a floor, had just
brought him hitherward. Yet there were no tokens that his physical
strength might not have sufficed for a free and determined gait. It
was the spirit of the man that could not walk. The expression of his
countenance--while, notwithstanding it had the light of reason in it
--seemed to waver, and glimmer, and nearly to die away, and feebly to
recover itself again. It was like a flame which we see twinkling among
half-extinguished embers; we gaze at it more intently than if it were
a positive blaze, gushing vividly upward,--more intently, but with
a certain impatience, as if it ought either to kindle itself into
satisfactory splendor, or be at once extinguished.

For an instant after entering the room, the guest stood still,
retaining Hepzibah's hand instinctively, as a child does that
of the grown person who guides it. He saw Phoebe, however,
and caught an illumination from her youthful and pleasant aspect,
which, indeed, threw a cheerfulness about the parlor, like the
circle of reflected brilliancy around the glass vase of flowers
that was standing in the sunshine. He made a salutation, or,
to speak nearer the truth, an ill-defined, abortive attempt at
curtsy. Imperfect as it was, however, it conveyed an idea, or,
at least, gave a hint, of indescribable grace, such as no practised
art of external manners could have attained. It was too slight to
seize upon at the instant; yet, as recollected afterwards, seemed
to transfigure the whole man.

"Dear Clifford," said Hepzibah, in the tone with which one
soothes a wayward infant, "this is our cousin Phoebe,--little
Phoebe Pyncheon,--Arthur's only child, you know. She has come
from the country to stay with us awhile; for our old house has
grown to be very lonely now."

"Phoebe--Phoebe Pyncheon?--Phoebe?" repeated the guest, with
a strange, sluggish, ill-defined utterance. "Arthur's child! Ah,
I forget! No matter. She is very welcome!"

"Come, dear Clifford, take this chair," said Hepzibah, leading him
to his place. "Pray, Phoebe, lower the curtain a very little more.
Now let us begin breakfast."

The guest seated himself in the place assigned him, and looked
strangely around. He was evidently trying to grapple with the
present scene, and bring it home to his mind with a more
satisfactory distinctness. He desired to be certain, at least,
that he was here, in the low-studded, cross-beamed, oaken-panelled
parlor, and not in some other spot, which had stereotyped itself
into his senses. But the effort was too great to be sustained with
more than a fragmentary success. Continually, as we may express
it, he faded away out of his place; or, in other words, his mind
and consciousness took their departure, leaving his wasted, gray,
and melancholy figure--a substantial emptiness, a material
ghost--to occupy his seat at table. Again, after a blank moment,
there would be a flickering taper-gleam in his eyeballs. It
betokened that his spiritual part had returned, and was doing its
best to kindle the heart's household fire, and light up intellectual
lamps in the dark and ruinous mansion, where it was doomed to
be a forlorn inhabitant.

At one of these moments of less torpid, yet still imperfect
animation, Phoebe became convinced of what she had at first
rejected as too extravagant and startling an idea. She saw that
the person before her must have been the original of the beautiful
miniature in her cousin Hepzibah's possession. Indeed, with a
feminine eye for costume, she had at once identified the damask
dressing-gown, which enveloped him, as the same in figure, material,
and fashion, with that so elaborately represented in the picture.
This old, faded garment, with all its pristine brilliancy extinct,
seemed, in some indescribable way, to translate the wearer's untold
misfortune, and make it perceptible to the beholder's eye. It was
the better to be discerned, by this exterior type, how worn and
old were the soul's more immediate garments; that form and
countenance, the beauty and grace of which had almost transcended
the skill of the most exquisite of artists. It could the more
adequately be known that the soul of the man must have suffered
some miserable wrong, from its earthly experience. There he
seemed to sit, with a dim veil of decay and ruin betwixt him
and the world, but through which, at flitting intervals, might be
caught the same expression, so refined, so softly imaginative,
which Malbone--venturing a happy touch, with suspended breath
--had imparted to the miniature! There had been something so
innately characteristic in this look, that all the dusky years,
and the burden of unfit calamity which had fallen upon him, did
not suffice utterly to destroy it.

Hepzibah had now poured out a cup of deliciously fragrant coffee,
and presented it to her guest. As his eyes met hers, he seemed
bewildered and disquieted.

"Is this you, Hepzibah?" he murmured sadly. then, more apart,
and perhaps unconscious that he was overheard, "How changed!
how changed! And is she angry with me? Why does she bend
her brow so?"

Poor Hepzibah! It was that wretched scowl which time and her
near-sightedness, and the fret of inward discomfort, had rendered
so habitual that any vehemence of mood invariably evoked it. But
at the indistinct murmur of his words her whole face grew tender,
and even lovely, with sorrowful affection; the harshness of her
features disappeared, as it were, behind the warm and misty glow.

"Angry! she repeated; "angry with you, Clifford!"

Her tone, as she uttered the exclamation, had a plaintive and really
exquisite melody thrilling through it, yet without subduing a certain
something which an obtuse auditor might still have mistaken for asperity.
It was as if some transcendent musician should draw a soul-thrilling
sweetness out of a cracked instrument, which makes its physical imperfection
heard in the midst of ethereal harmony,--so deep was the sensibility that
found an organ in Hepzibah's voice!

"There is nothing but love, here, Clifford," she added,--"nothing
but love! You are at home!"

The guest responded to her tone by a smile, which did not half
light up his face. Feeble as it was, however, and gone in a
moment, it had a charm of wonderful beauty. It was followed
by a coarser expression; or one that had the effect of coarseness
on the fine mould and outline of his countenance, because there
was nothing intellectual to temper it. It was a look of appetite.
He ate food with what might almost be termed voracity; and seemed
to forget himself, Hepzibah, the young girl, and everything else
around him, in the sensual enjoyment which the bountifully spread
table afforded. In his natural system, though high-wrought and
delicately refined, a sensibility to the delights of the palate
was probably inherent. It would have been kept in check, however,
and even converted into an accomplishment, and one of the thousand
modes of intellectual culture, had his more ethereal characteristics
retained their vigor. But as it existed now, the effect was painful
and made Phoebe droop her eyes.

In a little while the guest became sensible of the fragrance of
the yet untasted coffee. He quaffed it eagerly. The subtle
essence acted on him like a charmed draught, and caused the opaque
substance of his animal being to grow transparent, or, at least,
translucent; so that a spiritual gleam was transmitted through it,
with a clearer lustre than hitherto.

"More, more!" he cried, with nervous haste in his utterance, as if
anxious to retain his grasp of what sought to escape him. "This is
what I need! Give me more!"

Under this delicate and powerful influence he sat more erect,
and looked out from his eyes with a glance that took note of what
it rested on. It was not so much that his expression grew more
intellectual; this, though it had its share, was not the most
peculiar effect. Neither was what we call the moral nature so
forcibly awakened as to present itself in remarkable prominence.
But a certain fine temper of being was now not brought out in
full relief, but changeably and imperfectly betrayed, of which it
was the function to deal with all beautiful and enjoyable things.
In a character where it should exist as the chief attribute, it
would bestow on its possessor an exquisite taste, and an enviable
susceptibility of happiness. Beauty would be his life; his
aspirations would all tend toward it; and, allowing his frame and
physical organs to be in consonance, his own developments
would likewise be beautiful. Such a man should have nothing to
do with sorrow; nothing with strife; nothing with the martyrdom
which, in an infinite variety of shapes, awaits those who have the
heart, and will, and conscience, to fight a battle with the world.
To these heroic tempers, such martyrdom is the richest meed in the
world's gift. To the individual before us, it could only be a grief,
intense in due proportion with the severity of the infliction. He
had no right to be a martyr; and, beholding him so fit to be happy
and so feeble for all other purposes, a generous, strong, and noble
spirit would, methinks, have been ready to sacrifice what little
enjoyment it might have planned for itself, --it would have flung
down the hopes, so paltry in its regard,--if thereby the wintry
blasts of our rude sphere might come tempered to such a man.

Not to speak it harshly or scornfully, it seemed Clifford's nature
to be a Sybarite. It was perceptible, even there, in the dark old
parlor, in the inevitable polarity with which his eyes were
attracted towards the quivering play of sunbeams through the
shadowy foliage. It was seen in his appreciating notice of the
vase of flowers, the scent of which he inhaled with a zest almost
peculiar to a physical organization so refined that spiritual
ingredients are moulded in with it. It was betrayed in the
unconscious smile with which he regarded Phoebe, whose fresh
and maidenly figure was both sunshine and flowers,--their essence,
in a prettier and more agreeable mode of manifestation. Not less
evident was this love and necessity for the Beautiful, in the
instinctive caution with which, even so soon, his eyes turned
away from his hostess, and wandered to any quarter rather than
come back. It was Hepzibah's misfortune,--not Clifford's fault.
How could he,--so yellow as she was, so wrinkled, so sad of
mien, with that odd uncouthness of a turban on her head, and
that most perverse of scowls contorting her brow,--how could he
love to gaze at her? But, did he owe her no affection for so
much as she had silently given? He owed her nothing. A nature
like Clifford's can contract no debts of that kind. It is--we
say it without censure, nor in diminution of the claim which it
indefeasibly possesses on beings of another mould--it is always
selfish in its essence; and we must give it leave to be so, and
heap up our heroic and disinterested love upon it so much the
more, without a recompense. Poor Hepzibah knew this truth, or,
at least, acted on the instinct of it. So long estranged from
what was lovely as Clifford had been, she rejoiced--rejoiced,
though with a present sigh, and a secret purpose to shed tears
in her own chamber that he had brighter objects now before his
eyes than her aged and uncomely features. They never possessed
a charm; and if they had, the canker of her grief for him would
long since have destroyed it.

The guest leaned back in his chair. Mingled in his countenance
with a dreamy delight, there was a troubled look of effort and
unrest. He was seeking to make himself more fully sensible of
the scene around him; or, perhaps, dreading it to be a dream,
or a play of imagination, was vexing the fair moment with a
struggle for some added brilliancy and more durable illusion.

"How pleasant!--How delightful!" he murmured, but not as if
addressing any one. "Will it last? How balmy the atmosphere
through that open window! An open window! How beautiful that play
of sunshine! Those flowers, how very fragrant! That young girl's
face, how cheerful, how blooming!--a flower with the dew on it,
and sunbeams in the dew-drops! Ah! this must be all a dream!
A dream! A dream! But it has quite hidden the four stone walls"

Then his face darkened, as if the shadow of a cavern or a
dungeon had come over it; there was no more light in its expression
than might have come through the iron grates of a prison window-still
lessening, too, as if he were sinking farther into the depths. Phoebe
(being of that quickness and activity of temperament that she seldom
long refrained from taking a part, and generally a good one, in what
was going forward) now felt herself moved to address the stranger.

"Here is a new kind of rose, which I found this morning in the
garden," said she, choosing a small crimson one from among the
flowers in the vase. "There will be but five or six on the bush
this season. This is the most perfect of them all; not a speck of
blight or mildew in it. And how sweet it is!--sweet like no other
rose! One can never forget that scent!"

"Ah!--let me see!--let me hold it!" cried the guest, eagerly seizing
the flower, which, by the spell peculiar to remembered odors,
brought innumerable associations along with the fragrance that
it exhaled. "Thank you! This has done me good. I remember how
I used to prize this flower,--long ago, I suppose, very long
ago!--or was it only yesterday? It makes me feel young again!
Am I young? Either this remembrance is singularly distinct, or
this consciousness strangely dim! But how kind of the fair young
girl! Thank you! Thank you!"

The favorable excitement derived from this little crimson rose
afforded Clifford the brightest moment which he enjoyed at the
breakfast-table. It might have lasted longer, but that his eyes
happened, soon afterwards, to rest on the face of the old Puritan,
who, out of his dingy frame and lustreless canvas, was looking
down on the scene like a ghost, and a most ill-tempered and
ungenial one. The guest made an impatient gesture of the hand,
and addressed Hepzibah with what might easily be recognized as
the licensed irritability of a petted member of the family.

"Hepzibah!--Hepzibah!" cried he with no little force and
distinctness, "why do you keep that odious picture on the wall?
Yes, yes!--that is precisely your taste! I have told you, a
thousand times, that it was the evil genius of the house!--my evil
genius particularly! Take it down, at once!"

"Dear Clifford," said Hepzibah sadly, "you know it cannot be!"

"Then, at all events," continued he, still speaking with some
energy,"pray cover it with a crimson curtain, broad enough to
hang in folds, and with a golden border and tassels. I cannot
bear it! It must not stare me in the face!"

"Yes, dear Clifford, the picture shall be covered," said Hepzibah
soothingly. "There is a crimson curtain in a trunk above stairs,--a
little faded and moth-eaten, I'm afraid,--but Phoebe and I will do
wonders with it."

"This very day, remember" said he; and then added, in a low,
self-communing voice, "Why should we live in this dismal house
at all? Why not go to the South of France?--to Italy?--Paris,
Naples, Venice, Rome? Hepzibah will say we have not the
means. A droll idea that!"

He smiled to himself, and threw a glance of fine sarcastic
meaning towards Hepzibah.

But the several moods of feeling, faintly as they were marked,
through which he had passed, occurring in so brief an interval of
time, had evidently wearied the stranger. He was probably
accustomed to a sad monotony of life, not so much flowing in a
stream, however sluggish, as stagnating in a pool around his feet.
A slumberous veil diffused itself over his countenance, and had an
effect, morally speaking, on its naturally delicate and elegant
outline, like that which a brooding mist, with no sunshine in it,
throws over the features of a landscape. He appeared to become
grosser,--almost cloddish. If aught of interest or beauty--even
ruined beauty--had heretofore been visible in this man, the beholder
might now begin to doubt it, and to accuse his own imagination of
deluding him with whatever grace had flickered over that visage,
and whatever exquisite lustre had gleamed in those filmy eyes.

Before he had quite sunken away, however, the sharp and peevish tinkle
of the shop-bell made itself audible. Striking most disagreeably on
Clifford's auditory organs and the characteristic sensibility of his
nerves, it caused him to start upright out of his chair.

"Good heavens, Hepzibah! what horrible disturbance have we
now in the house?" cried he, wreaking his resentful impatience
--as a matter of course, and a custom of old--on the one person
in the world that loved him." I have never heard such a hateful
clamor! Why do you permit it? In the name of all dissonance,
what can it be?"

It was very remarkable into what prominent relief--even as if
a dim picture should leap suddenly from its canvas--Clifford's
character was thrown by this apparently trifling annoyance.
The secret was, that an individual of his temper can always
be pricked more acutely through his sense of the beautiful and
harmonious than through his heart. It is even possible--for similar
cases have often happened--that if Clifford, in his foregoing life,
had enjoyed the means of cultivating his taste to its utmost
perfectibility, that subtile attribute might, before this period,
have completely eaten out or filed away his affections. Shall we
venture to pronounce, therefore, that his long and black calamity
may not have had a redeeming drop of mercy at the bottom?

"Dear Clifford, I wish I could keep the sound from your ears,"
said Hepzibah, patiently, but reddening with a painful suffusion
of shame. "It is very disagreeable even to me. But, do you know,
Clifford, I have something to tell you? This ugly noise,--pray run,
Phoebe, and see who is there!--this naughty little tinkle is nothing
but our shop-bell!"

"Shop-bell!" repeated Clifford, with a bewildered stare.

"Yes, our shop-bell," said Hepzibah, a certain natural dignity,
mingled with deep emotion, now asserting itself in her manner.
"For you must know, dearest Clifford, that we are very poor.
And there was no other resource, but either to accept assistance
from a hand that I would push aside (and so would you!) were
it to offer bread when we were dying for it,--no help, save from
him, or else to earn our subsistence with my own hands! Alone,
I might have been content to starve. But you were to be given
back to me! Do you think, then, dear Clifford," added she, with
a wretched smile, "that I have brought an irretrievable disgrace
on the old house, by opening a little shop in the front gable?
Our great-great-grandfather did the same, when there was far less
need! Are you ashamed of me?"

"Shame! Disgrace! Do you speak these words to me, Hepzibah?"
said Clifford,--not angrily, however; for when a man's spirit has
been thoroughly crushed, he may be peevish at small offences, but
never resentful of great ones. So he spoke with only a grieved
emotion. "It was not kind to say so, Hepzibah! What shame can
befall me now?"

And then the unnerved man--he that had been born for enjoyment,
but had met a doom so very wretched--burst into a woman's passion
of tears. It was but of brief continuance, however; soon leaving
him in a quiescent, and, to judge by his countenance, not an
uncomfortable state. From this mood, too, he partially rallied
for an instant, and looked at Hepzibah with a smile, the keen,
half-derisory purport of which was a puzzle to her.

"Are we so very poor, Hepzibah?" said he.

Finally, his chair being deep and softly cushioned, Clifford fell
asleep. Hearing the more regular rise and fall of his breath (which,
however, even then, instead of being strong and full, had a feeble kind
of tremor, corresponding with the lack of vigor in his character),
--hearing these tokens of settled slumber, Hepzibah seized the opportunity
to peruse his face more attentively than she had yet dared to do. Her
heart melted away in tears; her profoundest spirit sent forth a moaning
voice, low, gentle, but inexpressibly sad. In this depth of grief and
pity she felt that there was no irreverence in gazing at his altered,
aged, faded, ruined face. But no sooner was she a little relieved than
her conscience smote her for gazing curiously at him, now that he was
so changed; and, turning hastily away, Hepzibah let down the curtain
over the sunny window, and left Clifford to slumber there.

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