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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe House Of Seven Gables - Chapter X - THE PYNCHEON GARDEN
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The House Of Seven Gables - Chapter X - THE PYNCHEON GARDEN Post by :audrey Category :Long Stories Author :Nathaniel Hawthorne Date :April 2011 Read :2699

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The House Of Seven Gables - Chapter X - THE PYNCHEON GARDEN

CLIFFORD, except for Phoebe's More active instigation would
ordinarily have yielded to the torpor which had crept through all
his modes of being, and which sluggishly counselled him to sit
in his morning chair till eventide. But the girl seldom failed
to propose a removal to the garden, where Uncle Venner and the
daguerreotypist had made such repairs on the roof of the ruinous
arbor, or summer-house, that it was now a sufficient shelter from
sunshine and casual showers. The hop-vine, too, had begun to
grow luxuriantly over the sides of the little edifice, and made
an interior of verdant seclusion, with innumerable peeps and
glimpses into the wider solitude of the garden.

Here, sometimes, in this green play-place of flickering light,
Phoebe read to Clifford. Her acquaintance, the artist, who
appeared to have a literary turn, had supplied her with works
of fiction, in pamphlet form,--and a few volumes of poetry, in
altogether a different style and taste from those which Hepzibah
selected for his amusement. Small thanks were due to the books,
however, if the girl's readings were in any degree more
successful than her elderly cousin's. Phoebe's voice had always
a pretty music in it, and could either enliven Clifford by its
sparkle and gayety of tone, or soothe him by a continued flow
of pebbly and brook-like cadences. But the fictions--in which
the country-girl, unused to works of that nature, often became
deeply absorbed--interested her strange auditor very little,
or not at all. Pictures of life, scenes of passion or sentiment,
wit, humor, and pathos, were all thrown away, or worse than
thrown away, on Clifford; either because he lacked an experience
by which to test their truth, or because his own griefs were a
touch-stone of reality that few feigned emotions could withstand.
When Phoebe broke into a peal of merry laughter at what she read,
he would now and then laugh for sympathy, but oftener respond with
a troubled, questioning look. If a tear--a maiden's sunshiny tear
over imaginary woe--dropped upon some melancholy page, Clifford
either took it as a token of actual calamity, or else grew
peevish, and angrily motioned her to close the volume. And
wisely too! Is not the world sad enough, in genuine earnest,
without making a pastime of mock sorrows?

With poetry it was rather better. He delighted in the swell and
subsidence of the rhythm, and the happily recurring rhyme. Nor
was Clifford incapable of feeling the sentiment of poetry,--not,
perhaps, where it was highest or deepest, but where it was most
flitting and ethereal. It was impossible to foretell in what
exquisite verse the awakening spell might lurk; but, on raising
her eyes from the page to Clifford's face, Phoebe would be made
aware, by the light breaking through it, that a more delicate
intelligence than her own had caught a lambent flame from what
she read. One glow of this kind, however, was often the
precursor of gloom for many hours afterward; because, when the
glow left him, he seemed conscious of a missing sense and
power, and groped about for them, as if a blind man should go
seeking his lost eyesight.

It pleased him more, and was better for his inward welfare, that
Phoebe should talk, and make passing occurrences vivid to his
mind by her accompanying description and remarks. The life of
the garden offered topics enough for such discourse as suited
Clifford best. He never failed to inquire what flowers had
bloomed since yesterday. His feeling for flowers was very
exquisite, and seemed not so much a taste as an emotion; he was
fond of sitting with one in his hand, intently observing it, and
looking from its petals into Phoebe's face, as if the garden flower
were the sister of the household maiden. Not merely was there
a delight in the flower's perfume, or pleasure in its beautiful
form, and the delicacy or brightness of its hue; but Clifford's
enjoyment was accompanied with a perception of life, character,
and individuality, that made him love these blossoms of the
garden, as if they were endowed with sentiment and intelligence.
This affection and sympathy for flowers is almost exclusively a
woman's trait. Men, if endowed with it by nature, soon lose,
forget, and learn to despise it, in their contact with coarser things
than flowers. Clifford, too, had long forgotten it; but found it
again now, as he slowly revived from the chill torpor of his life.

It is wonderful how many pleasant incidents continually came to
pass in that secluded garden-spot when once Phoebe had set
herself to look for them. She had seen or heard a bee there, on
the first day of her acquaintance with the place. And often,
--almost continually, indeed,--since then, the bees kept coming
thither, Heaven knows why, or by what pertinacious desire, for
far-fetched sweets, when, no doubt, there were broad clover-fields,
and all kinds of garden growth, much nearer home than this. Thither
the bees came, however, and plunged into the squash-blossoms, as if
there were no other squash-vines within a long day's flight, or as
if the soil of Hepzibah's garden gave its productions just the very
quality which these laborious little wizards wanted, in order to
impart the Hymettus odor to their whole hive of New England honey.
When Clifford heard their sunny, buzzing murmur, in the heart of
the great yellow blossoms, he looked about him with a joyful sense
of warmth, and blue sky, and green grass, and of God's free air in
the whole height from earth to heaven. After all, there need be
no question why the bees came to that one green nook in the dusty
town. God sent them thither to gladden our poor Clifford. They
brought the rich summer with them, in requital of a little honey.

When the bean-vines began to flower on the poles, there was
one particular variety which bore a vivid scarlet blossom.
The daguerreotypist had found these beans in a garret, over one
of the seven gables, treasured up in an old chest of drawers
by some horticultural Pyncheon of days gone by, who doubtless
meant to sow them the next summer, but was himself first sown
in Death's garden-ground. By way of testing whether there were
still a living germ in such ancient seeds, Holgrave had planted
some of them; and the result of his experiment was a splendid
row of bean-vines, clambering, early, to the full height of the
poles, and arraying them, from top to bottom, in a spiral
profusion of red blossoms. And, ever since the unfolding of the
first bud, a multitude of humming-birds had been attracted
thither. At times, it seemed as if for every one of the hundred
blossoms there was one of these tiniest fowls of the air,--a
thumb's bigness of burnished plumage, hovering and vibrating
about the bean-poles. It was with indescribable interest, and
even more than childish delight, that Clifford watched the
humming-birds. He used to thrust his head softly out of the
arbor to see them the better; all the while, too, motioning
Phoebe to be quiet, and snatching glimpses of the smile upon her
face, so as to heap his enjoyment up the higher with her sympathy.
He had not merely grown young;--he was a child again.

Hepzibah, whenever she happened to witness one of these fits of
miniature enthusiasm, would shake her head, with a strange
mingling of the mother and sister, and of pleasure and sadness,
in her aspect. She said that it had always been thus with Clifford
when the humming-birds came,--always, from his babyhood,--and
that his delight in them had been one of the earliest tokens by
which he showed his love for beautiful things. And it was a
wonderful coincidence, the good lady thought, that the artist
should have planted these scarlet-flowering beans--which the
humming-birds sought far and wide, and which had not grown in
the Pyncheon garden before for forty years--on the very summer
of Clifford's return.

Then would the tears stand in poor Hepzibah's eyes, or overflow
them with a too abundant gush, so that she was fain to betake
herself into some corner, lest Clifford should espy her agitation.
Indeed, all the enjoyments of this period were provocative of
tears. Coming so late as it did, it was a kind of Indian summer,
with a mist in its balmiest sunshine, and decay and death in its
gaudiest delight. The more Clifford seemed to taste the happiness
of a child, the sadder was the difference to be recognized. With
a mysterious and terrible Past, which had annihilated his memory,
and a blank Future before him, he had only this visionary and
impalpable Now, which, if you once look closely at it, is nothing.
He himself, as was perceptible by many symptoms, lay darkly behind
his pleasure, and knew it to be a baby-play, which he was to
toy and trifle with, instead of thoroughly believing. Clifford saw,
it may be, in the mirror of his deeper consciousness, that he was
an example and representative of that great class of people whom
an inexplicable Providence is continually putting at cross-purposes
with the world: breaking what seems its own promise in their
nature; withholding their proper food, and setting poison before
them for a banquet; and thus--when it might so easily, as one
would think, have been adjusted otherwise--making their existence
a strangeness, a solitude, and torment. All his life long, he had
been learning how to be wretched, as one learns a foreign
tongue; and now, with the lesson thoroughly by heart, he could
with difficulty comprehend his little airy happiness. Frequently
there was a dim shadow of doubt in his eyes. "Take my hand,
Phoebe," he would say, "and pinch it hard with your little
fingers! Give me a rose, that I may press its thorns, and prove
myself awake by the sharp touch of pain!" Evidently, he desired
this prick of a trifling anguish, in order to assure himself, by
that quality which he best knew to be real, that the garden, and
the seven weather-beaten gables, and Hepzibah's scowl, and Phoebe's
smile, were real likewise. Without this signet in his flesh, he
could have attributed no more substance to them than to the empty
confusion of imaginary scenes with which he had fed his spirit,
until even that poor sustenance was exhausted.

The author needs great faith in his reader's sympathy; else he
must hesitate to give details so minute, and incidents apparently
so trifling, as are essential to make up the idea of this
garden-life. It was the Eden of a thunder-smitten Adam, who had
fled for refuge thither out of the same dreary and perilous
wilderness into which the original Adam was expelled.

One of the available means of amusement, of which Phoebe
made the most in Clifford's behalf, was that feathered society,
the hens, a breed of whom, as we have already said, was an
immemorial heirloom in the Pyncheon family. In compliance with
a whim of Clifford, as it troubled him to see them in confinement,
they had been set at liberty, and now roamed at will about the
garden; doing some little mischief, but hindered from escape by
buildings on three sides, and the difficult peaks of a wooden
fence on the other. They spent much of their abundant leisure
on the margin of Maule's well, which was haunted by a kind of
snail, evidently a titbit to their palates; and the brackish
water itself, however nauseous to the rest of the world, was so
greatly esteemed by these fowls, that they might be seen tasting,
turning up their heads, and smacking their bills, with precisely
the air of wine-bibbers round a probationary cask. Their generally
quiet, yet often brisk, and constantly diversified talk, one to
another, or sometimes in soliloquy,--as they scratched worms out
of the rich, black soil, or pecked at such plants as suited their
taste,--had such a domestic tone, that it was almost a wonder
why you could not establish a regular interchange of ideas about
household matters, human and gallinaceous. All hens are well
worth studying for the piquancy and rich variety of their manners;
but by no possibility can there have been other fowls of such odd
appearance and deportment as these ancestral ones. They probably
embodied the traditionary peculiarities of their whole line of
progenitors, derived through an unbroken succession of eggs; or
else this individual Chanticleer and his two wives had grown to
be humorists, and a little crack-brained withal, on account of
their solitary way of life, and out of sympathy for Hepzibah,
their lady-patroness.

Queer, indeed, they looked! Chanticleer himself, though stalking
on two stilt-like legs, with the dignity of interminable descent in
all his gestures, was hardly bigger than an ordinary partridge; his
two wives were about the size of quails; and as for the one chicken,
it looked small enough to be still in the egg, and, at the same
time, sufficiently old, withered, wizened, and experienced, to have
been founder of the antiquated race. Instead of being the youngest
of the family, it rather seemed to have aggregated into itself the
ages, not only of these living specimens of the breed, but of all
its forefathers and foremothers, whose united excellences and oddities
were squeezed into its little body. Its mother evidently regarded
it as the one chicken of the world, and as necessary, in fact, to
the world's continuance, or, at any rate, to the equilibrium of the
present system of affairs, whether in church or state. No lesser
sense of the infant fowl's importance could have justified, even
in a mother's eyes, the perseverance with which she watched over
its safety, ruffling her small person to twice its proper size, and
flying in everybody's face that so much as looked towards her hopeful
progeny. No lower estimate could have vindicated the indefatigable
zeal with which she scratched, and her unscrupulousness in digging
up the choicest flower or vegetable, for the sake of the fat earthworm
at its root. Her nervous cluck, when the chicken happened to be
hidden in the long grass or under the squash-leaves; her gentle
croak of satisfaction, while sure of it beneath her wing; her note
of ill-concealed fear and obstreperous defiance, when she saw her
arch-enemy, a neighbor's cat, on the top of the high fence,--one
or other of these sounds was to be heard at almost every moment
of the day. By degrees, the observer came to feel nearly as much
interest in this chicken of illustrious race as the mother-hen did.

Phoebe, after getting well acquainted with the old hen, was
sometimes permitted to take the chicken in her hand, which was
quite capable of grasping its cubic inch or two of body. While
she curiously examined its hereditary marks,--the peculiar speckle
of its plumage, the funny tuft on its head, and a knob on each
of its legs,--the little biped, as she insisted, kept giving her a
sagacious wink. The daguerreotypist once whispered her that
these marks betokened the oddities of the Pyncheon family, and
that the chicken itself was a symbol of the life of the old house,
embodying its interpretation, likewise, although an unintelligible
one, as such clews generally are. It was a feathered riddle; a
mystery hatched out of an egg, and just as mysterious as if the
egg had been addle!

The second of Chanticleer's two wives, ever since Phoebe's
arrival, had been in a state of heavy despondency, caused, as it
afterwards appeared, by her inability to lay an egg. One day,
however, by her self-important gait, the sideways turn of her
head, and the cock of her eye, as she pried into one and another
nook of the garden,--croaking to herself, all the while, with
inexpressible complacency,--it was made evident that this
identical hen, much as mankind undervalued her, carried something
about her person the worth of which was not to be estimated either
in gold or precious stones. Shortly after, there was a prodigious
cackling and gratulation of Chanticleer and all his family, including
the wizened chicken, who appeared to understand the matter quite as
well as did his sire, his mother, or his aunt. That afternoon Phoebe
found a diminutive egg,--not in the regular nest, it was far too
precious to be trusted there,--but cunningly hidden under the
currant-bushes, on some dry stalks of last year's grass. Hepzibah,
on learning the fact, took possession of the egg and appropriated
it to Clifford's breakfast, on account of a certain delicacy of
flavor, for which, as she affirmed, these eggs had always been famous.
Thus unscrupulously did the old gentlewoman sacrifice the continuance,
perhaps, of an ancient feathered race, with no better end than to
supply her brother with a dainty that hardly filled the bowl of a
tea-spoon! It must have been in reference to this outrage that
Chanticleer, the next day, accompanied by the bereaved mother of
the egg, took his post in front of Phoebe and Clifford, and delivered
himself of a harangue that might have proved as long as his own pedigree,
but for a fit of merriment on Phoebe's part. Hereupon, the offended
fowl stalked away on his long stilts, and utterly withdrew his notice
from Phoebe and the rest of human nature, until she made her peace
with an offering of spice-cake, which, next to snails, was the
delicacy most in favor with his aristocratic taste.

We linger too long, no doubt, beside this paltry rivulet of life
that flowed through the garden of the Pyncheon House. But we deem
it pardonable to record these mean incidents and poor delights,
because they proved so greatly to Clifford's benefit. They had
the earth-smell in them, and contributed to give him health and
substance. Some of his occupations wrought less desirably upon him.
He had a singular propensity, for example, to hang over Maule's well,
and look at the constantly shifting phantasmagoria of figures produced
by the agitation of the water over the mosaic-work of colored pebbles
at the bottom. He said that faces looked upward to him there,
--beautiful faces, arrayed in bewitching smiles,--each momentary
face so fair and rosy, and every smile so sunny, that he felt
wronged at its departure, until the same flitting witchcraft made
a new one. But sometimes he would suddenly cry out, "The dark
face gazes at me!" and be miserable the whole day afterwards.
Phoebe, when she hung over the fountain by Clifford's side,
could see nothing of all this,--neither the beauty nor the
ugliness,--but only the colored pebbles, looking as if the
gush of the waters shook and disarranged them. And the dark
face, that so troubled Clifford, was no more than the shadow
thrown from a branch of one of the damson-trees, and breaking
the inner light of Maule's well. The truth was, however,
that his fancy--reviving faster than his will and judgment,
and always stronger than they--created shapes of loveliness that
were symbolic of his native character, and now and then a stern
and dreadful shape that typified his fate.

On Sundays, after Phoebe had been at church,--for the girl had
a church-going conscience, and would hardly have been at ease
had she missed either prayer, singing, sermon, or benediction,
--after church-time, therefore, there was, ordinarily, a sober
little festival in the garden. In addition to Clifford, Hepzibah,
and Phoebe, two guests made up the company. One was the artist
Holgrave, who, in spite of his consociation with reformers, and
his other queer and questionable traits, continued to hold an
elevated place in Hepzibah's regard. The other, we are almost
ashamed to say, was the venerable Uncle Venner, in a clean shirt,
and a broadcloth coat, more respectable than his ordinary wear,
inasmuch as it was neatly patched on each elbow, and might be
called an entire garment, except for a slight inequality in the
length of its skirts. Clifford, on several occasions, had seemed
to enjoy the old man's intercourse, for the sake of his mellow,
cheerful vein, which was like the sweet flavor of a frost-bitten
apple, such as one picks up under the tree in December. A man at
the very lowest point of the social scale was easier and more
agreeable for the fallen gentleman to encounter than a person at
any of the intermediate degrees; and, moreover, as Clifford's young
manhood had been lost, he was fond of feeling himself comparatively
youthful, now, in apposition with the patriarchal age of Uncle
Venner. In fact, it was sometimes observable that Clifford half
wilfully hid from himself the consciousness of being stricken in
years, and cherished visions of an earthly future still before him;
visions, however, too indistinctly drawn to be followed by
disappointment--though, doubtless, by depression--when any casual
incident or recollection made him sensible of the withered leaf.

So this oddly composed little social party used to assemble under
the ruinous arbor. Hepzibah--stately as ever at heart, and yielding
not an inch of her old gentility, but resting upon it so much the more,
as justifying a princess-like condescension--exhibited a not ungraceful
hospitality. She talked kindly to the vagrant artist, and took sage
counsel--lady as she was--with the wood-sawyer, the messenger of
everybody's petty errands, the patched philosopher. And Uncle Venner,
who had studied the world at street-corners, and other posts equally
well adapted for just observation, was as ready to give out his
wisdom as a town-pump to give water.

"Miss Hepzibah, ma'am," said he once, after they had all been
cheerful together, "I really enjoy these quiet little meetings
of a Sabbath afternoon. They are very much like what I expect
to have after I retire to my farm!"

"Uncle Venner" observed Clifford in a drowsy, inward tone, "is always
talking about his farm. But I have a better scheme for him, by and by.
We shall see!"

"Ah, Mr. Clifford Pyncheon!" said the man of patches, "you may
scheme for me as much as you please; but I'm not going to give
up this one scheme of my own, even if I never bring it really to
pass. It does seem to me that men make a wonderful mistake in
trying to heap up property upon property. If I had done so, I
should feel as if Providence was not bound to take care of me;
and, at all events, the city wouldn't be! I'm one of those people
who think that infinity is big enough for us all--and eternity
long enough."

"Why, so they are, Uncle Venner," remarked Phoebe after a pause;
for she had been trying to fathom the profundity and appositeness
of this concluding apothegm. "But for this short life of ours, one
would like a house and a moderate garden-spot of one's own."

" It appears to me," said the daguerreotypist, smiling, "that Uncle
Venner has the principles of Fourier at the bottom of his wisdom;
only they have not quite so much distinctness in his mind as in
that of the systematizing Frenchman."

"Come, Phoebe," said Hepzibah, "it is time to bring the currants."

And then, while the yellow richness of the declining sunshine
still fell into the open space of the garden, Phoebe brought out
a loaf of bread and a china bowl of currants, freshly gathered
from the bushes, and crushed with sugar. These, with water,--but
not from the fountain of ill omen, close at hand,--constituted all
the entertainment. Meanwhile, Holgrave took some pains to establish
an intercourse with Clifford, actuated, it might seem, entirely
by an impulse of kindliness, in order that the present hour
might be cheerfuller than most which the poor recluse had spent,
or was destined yet to spend. Nevertheless, in the artist's deep,
thoughtful, all-observant eyes, there was, now and then, an
expression, not sinister, but questionable; as if he had some other
interest in the scene than a stranger, a youthful and unconnected
adventurer, might be supposed to have. With great mobility of
outward mood, however, he applied himself to the task of enlivening
the party; and with so much success, that even dark-hued Hepzibah
threw off one tint of melancholy, and made what shift she could
with the remaining portion. Phoebe said to herself,--"How pleasant
he can be!" As for Uncle Venner, as a mark of friendship and
approbation, he readily consented to afford the young man his
countenance in the way of his profession,--not metaphorically,
be it understood, but literally, by allowing a daguerreotype of
his face, so familiar to the town, to be exhibited at the entrance
of Holgrave's studio.

Clifford, as the company partook of their little banquet, grew to
be the gayest of them all. Either it was one of those up-quivering
flashes of the spirit, to which minds in an abnormal state are
liable, or else the artist had subtly touched some chord that made
musical vibration. Indeed, what with the pleasant summer
evening, and the sympathy of this little circle of not unkindly
souls, it was perhaps natural that a character so susceptible as
Clifford's should become animated, and show itself readily
responsive to what was said around him. But he gave out his
own thoughts, likewise, with an airy and fanciful glow; so that
they glistened, as it were, through the arbor, and made their
escape among the interstices of the foliage. He had been as
cheerful, no doubt, while alone with Phoebe, but never with such
tokens of acute, although partial intelligence.

But, as the sunlight left the peaks of the Seven Gables, so did
the excitement fade out of Clifford's eyes. He gazed vaguely and
mournfully about him, as if he missed something precious, and missed
it the more drearily for not knowing precisely what it was.

"I want my happiness!" at last he murmured hoarsely and
indistinctly, hardly Shaping out the words. "Many, many years
have I waited for it! It is late! It is late! I want my happiness!"

Alas, poor Clifford! You are old, and worn with troubles that
ought never to have befallen you. You are partly crazy and partly
imbecile; a ruin, a failure, as almost everybody is,--though some
in less degree, or less perceptibly, than their fellows. Fate has
no happiness in store for you; unless your quiet home in the old
family residence with the faithful Hepzibah, and your long summer
afternoons with Phoebe, and these Sabbath festivals with Uncle
Venner and the daguerreotypist, deserve to be called happiness!
Why not? If not the thing itself, it is marvellously like it,
and the more so for that ethereal and intangible quality which
causes it all to vanish at too close an introspection. Take it,
therefore, while you may Murmur not,--question not,--but make
the most of it!

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