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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe House Of Seven Gables - Chapter XI - THE ARCHED WINDOW
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The House Of Seven Gables - Chapter XI - THE ARCHED WINDOW Post by :audrey Category :Long Stories Author :Nathaniel Hawthorne Date :April 2011 Read :2248

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The House Of Seven Gables - Chapter XI - THE ARCHED WINDOW

FROM the inertness, or what we may term the vegetative
character, of his ordinary mood, Clifford would perhaps have
been content to spend one day after another, interminably,--or,
at least, throughout the summer-time,--in just the kind of life
described in the preceding pages. Fancying, however, that it
might be for his benefit occasionally to diversify the scene,
Phoebe sometimes suggested that he should look out upon the
life of the street. For this purpose, they used to mount the
staircase together, to the second story of the house, where, at
the termination of a wide entry, there was an arched window, of
uncommonly large dimensions, shaded by a pair of curtains. It
opened above the porch, where there had formerly been a balcony,
the balustrade of which had long since gone to decay, and been
removed. At this arched window, throwing it open, but keeping
himself in comparative obscurity by means of the curtain,
Clifford had an opportunity of witnessing such a portion of the
great world's movement as might be supposed to roll through one
of the retired streets of a not very populous city. But he and
Phoebe made a sight as well worth seeing as any that the city
could exhibit. The pale, gray, childish, aged, melancholy, yet
often simply cheerful, and sometimes delicately intelligent aspect
of Clifford, peering from behind the faded crimson of the curtain,
--watching the monotony of every-day occurrences with a kind of
inconsequential interest and earnestness, and, at every petty
throb of his sensibility, turning for sympathy to the eyes of
the bright young girl!

If once he were fairly seated at the window, even Pyncheon
Street would hardly be so dull and lonely but that, somewhere or
other along its extent, Clifford might discover matter to occupy
his eye, and titillate, if not engross, his observation. Things
familiar to the youngest child that had begun its outlook at
existence seemed strange to him. A cab; an omnibus, with its
populous interior, dropping here and there a passenger, and
picking up another, and thus typifying that vast rolling vehicle,
the world, the end of whose journey is everywhere and nowhere;
these objects he followed eagerly with his eyes, but forgot them
before the dust raised by the horses and wheels had settled along
their track. As regarded novelties (among which cabs and
omnibuses were to be reckoned), his mind appeared to have lost
its proper gripe and retentiveness. Twice or thrice, for example,
during the sunny hours of the day, a water-cart went along by
the Pyncheon House, leaving a broad wake of moistened earth,
instead of the white dust that had risen at a lady's lightest
footfall; it was like a summer shower, which the city authorities
had caught and tamed, and compelled it into the commonest
routine of their convenience. With the water-cart Clifford could
never grow familiar; it always affected him with just the same
surprise as at first. His mind took an apparently sharp impression
from it, but lost the recollection of this perambulatory shower,
before its next reappearance, as completely as did the street
itself, along which the heat so quickly strewed white dust again.
It was the same with the railroad. Clifford could hear the
obstreperous howl of the steam-devil, and, by leaning a little
way from the arched window, could catch a glimpse of the trains
of cars, flashing a brief transit across the extremity of the
street. The idea of terrible energy thus forced upon him was
new at every recurrence, and seemed to affect him as disagreeably,
and with almost as much surprise, the hundredth time as the first.

Nothing gives a sadder sense of decay than this loss or
suspension of the power to deal with unaccustomed things, and
to keep up with the swiftness of the passing moment. It can
merely be a suspended animation; for, were the power actually
to perish, there would be little use of immortality. We are less
than ghosts, for the time being, whenever this calamity befalls us.

Clifford was indeed the most inveterate of conservatives. All
the antique fashions of the street were dear to him; even such
as were characterized by a rudeness that would naturally have
annoyed his fastidious senses. He loved the old rumbling and
jolting carts, the former track of which he still found in his
long-buried remembrance, as the observer of to-day finds the
wheel-tracks of ancient vehicles in Herculaneum. The butcher's
cart, with its snowy canopy, was an acceptable object; so was
the fish-cart, heralded by its horn; so, likewise, was the
countryman's cart of vegetables, plodding from door to door,
with long pauses of the patient horse, while his owner drove a
trade in turnips, carrots, summer-squashes, string-beans, green
peas, and new potatoes, with half the housewives of the neighborhood.
The baker's cart, with the harsh music of its bells, had a pleasant
effect on Clifford, because, as few things else did, it jingled the
very dissonance of yore. One afternoon a scissor-grinder chanced
to set his wheel a-going under the Pyncheon Elm, and just in front
of the arched window. Children came running with their mothers'
scissors, or the carving-knife, or the paternal razor, or anything
else that lacked an edge (except, indeed, poor Clifford's wits),
that the grinder might apply the article to his magic wheel, and
give it back as good as new. Round went the busily revolving
machinery, kept in motion by the scissor-grinder's foot, and wore
away the hard steel against the hard stone, whence issued an intense
and spiteful prolongation of a hiss as fierce as those emitted by
Satan and his compeers in Pandemonium, though squeezed into smaller
compass. It was an ugly, little, venomous serpent of a noise,
as ever did petty violence to human ears. But Clifford listened
with rapturous delight. The sound, however disagreeable, had very
brisk life in it, and, together with the circle of curious children
watching the revolutions of the wheel, appeared to give him a more
vivid sense of active, bustling, and sunshiny existence than he had
attained in almost any other way. Nevertheless, its charm lay
chiefly in the past; for the scissor-grinder's wheel had hissed
in his childish ears.

He sometimes made doleful complaint that there were no
stage-coaches nowadays. And he asked in an injured tone what
had become of all those old square-topped chaises, with wings
sticking out on either side, that used to be drawn by a
plough-horse, and driven by a farmer's wife and daughter,
peddling whortle-berries and blackberries about the town.
Their disappearance made him doubt, he said, whether the
berries had not left off growing in the broad pastures and
along the shady country lanes.

But anything that appealed to the sense of beauty, in however
humble a way, did not require to be recommended by these old
associations. This was observable when one of those Italian boys
(who are rather a modern feature of our streets) came along with
his barrel-organ, and stopped under the wide and cool shadows
of the elm. With his quick professional eye he took note of the
two faces watching him from the arched window, and, opening his
instrument, began to scatter its melodies abroad. He had a
monkey on his shoulder, dressed in a Highland plaid; and, to
complete the sum of splendid attractions wherewith he presented
himself to the public, there was a company of little figures,
whose sphere and habitation was in the mahogany case of his
organ, and whose principle of life was the music which the Italian
made it his business to grind out. In all their variety of
occupation,--the cobbler, the blacksmith, the soldier, the lady
with her fan, the toper with his bottle, the milkmaid sitting by
her, cow--this fortunate little society might truly be said to
enjoy a harmonious existence, and to make life literally a dance.
The Italian turned a crank; and, behold! every one of these small
individuals started into the most curious vivacity. The cobbler
wrought upon a shoe; the blacksmith hammered his iron, the soldier
waved his glittering blade; the lady raised a tiny breeze with
her fan; the jolly toper swigged lustily at his bottle; a scholar
opened his book with eager thirst for knowledge, and turned his
head to and fro along the page; the milkmaid energetically drained
her cow; and a miser counted gold into his strong-box,--all at the
same turning of a crank. Yes; and, moved by the self-same impulse,
a lover saluted his mistress on her lips! Possibly some cynic,
at once merry and bitter, had desired to signify, in this
pantomimic scene, that we mortals, whatever our business or
amusement,--however serious, however trifling, --all dance to
one identical tune, and, in spite of our ridiculous activity,
bring nothing finally to pass. For the most remarkable aspect
of the affair was, that, at the cessation of the music, everybody
was petrified at once, from the most extravagant life into a dead
torpor. Neither was the cobbler's shoe finished, nor the blacksmith's
iron shaped out; nor was there a drop less of brandy in the toper's
bottle, nor a drop more of milk in the milkmaid's pail, nor one
additional coin in the miser's strong-box, nor was the scholar a
page deeper in his book. All were precisely in the same condition
as before they made themselves so ridiculous by their haste to toil,
to enjoy, to accumulate gold, and to become wise. Saddest of all,
moreover, the lover was none the happier for the maiden's granted
kiss! But, rather than swallow this last too acrid ingredient,
we reject the whole moral of the show.

The monkey, meanwhile, with a thick tail curling out into
preposterous prolixity from beneath his tartans, took his station
at the Italian's feet. He turned a wrinkled and abominable little
visage to every passer-by, and to the circle of children that soon
gathered round, and to Hepzibah's shop-door, and upward to the
arched window, whence Phoebe and Clifford were looking down.
Every moment, also, he took off his Highland bonnet, and performed
a bow and scrape. Sometimes, moreover, he made personal application
to individuals, holding out his small black palm, and otherwise
plainly signifying his excessive desire for whatever filthy
lucre might happen to be in anybody's pocket. The mean and low,
yet strangely man-like expression of his wilted countenance;
the prying and crafty glance, that showed him ready to gripe
at every miserable advantage; his enormous tail (too enormous to
be decently concealed under his gabardine), and the deviltry of
nature which it betokened,--take this monkey just as he was,
in short, and you could desire no better image of the Mammon of
copper coin, symbolizing the grossest form of the love of money.
Neither was there any possibility of satisfying the covetous
little devil. Phoebe threw down a whole handful of cents,
which he picked up with joyless eagerness, handed them over
to the Italian for safekeeping, and immediately recommenced
a series of pantomimic petitions for more.

Doubtless, more than one New-Englander--or, let him be of what
country he might, it is as likely to be the case--passed by,
and threw a look at the monkey, and went on, without imagining
how nearly his own moral condition was here exemplified. Clifford,
however, was a being of another order. He had taken childish
delight in the music, and smiled, too, at the figures which it
set in motion. But, after looking awhile at the long-tailed imp,
he was so shocked by his horrible ugliness, spiritual as well as
physical, that he actually began to shed tears; a weakness which
men of merely delicate endowments, and destitute of the fiercer,
deeper, and more tragic power of laughter, can hardly avoid,
when the worst and meanest aspect of life happens to be
presented to them.

Pyncheon Street was sometimes enlivened by spectacles of more
imposing pretensions than the above, and which brought the multitude
along with them. With a shivering repugnance at the idea of personal
contact with the world, a powerful impulse still seized on Clifford,
whenever the rush and roar of the human tide grew strongly audible
to him. This was made evident, one day, when a political procession,
with hundreds of flaunting banners, and drums, fifes, clarions,
and cymbals, reverberating between the rows of buildings, marched
all through town, and trailed its length of trampling footsteps,
and most infrequent uproar, past the ordinarily quiet House of the
Seven Gables. As a mere object of sight, nothing is more deficient
in picturesque features than a procession seen in its passage through
narrow streets. The spectator feels it to be fool's play, when he can
distinguish the tedious commonplace of each man's visage, with the
perspiration and weary self-importance on it, and the very cut of his
pantaloons, and the stiffness or laxity of his shirt-collar, and the
dust on the back of his black coat. In order to become majestic, it
should be viewed from some vantage point, as it rolls its slow and
long array through the centre of a wide plain, or the stateliest
public square of a city; for then, by its remoteness, it melts all
the petty personalities, of which it is made up, into one broad mass
of existence,--one great life,--one collected body of mankind, with
a vast, homogeneous spirit animating it. But, on the other hand,
if an impressible person, standing alone over the brink of one of
these processions, should behold it, not in its atoms, but in its
aggregate,--as a mighty river of life, massive in its tide, and
black with mystery, and, out of its depths, calling to the kindred
depth within him,--then the contiguity would add to the effect.
It might so fascinate him that he would hardly be restrained from
plunging into the surging stream of human sympathies.

So it proved with Clifford. He shuddered; he grew pale; he threw
an appealing look at Hepzibah and Phoebe, who were with him at
the window. They comprehended nothing of his emotions, and
supposed him merely disturbed by the unaccustomed tumult. At
last, with tremulous limbs, he started up, set his foot on the
window-sill, and in an instant more would have been in the
unguarded balcony. As it was, the whole procession might have
seen him, a wild, haggard figure, his gray locks floating in
the wind that waved their banners; a lonely being, estranged
from his race, but now feeling himself man again, by virtue of
the irrepressible instinct that possessed him. Had Clifford
attained the balcony, he would probably have leaped into the
street; but whether impelled by the species of terror that
sometimes urges its victim over the very precipice which he
shrinks from, or by a natural magnetism, tending towards the
great centre of humanity, it were not easy to decide. Both
impulses might have wrought on him at once.

But his companions, affrighted by his gesture,--which was that
of a man hurried away in spite of himself,--seized Clifford's
garment and held him back. Hepzibah shrieked. Phoebe, to whom
all extravagance was a horror, burst into sobs and tears.

"Clifford, Clifford! are you crazy?" cried his sister.

"I hardly know, Hepzibah," said Clifford, drawing a long breath.
"Fear nothing,--it is over now,--but had I taken that plunge, and
survived it, methinks it would have made me another man!"

Possibly, in some sense, Clifford may have been right. He needed
a shock; or perhaps he required to take a deep, deep plunge into
the ocean of human life, and to sink down and be covered by its
profoundness, and then to emerge, sobered, invigorated, restored
to the world and to himself. Perhaps again, he required nothing
less than the great final remedy--death!

A similar yearning to renew the broken links of brotherhood with
his kind sometimes showed itself in a milder form; and once it
was made beautiful by the religion that lay even deeper than
itself. In the incident now to be sketched, there was a touching
recognition, on Clifford's part, of God's care and love towards
him,--towards this poor, forsaken man, who, if any mortal could,
might have been pardoned for regarding himself as thrown aside,
forgotten, and left to be the sport of some fiend, whose
playfulness was an ecstasy of mischief.

It was the Sabbath morning; one of those bright, calm Sabbaths,
with its own hallowed atmosphere, when Heaven seems to diffuse
itself over the earth's face in a solemn smile, no less sweet than
solemn. On such a Sabbath morn, were we pure enough to be its
medium, we should be conscious of the earth's natural worship
ascending through our frames, on whatever spot of ground we stood.
The church-bells, with various tones, but all in harmony, were
calling out and responding to one another,--"It is the Sabbath!
--The Sabbath!--Yea; the Sabbath!"--and over the whole city the
bells scattered the blessed sounds, now slowly, now with livelier
joy, now one bell alone, now all the bells together, crying
earnestly,--"It is the Sabbath!" and flinging their accents afar
off, to melt into the air and pervade it with the holy word.
The air with God's sweetest and tenderest sunshine in it, was
meet for mankind to breathe into their hearts, and send it forth
again as the utterance of prayer.

Clifford sat at the window with Hepzibah, watching the neighbors
as they stepped into the street. All of them, however unspiritual
on other days, were transfigured by the Sabbath influence; so that
their very garments--whether it were an old man's decent coat well
brushed for the thousandth time, or a little boy's first sack and
trousers finished yesterday by his mother's needle--had somewhat
of the quality of ascension-robes. Forth, likewise, from the
portal of the old house stepped Phoebe, putting up her small
green sunshade, and throwing upward a glance and smile of parting
kindness to the faces at the arched window. In her aspect there
was a familiar gladness, and a holiness that you could play with,
and yet reverence it as much as ever. She was like a prayer,
offered up in the homeliest beauty of one's mother-tongue.
Fresh was Phoebe, moreover, and airy and sweet in her apparel;
as if nothing that she wore--neither her gown, nor her small
straw bonnet, nor her little kerchief, any more than her snowy
stockings--had ever been put on before; or, if worn, were all
the fresher for it, and with a fragrance as if they had lain
among the rose-buds.

The girl waved her hand to Hepzibah and Clifford, and went up the
street; a religion in herself, warm, simple, true, with a substance
that could walk on earth, and a spirit that was capable of heaven.

"Hepzibah," asked Clifford, after watching Phoebe to the corner,
"do you never go to church?"

"No, Clifford!" she replied,--"not these many, many years!"

"Were I to be there," he rejoined, "it seems to me that I could pray
once more, when so many human souls were praying all around me!"

She looked into Clifford's face, and beheld there a soft natural
effusion; for his heart gushed out, as it were, and ran over at his
eyes, in delightful reverence for God, and kindly affection for his
human brethren. The emotion communicated itself to Hepzibah. She
yearned to take him by the hand, and go and kneel down, they two
together,--both so long separate from the world, and, as she now
recognized, scarcely friends with Him above,--to kneel down among
the people, and be reconciled to God and man at once.

"Dear brother," said she earnestly, "let us go! We belong
nowhere. We have not a foot of space in any church to kneel
upon; but let us go to some place of worship, even if we stand
in the broad aisle. Poor and forsaken as we are, some pew-door
will be opened to us!"

So Hepzibah and her brother made themselves, ready--as ready
as they could in the best of their old-fashioned garments, which
had hung on pegs, or been laid away in trunks, so long that the
dampness and mouldy smell of the past was on them,--made themselves
ready, in their faded bettermost, to go to church. They descended
the staircase together,--gaunt, sallow Hepzibah, and pale, emaciated,
age-stricken Clifford! They pulled open the front door, and stepped
across the threshold, and felt, both of them, as if they were standing
in the presence of the whole world, and with mankind's great and
terrible eye on them alone. The eye of their Father seemed to be
withdrawn, and gave them no encouragement. The warm sunny air of
the street made them shiver. Their hearts quaked within them at
the idea of taking one step farther.

"It cannot be, Hepzibah!--it is too late," said Clifford with deep
sadness. "We are ghosts! We have no right among human beings,--no
right anywhere but in this old house, which has a curse on it, and
which, therefore, we are doomed to haunt! And, besides," he continued,
with a fastidious sensibility, inalienably characteristic of the man,"
it would not be fit nor beautiful to go! It is an ugly thought that
I should be frightful to my fellow-beings, and that children would
cling to their mothers' gowns at sight of me!"

They shrank back into the dusky passage-way, and closed the door.
But, going up the staircase again, they found the whole interior
of the house tenfold, more dismal, and the air closer and heavier,
for the glimpse and breath of freedom which they had just snatched.
They could not flee; their jailer had but left the door ajar in
mockery, and stood behind it to watch them stealing out. At the
threshold, they felt his pitiless gripe upon them. For, what other
dungeon is so dark as one's own heart! What jailer so inexorable
as one's self!

But it would be no fair picture of Clifford's state of mind were
we to represent him as continually or prevailingly wretched. On
the contrary, there was no other man in the city, we are bold to
affirm, of so much as half his years, who enjoyed so many
lightsome and griefless moments as himself. He had no burden
of care upon him; there were none of those questions and
contingencies with the future to be settled which wear away all
other lives, and render them not worth having by the very process
of providing for their support. In this respect he was a child,
--a child for the whole term of his existence, be it long or short.
Indeed, his life seemed to be standing still at a period little
in advance of childhood, and to cluster all his reminiscences about
that epoch; just as, after the torpor of a heavy blow, the sufferer's
reviving consciousness goes back to a moment considerably behind
the accident that stupefied him. He sometimes told Phoebe and
Hepzibah his dreams, in which he invariably played the part of a
child, or a very young man. So vivid were they, in his relation
of them, that he once held a dispute with his sister as to the
particular figure or print of a chintz morning-dress which he
had seen their mother wear, in the dream of the preceding night.
Hepzibah, piquing herself on a woman's accuracy in such matters,
held it to be slightly different from what Clifford described;
but, producing the very gown from an old trunk, it proved to be
identical with his remembrance of it. Had Clifford, every time
that he emerged out of dreams so lifelike, undergone the torture
of transformation from a boy into an old and broken man, the
daily recurrence of the shock would have been too much to bear.
It would have caused an acute agony to thrill from the morning
twilight, all the day through, until bedtime; and even then would
have mingled a dull, inscrutable pain and pallid hue of misfortune
with the visionary bloom and adolescence of his slumber. But the
nightly moonshine interwove itself with the morning mist, and
enveloped him as in a robe, which he hugged about his person, and
seldom let realities pierce through; he was not often quite awake,
but slept open-eyed, and perhaps fancied himself most dreaming then.

Thus, lingering always so near his childhood, he had sympathies
with children, and kept his heart the fresher thereby, like a
reservoir into which rivulets were pouring not far from the
fountain-head. Though prevented, by a subtile sense of propriety,
from desiring to associate with them, he loved few things better
than to look out of the arched window and see a little girl driving
her hoop along the sidewalk, or schoolboys at a game of ball.
Their voices, also, were very pleasant to him, heard at a distance,
all swarming and intermingling together as flies do in a sunny room.

Clifford would, doubtless, have been glad to share their sports.
One afternoon he was seized with an irresistible desire to blow
soap-bubbles; an amusement, as Hepzibah told Phoebe apart, that
had been a favorite one with her brother when they were both
children. Behold him, therefore, at the arched window, with an
earthen pipe in his mouth! Behold him, with his gray hair, and
a wan, unreal smile over his countenance, where still hovered a
beautiful grace, which his worst enemy must have acknowledged
to be spiritual and immortal, since it had survived so long!
Behold him, scattering airy spheres abroad from the window into
the street! Little impalpable worlds were those soap-bubbles,
with the big world depicted, in hues bright as imagination, on the
nothing of their surface. It was curious to see how the passers-by
regarded these brilliant fantasies, as they came floating down,
and made the dull atmosphere imaginative about them. Some stopped
to gaze, and perhaps, carried a pleasant recollection of the
bubbles onward as far as the street-corner; some looked angrily
upward, as if poor Clifford wronged them by setting an image of
beauty afloat so near their dusty pathway. A great many put out
their fingers or their walking-sticks to touch, withal; and were
perversely gratified, no doubt, when the bubble, with all its
pictured earth and sky scene, vanished as if it had never been.

At length, just as an elderly gentleman of very dignified presence
happened to be passing, a large bubble sailed majestically down,
and burst right against his nose! He looked up,--at first with a
stern, keen glance, which penetrated at once into the obscurity
behind the arched window,--then with a smile which might be
conceived as diffusing a dog-day sultriness for the space of
several yards about him.

"Aha, Cousin Clifford!" cried Judge Pyncheon. "What! still
blowing soap-bubbles!"

The tone seemed as if meant to be kind and soothing, but yet had
a bitterness of sarcasm in it. As for Clifford, an absolute palsy
of fear came over him. Apart from any definite cause of dread
which his past experience might have given him, he felt that native
and original horror of the excellent Judge which is proper to a
weak, delicate, and apprehensive character in the presence of
massive strength. Strength is incomprehensible by weakness, and,
therefore, the more terrible. There is no greater bugbear than
a strong-willed relative in the circle of his own connections.

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CLIFFORD, except for Phoebe's More active instigation wouldordinarily have yielded to the torpor which had crept through allhis modes of being, and which sluggishly counselled him to sitin his morning chair till eventide. But the girl seldom failedto propose a removal to the garden Uncle Venner and thedaguerreotypist had made such repairs on the roof of the ruinousarbor, or summer-house, that it was now a sufficient shelter fromsunshine and casual showers. The hop-vine, too, had begun togrow luxuriantly over the sides of the little edifice, and madean interior of verdant seclusion, with innumerable peeps andglimpses into the wider
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