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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe House Of Seven Gables - Chapter XII - THE DAGUERREOTYPIST
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The House Of Seven Gables - Chapter XII - THE DAGUERREOTYPIST Post by :harlum Category :Long Stories Author :Nathaniel Hawthorne Date :April 2011 Read :3044

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The House Of Seven Gables - Chapter XII - THE DAGUERREOTYPIST

IT must not be supposed that the life of a personage naturally so
active as Phoebe could be wholly confined within the precincts
of the old Pyncheon House. Clifford's demands upon her time
were usually satisfied, in those long days, considerably earlier
than sunset. Quiet as his daily existence seemed, it nevertheless
drained all the resources by which he lived. It was not physical
exercise that overwearied him,--for except that he sometimes
wrought a little with a hoe, or paced the garden-walk, or, in
rainy weather, traversed a large unoccupied room,--it was his
tendency to remain only too quiescent, as regarded any toil of
the limbs and muscles. But, either there was a smouldering fire
within him that consumed his vital energy, or the monotony that
would have dragged itself with benumbing effect over a mind
differently situated was no monotony to Clifford. Possibly, he
was in a state of second growth and recovery, and was constantly
assimilating nutriment for his spirit and intellect from sights,
sounds, and events which passed as a perfect void to persons more
practised with the world. As all is activity and vicissitude to
the new mind of a child, so might it be, likewise, to a mind that
had undergone a kind of new creation, after its long-suspended life.

Be the cause what it might, Clifford commonly retired to rest,
thoroughly exhausted, while the sunbeams were still melting
through his window-curtains, or were thrown with late lustre
on the chamber wall. And while he thus slept early, as other
children do, and dreamed of childhood, Phoebe was free to
follow her own tastes for the remainder of the day and evening.

This was a freedom essential to the health even of a character
so little susceptible of morbid influences as that of Phoebe.
The old house, as we have already said, had both the dry-rot
and the damp-rot in its walls; it was not good to breathe no other
atmosphere than that. Hepzibah, though she had her valuable and
redeeming traits, had grown to be a kind of lunatic by imprisoning
herself so long in one place, with no other company than a single
series of ideas, and but one affection, and one bitter sense of
wrong. Clifford, the reader may perhaps imagine, was too inert
to operate morally on his fellow-creatures, however intimate and
exclusive their relations with him. But the sympathy or magnetism
among human beings is more subtile and universal than we think;
it exists, indeed, among different classes of organized life, and
vibrates from one to another. A flower, for instance, as Phoebe
herself observed, always began to droop sooner in Clifford's hand,
or Hepzibah's, than in her own; and by the same law, converting
her whole daily life into a flower fragrance for these two sickly
spirits, the blooming girl must inevitably droop and fade much sooner
than if worn on a younger and happier breast. Unless she had now
and then indulged her brisk impulses, and breathed rural air in a
suburban walk, or ocean breezes along the shore,--had occasionally
obeyed the impulse of Nature, in New England girls, by attending
a metaphysical or philosophical lecture, or viewing a seven-mile
panorama, or listening to a concert,--had gone shopping about the
city, ransacking entire depots of splendid merchandise, and bringing
home a ribbon,--had employed, likewise, a little time to read the
Bible in her chamber, and had stolen a little more to think of her
mother and her native place--unless for such moral medicines as the
above, we should soon have beheld our poor Phoebe grow thin and put
on a bleached, unwholesome aspect, and assume strange, shy ways,
prophetic of old-maidenhood and a cheerless future.

Even as it was, a change grew visible; a change partly to be
regretted, although whatever charm it infringed upon was repaired
by another, perhaps more precious. She was not so constantly
gay, but had her moods of thought, which Clifford, on the whole,
liked better than her former phase of unmingled cheerfulness;
because now she understood him better and more delicately,
and sometimes even interpreted him to himself. Her eyes looked
larger, and darker, and deeper; so deep, at some silent moments,
that they seemed like Artesian wells, down, down, into the
infinite. She was less girlish than when we first beheld her
alighting from the omnibus; less girlish, but more a woman.

The only youthful mind with which Phoebe had an opportunity
of frequent intercourse was that of the daguerreotypist.
Inevitably, by the pressure of the seclusion about them, they had
been brought into habits of some familiarity. Had they met under
different circumstances, neither of these young persons would
have been likely to bestow much thought upon the other, unless,
indeed, their extreme dissimilarity should have proved a principle
of mutual attraction. Both, it is true, were characters proper
to New England life, and possessing a common ground, therefore,
in their more external developments; but as unlike, in their
respective interiors, as if their native climes had been at
world-wide distance. During the early part of their acquaintance,
Phoebe had held back rather more than was customary with her frank
and simple manners from Holgrave's not very marked advances.
Nor was she yet satisfied that she knew him well, although they
almost daily met and talked together, in a kind, friendly, and what
seemed to be a familiar way.

The artist, in a desultory manner, had imparted to Phoebe
something of his history. Young as he was, and had his career
terminated at the point already attained, there had been enough
of incident to fill, very creditably, an autobiographic volume.
A romance on the plan of Gil Blas, adapted to American society
and manners, would cease to be a romance. The experience of
many individuals among us, who think it hardly worth the telling,
would equal the vicissitudes of the Spaniard's earlier life; while
their ultimate success, or the point whither they tend, may be
incomparably higher than any that a novelist would imagine for
his hero. Holgrave, as he told Phoebe somewhat proudly, could
not boast of his origin, unless as being exceedingly humble, nor
of his education, except that it had been the scantiest possible,
and obtained by a few winter-months' attendance at a district
school. Left early to his own guidance, he had begun to be
self-dependent while yet a boy; and it was a condition aptly
suited to his natural force of will. Though now but twenty-two
years old (lacking some months, which are years in such a life),
he had already been, first, a country schoolmaster; next,
a salesman in a country store; and, either at the same time or
afterwards, the political editor of a country newspaper. He had
subsequently travelled New England and the Middle States, as a
peddler, in the employment of a Connecticut manufactory of
cologne-water and other essences. In an episodical way he had
studied and practised dentistry, and with very flattering success,
especially in many of the factory-towns along our inland streams.
As a supernumerary official, of some kind or other, aboard a
packet-ship, he had visited Europe, and found means, before his
return, to see Italy, and part of France and Germany. At a later
period he had spent some months in a community of Fourierists.
Still more recently he had been a public lecturer on Mesmerism,
for which science (as he assured Phoebe, and, indeed, satisfactorily
proved, by putting Chanticleer, who happened to be scratching near
by, to sleep) he had very remarkable endowments.

His present phase, as a daguerreotypist, was of no more importance
in his own view, nor likely to be more permanent, than any of the
preceding ones. It had been taken up with the careless alacrity of
an adventurer, who had his bread to earn. It would be thrown aside
as carelessly, whenever he should choose to earn his bread by some
other equally digressive means. But what was most remarkable, and,
perhaps, showed a more than common poise in the young man, was the
fact that, amid all these personal vicissitudes, he had never lost
his identity. Homeless as he had been,--continually changing his
whereabout, and, therefore, responsible neither to public opinion
nor to individuals,--putting off one exterior, and snatching up
another, to be soon shifted for a third,--he had never violated
the innermost man, but had carried his conscience along with him.
It was impossible to know Holgrave without recognizing this to be
the fact. Hepzibah had seen it. Phoebe soon saw it likewise,
and gave him the sort of confidence which such a certainty inspires.
She was startled. however, and sometimes repelled,--not by any doubt
of his integrity to whatever law he acknowledged, but by a sense that
his law differed from her own. He made her uneasy, and seemed to
unsettle everything around her, by his lack of reverence for what
was fixed, unless, at a moment's warning, it could establish its
right to hold its ground.

Then, moreover, she scarcely thought him affectionate in his nature.
He was too calm and cool an observer. Phoebe felt his eye, often;
his heart, seldom or never. He took a certain kind of interest in
Hepzibah and her brother, and Phoebe herself. He studied them
attentively, and allowed no slightest circumstance of their
individualities to escape him. He was ready to do them whatever
good he might; but, after all, he never exactly made common cause
with them, nor gave any reliable evidence that he loved them better
in proportion as he knew them more. In his relations with them,
he seemed to be in quest of mental food, not heart-sustenance.
Phoebe could not conceive what interested him so much in her friends
and herself, intellectually, since he cared nothing for them, or,
comparatively, so little, as objects of human affection.

Always, in his interviews with Phoebe, the artist made especial
inquiry as to the welfare of Clifford, whom, except at the Sunday
festival, he seldom saw.

"Does he still seem happy?" he asked one day.

"As happy as a child," answered Phoebe; "but--like a child, too
--very easily disturbed."

"How disturbed?" inquired Holgrave. "By things without, or by
thoughts within?"

"I cannot see his thoughts! How should I?" replied Phoebe with
simple piquancy. "Very often his humor changes without any
reason that can be guessed at, just as a cloud comes over the
sun. Latterly, since I have begun to know him better, I feel it
to be not quite right to look closely into his moods. He has had
such a great sorrow, that his heart is made all solemn and sacred
by it. When he is cheerful,--when the sun shines into his mind,
--then I venture to peep in, just as far as the light reaches,
but no further. It is holy ground where the shadow falls!"

"How prettily you express this sentiment!" said the artist. "I can
understand the feeling, without possessing it. Had I your opportunities,
no scruples would prevent me from fathoming Clifford to the full depth
of my plummet-line!"

"How strange that you should wish it!" remarked Phoebe
involuntarily. "What is Cousin Clifford to you?"

"Oh, nothing,--of course, nothing!" answered Holgrave with a smile.
"Only this is such an odd and incomprehensible world! The more I look
at it, the more it puzzles me, and I begin to suspect that a man's
bewilderment is the measure of his wisdom. Men and women, and children,
too, are such strange creatures, that one never can be certain that he
really knows them; nor ever guess what they have been from what he
sees them to be now. Judge Pyncheon! Clifford! What a complex riddle
--a complexity of complexities--do they present! It requires intuitiv
e sympathy, like a young girl's, to solve it. A mere observer, like
myself (who never have any intuitions, and am, at best, only subtile
and acute), is pretty certain to go astray."

The artist now turned the conversation to themes less dark than
that which they had touched upon. Phoebe and he were young
together; nor had Holgrave, in his premature experience of life,
wasted entirely that beautiful spirit of youth, which, gushing
forth from one small heart and fancy, may diffuse itself over the
universe, making it all as bright as on the first day of creation.
Man's own youth is the world's youth; at least, he feels as if it
were, and imagines that the earth's granite substance is something
not yet hardened, and which he can mould into whatever shape he
likes. So it was with Holgrave. He could talk sagely about the
world's old age, but never actually believed what he said; he was
a young man still, and therefore looked upon the world--that
gray-bearded and wrinkled profligate, decrepit, without being
venerable--as a tender stripling, capable of being improved into
all that it ought to be, but scarcely yet had shown the remotest
promise of becoming. He had that sense, or inward prophecy,
--which a young man had better never have been born than not
to have, and a mature man had better die at once than utterly
to relinquish,--that we are not doomed to creep on forever in
the old bad way, but that, this very now, there are the harbingers
abroad of a golden era, to be accomplished in his own lifetime.
It seemed to Holgrave,--as doubtless it has seemed to the hopeful
of every century since the epoch of Adam's grandchildren,--that
in this age, more than ever before, the moss-grown and rotten Past
is to be torn down, and lifeless institutions to be thrust out of
the way, and their dead corpses buried, and everything to begin anew.

As to the main point,--may we never live to doubt it!--as to the
better centuries that are coming, the artist was surely right.
His error lay in supposing that this age, more than any past or
future one, is destined to see the tattered garments of Antiquity
exchanged for a new suit, instead of gradually renewing themselves
by patchwork; in applying his own little life-span as the measure
of an interminable achievement; and, more than all, in fancying
that it mattered anything to the great end in view whether he
himself should contend for it or against it. Yet it was well for
him to think so. This enthusiasm, infusing itself through the
calmness of his character, and thus taking an aspect of settled
thought and wisdom, would serve to keep his youth pure, and
make his aspirations high. And when, with the years settling
down more weightily upon him, his early faith should be modified
by inevitable experience, it would be with no harsh and sudden
revolution of his sentiments. He would still have faith in man's
brightening destiny, and perhaps love him all the better, as he
should recognize his helplessness in his own behalf; and the
haughty faith, with which he began life, would be well bartered
for a far humbler one at its close, in discerning that man's best
directed effort accomplishes a kind of dream, while God is the
sole worker of realities.

Holgrave had read very little, and that little in passing through
the thoroughfare of life, where the mystic language of his books
was necessarily mixed up with the babble of the multitude, so
that both one and the other were apt to lose any sense that might
have been properly their own. He considered himself a thinker,
and was certainly of a thoughtful turn, but, with his own path
to discover, had perhaps hardly yet reached the point where an
educated man begins to think. The true value of his character
lay in that deep consciousness of inward strength, which made
all his past vicissitudes seem merely like a change of garments;
in that enthusiasm, so quiet that he scarcely knew of its existence,
but which gave a warmth to everything that he laid his hand on;
in that personal ambition, hidden--from his own as well as other
eyes--among his more generous impulses, but in which lurked a
certain efficacy, that might solidify him from a theorist into
the champion of some practicable cause. Altogether in his culture
and want of culture,--in his crude, wild, and misty philosophy,
and the practical experience that counteracted some of its
tendencies; in his magnanimous zeal for man's welfare, and his
recklessness of whatever the ages had established in man's behalf;
in his faith, and in his infidelity. in what he had, and in what
he lacked,--the artist might fitly enough stand forth as the
representative of many compeers in his native land.

His career it would be difficult to prefigure. There appeared to
be qualities in Holgrave, such as, in a country where everything
is free to the hand that can grasp it, could hardly fail to put
some of the world's prizes within his reach. But these matters
are delightfully uncertain. At almost every step in life, we meet
with young men of just about Holgrave's age, for whom we anticipate
wonderful things, but of whom, even after much and careful inquiry,
we never happen to hear another word. The effervescence of youth
and passion, and the fresh gloss of the intellect and imagination,
endow them with a false brilliancy, which makes fools of themselves
and other people. Like certain chintzes, calicoes, and ginghams,
they show finely in their first newness, but cannot stand the sun
and rain, and assume a very sober aspect after washing-day.

But our business is with Holgrave as we find him on this particular
afternoon, and in the arbor of the Pyncheon garden. In that point
of view, it was a pleasant sight to behold this young man, with so
much faith in himself, and so fair an appearance of admirable
powers,--so little harmed, too, by the many tests that had tried
his metal,--it was pleasant to see him in his kindly intercourse
with Phoebe. Her thought had scarcely done him justice when it
pronounced him cold; or, if so, he had grown warmer now. Without
such purpose on her part, and unconsciously on his, she made the
House of the Seven Gables like a home to him, and the garden a
familiar precinct. With the insight on which he prided himself,
he fancied that he could look through Phoebe, and all around her,
and could read her off like a page of a child's story-book. But
these transparent natures are often deceptive in their depth; those
pebbles at the bottom of the fountain are farther from us than we
think. Thus the artist, whatever he might judge of Phoebe's capacity,
was beguiled, by some silent charm of hers, to talk freely of what
he dreamed of doing in the world. He poured himself out as to
another self. Very possibly, he forgot Phoebe while he talked to
her, and was moved only by the inevitable tendency of thought, when
rendered sympathetic by enthusiasm and emotion, to flow into the
first safe reservoir which it finds. But, had you peeped at them
through the chinks of the garden-fence, the young man's earnestness
and heightened color might have led you to suppose that he was making
love to the young girl!

At length, something was said by Holgrave that made it apposite
for Phoebe to inquire what had first brought him acquainted with
her cousin Hepzibah, and why he now chose to lodge in the desolate
old Pyncheon House. Without directly answering her, he turned
from the Future, which had heretofore been the theme of his
discourse, and began to speak of the influences of the Past.
One subject, indeed, is but the reverberation of the other.

"Shall we never, never get rid of this Past?" cried he, keeping up
the earnest tone of his preceding conversation. "It lies upon the
Present like a giant's dead body In fact, the case is just as if a
young giant were compelled to waste all his strength in carrying
about the corpse of the old giant, his grandfather, who died a
long while ago, and only needs to be decently buried. Just think
a moment, and it will startle you to see what slaves we are to
bygone times,--to Death, if we give the matter the right word!"

"But I do not see it," observed Phoebe.

"For example, then," continued Holgrave: "a dead man, if he
happens to have made a will, disposes of wealth no longer his own;
or, if he die intestate, it is distributed in accordance with the
notions of men much longer dead than he. A dead man sits on all
our judgment-seats; and living judges do but search out and repeat
his decisions. We read in dead men's books! We laugh at dead men's
jokes, and cry at dead men's pathos! We are sick of dead men's
diseases, physical and moral, and die of the same remedies with
which dead doctors killed their patients! We worship the living
Deity according to dead men's forms and creeds. Whatever we seek
to do, of our own free motion, a dead man's icy hand obstructs us!
Turn our eyes to what point we may, a dead man's white, immitigable
face encounters them, and freezes our very heart! And we must be
dead ourselves before we can begin to have our proper influence
on our own world, which will then be no longer our world, but the
world of another generation, with which we shall have no shadow of
a right to interfere. I ought to have said, too, that we live in
dead men's houses; as, for instance, in this of the Seven Gables!"

"And why not," said Phoebe, "so long as we can be comfortable in them?"

"But we shall live to see the day, I trust," went on the artist,
"when no man shall build his house for posterity. Why should
he? He might just as reasonably order a durable suit of clothes,
--leather, or guttapercha, or whatever else lasts longest,
--so that his great-grandchildren should have the benefit of them,
and cut precisely the same figure in the world that he himself does.
If each generation were allowed and expected to build its own houses,
that single change, comparatively unimportant in itself, would imply
almost every reform which society is now suffering for. I doubt
whether even our public edifices--our capitols, state-houses,
court-houses, city-hall, and churches,--ought to be built of such
permanent materials as stone or brick. It were better that they
should crumble to ruin once in twenty years, or thereabouts, as a
hint to the people to examine into and reform the institutions which
they symbolize."

"How you hate everything old!" said Phoebe in dismay. "It makes
me dizzy to think of such a shifting world!"

"I certainly love nothing mouldy," answered Holgrave. "Now, this
old Pyncheon House! Is it a wholesome place to live in, with its
black shingles, and the green moss that shows how damp they are?
--its dark, low-studded rooms--its grime and sordidness, which are
the crystallization on its walls of the human breath, that has been
drawn and exhaled here in discontent and anguish? The house ought
to be purified with fire,--purified till only its ashes remain!"

"Then why do you live in it?" asked Phoebe, a little piqued.

"Oh, I am pursuing my studies here; not in books, however,"
replied Holgrave. "The house, in my view, is expressive of that
odious and abominable Past, with all its bad influences, against
which I have just been declaiming. I dwell in it for a while,
that I may know the better how to hate it. By the bye, did you
ever hear the story of Maule, the wizard, and what happened
between him and your immeasurably great-grandfather?"

"Yes, indeed!" said Phoebe; "I heard it long ago, from my father,
and two or three times from my cousin Hepzibah, in the month
that I have been here. She seems to think that all the calamities
of the Pyncheons began from that quarrel with the wizard, as you
call him. And you, Mr. Holgrave look as if you thought so too!
How singular that you should believe what is so very absurd, when
you reject many things that are a great deal worthier of credit!"

"I do believe it," said the artist seriously; "not as a superstition,
however, but as proved by unquestionable facts, and as exemplifying
a theory. Now, see: under those seven gables, at which we now look
up, --and which old Colonel Pyncheon meant to be the house of his
descendants, in prosperity and happiness, down to an epoch far beyond
the present,--under that roof, through a portion of three centuries,
there has been perpetual remorse of conscience, a constantly defeated
hope, strife amongst kindred, various misery, a strange form of death,
dark suspicion, unspeakable disgrace, --all, or most of which calamity
I have the means of tracing to the old Puritan's inordinate desire to
plant and endow a family. To plant a family! This idea is at the
bottom of most of the wrong and mischief which men do. The truth is,
that, once in every half-century, at longest, a family should be
merged into the great, obscure mass of humanity, and forget all about
its ancestors. Human blood, in order to keep its freshness, should
run in hidden streams, as the water of an aqueduct is conveyed in
subterranean pipes. In the family existence of these Pyncheons,
for instance,--forgive me, Phoebe. but I, cannot think of you as
one of them,--in their brief New England pedigree, there has been
time enough to infect them all with one kind of lunacy or another."

"You speak very unceremoniously of my kindred," said Phoebe,
debating with herself whether she ought to take offence.

"I speak true thoughts to a true mind!" answered Holgrave, with a
vehemence which Phoebe had not before witnessed in him. "The truth
is as I say! Furthermore, the original perpetrator and father of
this mischief appears to have perpetuated himself, and still walks
the street,--at least, his very image, in mind and body,--with the
fairest prospect of transmitting to posterity as rich and as wretched
an inheritance as he has received! Do you remember the daguerreotype,
and its resemblance to the old portrait?"

"How strangely in earnest you are!" exclaimed Phoebe, looking at
him with surprise and perplexity; half alarmed and partly inclined
to laugh. "You talk of the lunacy of the Pyncheons; is it contagious?"

"I understand you!" said the artist, coloring and laughing.
"I believe I am a little mad. This subject has taken hold of
my mind with the strangest tenacity of clutch since I have lodged
in yonder old gable. As one method of throwing it off, I have
put an incident of the Pyncheon family history, with which I
happen to be acquainted, into the form of a legend, and mean
to publish it in a magazine."

"Do you write for the magazines?" inquired Phoebe.

"Is it possible you did not know it?" cried Holgrave. "Well, such
is literary fame! Yes. Miss Phoebe Pyncheon, among the multitude
of my marvellous gifts I have that of writing stories; and my name
has figured, I can assure you, on the covers of Graham and Godey,
making as respectable an appearance, for aught I could see, as any
of the canonized bead-roll with which it was associated. In the
humorous line, I am thought to have a very pretty way with me;
and as for pathos, I am as provocative of tears as an onion.
But shall I read you my story?"

"Yes, if it is not very long," said Phoebe,--and added laughingly,
--"nor very dull."

As this latter point was one which the daguerreotypist could not
decide for himself, he forthwith produced his roll of manuscript,
and, while the late sunbeams gilded the seven gables, began to read.

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