The House of the Seven Gables (Chapter 4)

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Chapter 4

Towards noon, Hepzibah saw an elderly gentleman, large and portly, and
of remarkably dignified demeanor, passing slowly along on the opposite
side of the white and dusty street. On coming within the shadow of the
Pyncheon Elm, he stopt, and (taking off his hat, meanwhile, to wipe the
perspiration from his brow) seemed to scrutinize, with especial
interest, the dilapidated and rusty-visaged House of the Seven Gables.
He himself, in a very different style, was as well worth looking at as
the house. No better model need be sought, nor could have been found,
of a very high order of respectability, which, by some indescribable
magic, not merely expressed itself in his looks and gestures, but even
governed the fashion of his garments, and rendered them all proper and
essential to the man.

Without appearing to differ, in any tangible
way, from other people's clothes, there was yet a wide and rich gravity
about them that must have been a characteristic of the wearer, since it
could not be defined as pertaining either to the cut or material. His
gold-headed cane, too,--a serviceable staff, of dark polished
wood,--had similar traits, and, had it chosen to take a walk by itself,
would have been recognized anywhere as a tolerably adequate
representative of its master. This character--which showed itself so
strikingly in everything about him, and the effect of which we seek to
convey to the reader--went no deeper than his station, habits of life,
and external circumstances. One perceived him to be a personage of
marked influence and authority; and, especially, you could feel just as
certain that he was opulent as if he had exhibited his bank account, or
as if you had seen him touching the twigs of the Pyncheon Elm, and,
Midas-like, transmuting them to gold.

In his youth, he had probably been considered a handsome man; at his
present age, his brow was too heavy, his temples too bare, his
remaining hair too gray, his eye too cold, his lips too closely
compressed, to bear any relation to mere personal beauty. He would
have made a good and massive portrait; better now, perhaps, than at any
previous period of his life, although his look might grow positively
harsh in the process of being fixed upon the canvas. The artist would
have found it desirable to study his face, and prove its capacity for
varied expression; to darken it with a frown,--to kindle it up with a

While the elderly gentleman stood looking at the Pyncheon House, both
the frown and the smile passed successively over his countenance. His
eye rested on the shop-window, and putting up a pair of gold-bowed
spectacles, which he held in his hand, he minutely surveyed Hepzibah's
little arrangement of toys and commodities. At first it seemed not to
please him,--nay, to cause him exceeding displeasure,--and yet, the
very next moment, he smiled. While the latter expression was yet on
his lips, he caught a glimpse of Hepzibah, who had involuntarily bent
forward to the window; and then the smile changed from acrid and
disagreeable to the sunniest complacency and benevolence. He bowed,
with a happy mixture of dignity and courteous kindliness, and pursued
his way.

"There he is!" said Hepzibah to herself, gulping down a very bitter
emotion, and, since she could not rid herself of it, trying to drive it
back into her heart. "What does he think of it, I wonder? Does it
please him? Ah! he is looking back!"

The gentleman had paused in the street, and turned himself half about,
still with his eyes fixed on the shop-window. In fact, he wheeled
wholly round, and commenced a step or two, as if designing to enter the
shop; but, as it chanced, his purpose was anticipated by Hepzibah's
first customer, the little cannibal of Jim Crow, who, staring up at the
window, was irresistibly attracted by an elephant of gingerbread. What
a grand appetite had this small urchin!--Two Jim Crows immediately
after breakfast!--and now an elephant, as a preliminary whet before
dinner. By the time this latter purchase was completed, the elderly
gentleman had resumed his way, and turned the street corner.

"Take it as you like, Cousin Jaffrey," muttered the maiden lady, as
she drew back, after cautiously thrusting out her head, and looking up
and down the street,--"Take it as you like! You have seen my little
shop-window. Well!--what have you to say?--is not the Pyncheon House
my own, while I'm alive?"

After this incident, Hepzibah retreated to the back parlor, where she
at first caught up a half-finished stocking, and began knitting at it
with nervous and irregular jerks; but quickly finding herself at odds
with the stitches, she threw it aside, and walked hurriedly about the
room. At length she paused before the portrait of the stern old
Puritan, her ancestor, and the founder of the house. In one sense, this
picture had almost faded into the canvas, and hidden itself behind the
duskiness of age; in another, she could not but fancy that it had been
growing more prominent and strikingly expressive, ever since her
earliest familiarity with it as a child. For, while the physical
outline and substance were darkening away from the beholder's eye, the
bold, hard, and, at the same time, indirect character of the man seemed
to be brought out in a kind of spiritual relief. Such an effect may
occasionally be observed in pictures of antique date. They acquire a
look which an artist (if he have anything like the complacency of
artists nowadays) would never dream of presenting to a patron as his
own characteristic expression, but which, nevertheless, we at once
recognize as reflecting the unlovely truth of a human soul. In such
cases, the painter's deep conception of his subject's inward traits has
wrought itself into the essence of the picture, and is seen after the
superficial coloring has been rubbed off by time.

While gazing at the portrait, Hepzibah trembled under its eye. Her
hereditary reverence made her afraid to judge the character of the
original so harshly as a perception of the truth compelled her to do.
But still she gazed, because the face of the picture enabled her--at
least, she fancied so--to read more accurately, and to a greater depth,
the face which she had just seen in the street.

"This is the very man!" murmured she to herself. "Let Jaffrey Pyncheon
smile as he will, there is that look beneath! Put on him a skull-cap,
and a band, and a black cloak, and a Bible in one hand and a sword in
the other,--then let Jaffrey smile as he might,--nobody would doubt
that it was the old Pyncheon come again. He has proved himself the
very man to build up a new house! Perhaps, too, to draw down a new

Thus did Hepzibah bewilder herself with these fantasies of the old
time. She had dwelt too much alone,--too long in the Pyncheon
House,--until her very brain was impregnated with the dry-rot of its
timbers. She needed a walk along the noonday street to keep her sane.

By the spell of contrast, another portrait rose up before her, painted
with more daring flattery than any artist would have ventured upon, but
yet so delicately touched that the likeness remained perfect.
Malbone's miniature, though from the same original, was far inferior to
Hepzibah's air-drawn picture, at which affection and sorrowful
remembrance wrought together. Soft, mildly, and cheerfully
contemplative, with full, red lips, just on the verge of a smile, which
the eyes seemed to herald by a gentle kindling-up of their orbs!
Feminine traits, moulded inseparably with those of the other sex! The
miniature, likewise, had this last peculiarity; so that you inevitably
thought of the original as resembling his mother, and she a lovely and
lovable woman, with perhaps some beautiful infirmity of character, that
made it all the pleasanter to know and easier to love her.

"Yes," thought Hepzibah, with grief of which it was only the more
tolerable portion that welled up from her heart to her eyelids, "they
persecuted his mother in him! He never was a Pyncheon!"

But here the shop-bell rang; it was like a sound from a remote
distance,--so far had Hepzibah descended into the sepulchral depths of
her reminiscences. On entering the shop, she found an old man there, a
humble resident of Pyncheon Street, and whom, for a great many years
past, she had suffered to be a kind of familiar of the house. He was
an immemorial personage, who seemed always to have had a white head and
wrinkles, and never to have possessed but a single tooth, and that a
half-decayed one, in the front of the upper jaw. Well advanced as
Hepzibah was, she could not remember when Uncle Venner, as the
neighborhood called him, had not gone up and down the street, stooping
a little and drawing his feet heavily over the gravel or pavement. But
still there was something tough and vigorous about him, that not only
kept him in daily breath, but enabled him to fill a place which would
else have been vacant in the apparently crowded world. To go of
errands with his slow and shuffling gait, which made you doubt how he
ever was to arrive anywhere; to saw a small household's foot or two of
firewood, or knock to pieces an old barrel, or split up a pine board
for kindling-stuff; in summer, to dig the few yards of garden ground
appertaining to a low-rented tenement, and share the produce of his
labor at the halves; in winter, to shovel away the snow from the
sidewalk, or open paths to the woodshed, or along the clothes-line;
such were some of the essential offices which Uncle Venner performed
among at least a score of families. Within that circle, he claimed the
same sort of privilege, and probably felt as much warmth of interest,
as a clergyman does in the range of his parishioners. Not that he laid
claim to the tithe pig; but, as an analogous mode of reverence, he went
his rounds, every morning, to gather up the crumbs of the table and
overflowings of the dinner-pot, as food for a pig of his own.

In his younger days--for, after all, there was a dim tradition that he
had been, not young, but younger--Uncle Venner was commonly regarded as
rather deficient, than otherwise, in his wits. In truth he had
virtually pleaded guilty to the charge, by scarcely aiming at such
success as other men seek, and by taking only that humble and modest
part in the intercourse of life which belongs to the alleged
deficiency. But now, in his extreme old age,--whether it were that his
long and hard experience had actually brightened him, or that his
decaying judgment rendered him less capable of fairly measuring
himself,--the venerable man made pretensions to no little wisdom, and
really enjoyed the credit of it. There was likewise, at times, a vein
of something like poetry in him; it was the moss or wall-flower of his
mind in its small dilapidation, and gave a charm to what might have
been vulgar and commonplace in his earlier and middle life. Hepzibah
had a regard for him, because his name was ancient in the town and had
formerly been respectable. It was a still better reason for awarding
him a species of familiar reverence that Uncle Venner was himself the
most ancient existence, whether of man or thing, in Pyncheon Street,
except the House of the Seven Gables, and perhaps the elm that
overshadowed it.

This patriarch now presented himself before Hepzibah, clad in an old
blue coat, which had a fashionable air, and must have accrued to him
from the cast-off wardrobe of some dashing clerk. As for his trousers,
they were of tow-cloth, very short in the legs, and bagging down
strangely in the rear, but yet having a suitableness to his figure
which his other garment entirely lacked. His hat had relation to no
other part of his dress, and but very little to the head that wore it.
Thus Uncle Venner was a miscellaneous old gentleman, partly himself,
but, in good measure, somebody else; patched together, too, of
different epochs; an epitome of times and fashions.

"So, you have really begun trade," said he,--"really begun trade!
Well, I'm glad to see it. Young people should never live idle in the
world, nor old ones neither, unless when the rheumatize gets hold of
them. It has given me warning already; and in two or three years
longer, I shall think of putting aside business and retiring to my
farm. That's yonder,--the great brick house, you know,--the workhouse,
most folks call it; but I mean to do my work first, and go there to be
idle and enjoy myself. And I'm glad to see you beginning to do your
work, Miss Hepzibah!"

"Thank you, Uncle Venner" said Hepzibah, smiling; for she always felt
kindly towards the simple and talkative old man. Had he been an old
woman, she might probably have repelled the freedom, which she now took
in good part. "It is time for me to begin work, indeed! Or, to speak
the truth, I have just begun when I ought to be giving it up."

"Oh, never say that, Miss Hepzibah!" answered the old man. "You are a
young woman yet. Why, I hardly thought myself younger than I am now,
it seems so little while ago since I used to see you playing about the
door of the old house, quite a small child! Oftener, though, you used
to be sitting at the threshold, and looking gravely into the street;
for you had always a grave kind of way with you,--a grown-up air, when
you were only the height of my knee. It seems as if I saw you now; and
your grandfather with his red cloak, and his white wig, and his cocked
hat, and his cane, coming out of the house, and stepping so grandly up
the street! Those old gentlemen that grew up before the Revolution used
to put on grand airs. In my young days, the great man of the town was
commonly called King; and his wife, not Queen to be sure, but Lady.
Nowadays, a man would not dare to be called King; and if he feels
himself a little above common folks, he only stoops so much the lower
to them. I met your cousin, the Judge, ten minutes ago; and, in my old
tow-cloth trousers, as you see, the Judge raised his hat to me, I do
believe! At any rate, the Judge bowed and smiled!"

"Yes," said Hepzibah, with something bitter stealing unawares into her
tone; "my cousin Jaffrey is thought to have a very pleasant smile!"

"And so he has" replied Uncle Venner. "And that's rather remarkable in
a Pyncheon; for, begging your pardon, Miss Hepzibah, they never had the
name of being an easy and agreeable set of folks. There was no getting
close to them. But Now, Miss Hepzibah, if an old man may be bold to
ask, why don't Judge Pyncheon, with his great means, step forward, and
tell his cousin to shut up her little shop at once? It's for your
credit to be doing something, but it's not for the Judge's credit to
let you!"

"We won't talk of this, if you please, Uncle Venner," said Hepzibah
coldly. "I ought to say, however, that, if I choose to earn bread for
myself, it is not Judge Pyncheon's fault. Neither will he deserve the
blame," added she more kindly, remembering Uncle Venner's privileges of
age and humble familiarity, "if I should, by and by, find it convenient
to retire with you to your farm."

"And it's no bad place, either, that farm of mine!" cried the old man
cheerily, as if there were something positively delightful in the
prospect. "No bad place is the great brick farm-house, especially for
them that will find a good many old cronies there, as will be my case.
I quite long to be among them, sometimes, of the winter evenings; for
it is but dull business for a lonesome elderly man, like me, to be
nodding, by the hour together, with no company but his air-tight stove.
Summer or winter, there's a great deal to be said in favor of my farm!
And, take it in the autumn, what can be pleasanter than to spend a
whole day on the sunny side of a barn or a wood-pile, chatting with
somebody as old as one's self; or, perhaps, idling away the time with a
natural-born simpleton, who knows how to be idle, because even our busy
Yankees never have found out how to put him to any use? Upon my word,
Miss Hepzibah, I doubt whether I've ever been so comfortable as I mean
to be at my farm, which most folks call the workhouse. But
you,--you're a young woman yet,--you never need go there! Something
still better will turn up for you. I'm sure of it!"

Hepzibah fancied that there was something peculiar in her venerable
friend's look and tone; insomuch, that she gazed into his face with
considerable earnestness, endeavoring to discover what secret meaning,
if any, might be lurking there. Individuals whose affairs have reached
an utterly desperate crisis almost invariably keep themselves alive
with hopes, so much the more airily magnificent as they have the less
of solid matter within their grasp whereof to mould any judicious and
moderate expectation of good. Thus, all the while Hepzibah was
perfecting the scheme of her little shop, she had cherished an
unacknowledged idea that some harlequin trick of fortune would
intervene in her favor. For example, an uncle--who had sailed for
India fifty years before, and never been heard of since--might yet
return, and adopt her to be the comfort of his very extreme and
decrepit age, and adorn her with pearls, diamonds, and Oriental shawls
and turbans, and make her the ultimate heiress of his unreckonable
riches. Or the member of Parliament, now at the head of the English
branch of the family,--with which the elder stock, on this side of the
Atlantic, had held little or no intercourse for the last two
centuries,--this eminent gentleman might invite Hepzibah to quit the
ruinous House of the Seven Gables, and come over to dwell with her
kindred at Pyncheon Hall. But, for reasons the most imperative, she
could not yield to his request. It was more probable, therefore, that
the descendants of a Pyncheon who had emigrated to Virginia, in some
past generation, and became a great planter there,--hearing of
Hepzibah's destitution, and impelled by the splendid generosity of
character with which their Virginian mixture must have enriched the New
England blood,--would send her a remittance of a thousand dollars, with
a hint of repeating the favor annually. Or,--and, surely, anything so
undeniably just could not be beyond the limits of reasonable
anticipation,--the great claim to the heritage of Waldo County might
finally be decided in favor of the Pyncheons; so that, instead of
keeping a cent-shop, Hepzibah would build a palace, and look down from
its highest tower on hill, dale, forest, field, and town, as her own
share of the ancestral territory.

These were some of the fantasies which she had long dreamed about; and,
aided by these, Uncle Venner's casual attempt at encouragement kindled
a strange festal glory in the poor, bare, melancholy chambers of her
brain, as if that inner world were suddenly lighted up with gas. But
either he knew nothing of her castles in the air,--as how should
he?--or else her earnest scowl disturbed his recollection, as it might
a more courageous man's. Instead of pursuing any weightier topic,
Uncle Venner was pleased to favor Hepzibah with some sage counsel in
her shop-keeping capacity.

"Give no credit!"--these were some of his golden maxims,--"Never take
paper-money. Look well to your change! Ring the silver on the
four-pound weight! Shove back all English half-pence and base copper
tokens, such as are very plenty about town! At your leisure hours, knit
children's woollen socks and mittens! Brew your own yeast, and make
your own ginger-beer!"

And while Hepzibah was doing her utmost to digest the hard little
pellets of his already uttered wisdom, he gave vent to his final, and
what he declared to be his all-important advice, as follows:-"Put on a bright face for your customers, and smile pleasantly as you
hand them what they ask for! A stale article, if you dip it in a good,
warm, sunny smile, will go off better than a fresh one that you've
scowled upon."

To this last apothegm poor Hepzibah responded with a sigh so deep and
heavy that it almost rustled Uncle Venner quite away, like a withered
leaf,--as he was,--before an autumnal gale. Recovering himself,
however, he bent forward, and, with a good deal of feeling in his
ancient visage, beckoned her nearer to him.

"When do you expect him home?" whispered he.

"Whom do you mean?" asked Hepzibah, turning pale.

"Ah!--You don't love to talk about it," said Uncle Venner. "Well,
well! we'll say no more, though there's word of it all over town. I
remember him, Miss Hepzibah, before he could run alone!"

During the remainder of the day, poor Hepzibah acquitted herself even
less creditably, as a shop-keeper, than in her earlier efforts. She
appeared to be walking in a dream; or, more truly, the vivid life and
reality assumed by her emotions made all outward occurrences
unsubstantial, like the teasing phantasms of a half-conscious slumber.
She still responded, mechanically, to the frequent summons of the
shop-bell, and, at the demand of her customers, went prying with vague
eyes about the shop, proffering them one article after another, and
thrusting aside--perversely, as most of them supposed--the identical
thing they asked for. There is sad confusion, indeed, when the spirit
thus flits away into the past, or into the more awful future, or, in
any manner, steps across the spaceless boundary betwixt its own region
and the actual world; where the body remains to guide itself as best it
may, with little more than the mechanism of animal life. It is like
death, without death's quiet privilege,--its freedom from mortal care.
Worst of all, when the actual duties are comprised in such petty
details as now vexed the brooding soul of the old gentlewoman. As the
animosity of fate would have it, there was a great influx of custom in
the course of the afternoon. Hepzibah blundered to and fro about her
small place of business, committing the most unheard-of errors: now
stringing up twelve, and now seven, tallow-candles, instead of ten to
the pound; selling ginger for Scotch snuff, pins for needles, and
needles for pins; misreckoning her change, sometimes to the public
detriment, and much oftener to her own; and thus she went on, doing her
utmost to bring chaos back again, until, at the close of the day's
labor, to her inexplicable astonishment, she found the money-drawer
almost destitute of coin. After all her painful traffic, the whole
proceeds were perhaps half a dozen coppers, and a questionable
ninepence which ultimately proved to be copper likewise.

At this price, or at whatever price, she rejoiced that the day had
reached its end. Never before had she had such a sense of the
intolerable length of time that creeps between dawn and sunset, and of
the miserable irksomeness of having aught to do, and of the better
wisdom that it would be to lie down at once, in sullen resignation, and
let life, and its toils and vexations, trample over one's prostrate
body as they may! Hepzibah's final operation was with the little
devourer of Jim Crow and the elephant, who now proposed to eat a camel.
In her bewilderment, she offered him first a wooden dragoon, and next a
handful of marbles; neither of which being adapted to his else
omnivorous appetite, she hastily held out her whole remaining stock of
natural history in gingerbread, and huddled the small customer out of
the shop. She then muffled the bell in an unfinished stocking, and put
up the oaken bar across the door.

During the latter process, an omnibus came to a stand-still under the
branches of the elm-tree. Hepzibah's heart was in her mouth. Remote
and dusky, and with no sunshine on all the intervening space, was that
region of the Past whence her only guest might be expected to arrive!
Was she to meet him now?

Somebody, at all events, was passing from the farthest interior of the
omnibus towards its entrance. A gentleman alighted; but it was only
to offer his hand to a young girl whose slender figure, nowise needing
such assistance, now lightly descended the steps, and made an airy
little jump from the final one to the sidewalk. She rewarded her
cavalier with a smile, the cheery glow of which was seen reflected on
his own face as he reentered the vehicle. The girl then turned towards
the House of the Seven Gables, to the door of which, meanwhile,--not
the shop-door, but the antique portal,--the omnibus-man had carried a
light trunk and a bandbox. First giving a sharp rap of the old iron
knocker, he left his passenger and her luggage at the door-step, and

"Who can it be?" thought Hepzibah, who had been screwing her visual
organs into the acutest focus of which they were capable. "The girl
must have mistaken the house." She stole softly into the hall, and,
herself invisible, gazed through the dusty side-lights of the portal at
the young, blooming, and very cheerful face which presented itself for
admittance into the gloomy old mansion. It was a face to which almost
any door would have opened of its own accord.

The young girl, so fresh, so unconventional, and yet so orderly and
obedient to common rules, as you at once recognized her to be, was
widely in contrast, at that moment, with everything about her. The
sordid and ugly luxuriance of gigantic weeds that grew in the angle of
the house, and the heavy projection that overshadowed her, and the
time-worn framework of the door,--none of these things belonged to her
sphere. But, even as a ray of sunshine, fall into what dismal place it
may, instantaneously creates for itself a propriety in being there, so
did it seem altogether fit that the girl should be standing at the
threshold. It was no less evidently proper that the door should swing
open to admit her. The maiden lady herself, sternly inhospitable in
her first purposes, soon began to feel that the door ought to be shoved
back, and the rusty key be turned in the reluctant lock.

"Can it be Phoebe?" questioned she within herself. "It must be little
Phoebe; for it can be nobody else,--and there is a look of her father
about her, too! But what does she want here? And how like a country
cousin, to come down upon a poor body in this way, without so much as a
day's notice, or asking whether she would be welcome! Well; she must
have a night's lodging, I suppose; and to-morrow the child shall go
back to her mother."

Phoebe, it must be understood, was that one little offshoot of the
Pyncheon race to whom we have already referred, as a native of a rural
part of New England, where the old fashions and feelings of
relationship are still partially kept up. In her own circle, it was
regarded as by no means improper for kinsfolk to visit one another
without invitation, or preliminary and ceremonious warning. Yet, in
consideration of Miss Hepzibah's recluse way of life, a letter had
actually been written and despatched, conveying information of Phoebe's
projected visit. This epistle, for three or four days past, had been
in the pocket of the penny-postman, who, happening to have no other
business in Pyncheon Street, had not yet made it convenient to call at
the House of the Seven Gables.

"No--she can stay only one night," said Hepzibah, unbolting the door.
"If Clifford were to find her here, it might disturb him!"

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