Imagens da página

earn her own food or starve. And we have stolen upon Miss Hepzibah Pyncheon too irreverently at the instant of time when the patrician lady is to be transformed into the plebeian woman.

" In this republican country, amid the fluctuating waves of our social life, somebody is always at the drowning point. The tragedy is enacted with as continual a repetition as that of a popular drama on a holyday; and nevertheless is felt as deeply perhaps as when an hereditary noble sinks below his order. More deeply; since with us rank is the grosser substance of wealth and a splendid establishment, and has no spiritual existence after the death of these, but dies hopelessly along with them. And therefore since we have been so unfortunate as to introduce our heroine at so inauspicious a juncture, we would entreat for a mood of due solemnity in the spectators of her fate. Let us behold in poor Hepzibah, the immemorial lady, two hundred years old, on this side of the water, and thrice as many on the other, with her antique portraits, pedigrees, coats of arms, and her claim as first heiress to that princely territory at the eastward, no longer a wilderness but a populous fertility-born, too, in Pyncheon Street, under the Pyncheon elm, and in the Pyncheon house where she has spent all her days, reduced now in that very house to be the huckstress of a cent shop!

“ This business of setting up a petty shop is almost the only resource of women in circumstances at all similar to those of our unfortunate recluse. With her near-sightedness, and those tremulous fingers of hers, at once inflexible and delicate, she could not be a seamstress, although her sampler of fifty years gone by exhibited some of the most recondite specimens of ornamental needle-work. A school for little children had been often in her thoughts ; and at one time she had begun a review of her early studies in the New England prinner, with a view to prepare herself for the office of instructress. But the love of children had never been quickened in Hepzibah's heart, and was now torpid, if not extinct; she watched the little people of the neighborhood from her chamber window, and doubted whether she could tolerate a more intirnate acquaintance with them. Besides, in our day, the very A B C had become a science greatly too abstruse to be any longer taught by pointing a pen from letter to letter. A modern child could teach old Hepzibah rnore than old Hepzibah could teach the child. So with many a cold, deep heart-quake at the idea of at last coming into sordid contact with the world from which she had so long kept aloof, while every added day of seclusion had rolled another stone against the cavern door of her hermitage; the poor thing bethought herself of the ancient shopwindow, the rusty scales and dusty till. She might have held back a little longer; but another circumstance, not yet hinted at, had somewhat hastened her decision. Her bumble preparations, therefore, were duly made, and the enterprise was now to be commenced. Nor was she entitled to complain of any remarkable singularity in her fate. For in the town of her nativity we might poiut to several little shops of a similar description; some of them in houses as ancient as that of the Seven Gables, and one or two, it may be, where a decayed gentlewoman stands behind the counter, as grim an image of family pride as Miss Hepzibah Pyncheon herself.

“Our miserable old Hepzibah! It is a heavy annoyance to a writer who endeavors to represent nature, its various attitudes and circumstances, in a reasonably correct outline and true coloring: that so much of the mean and ludicrous should be hopelessly mixed up with the purest pathos that life anywhere supplies to him. What tragic dignity, for example, can be wrought into a scene like this? How can we elevate our history of retribution for sin of long ago when, as one of our most prominent figures, we are compelled to introduce, not a young and lovely woman, nor even the stately remains of beauty storm-shattered by affliction, but a gaunt, sallow, rusty-jointed maiden, in a long-waisted silk gown, and with the strange horror of a turban on her head ? Nevertheless, if we look through all the heroic fortunes of mankind we shall find the same entanglement of something mean or trivial with whatever is noblest in joy or sorrow. What is called poetic insight is the gift of discerning, in this sphere of strangely. mingled elements, the beauty and the majesty which are com pelled to assume a garb so sordid.”

It would be difficult to deny the gift of “poetic insight” to this mixture of admirable detail with something at once higher and deeper. Balzac, the great novelist of modern France, known only to those among us who thoroughly possess his language, for he is untranslated and untranslatable, has in certain romances of provincial life the same perfection of Dutch painting and of nomely tragedy. But Mr. Hawthorne is free from Balzac's scoff. The story of the first day behind the counter goes on with inimi. table truth, minuteness and variety. The cracked bell tinkles, and the poor old lady totters nervously to her post. Her first customer is a friendly one; a young artist—an artist after a somewhat American fashion, a Daguerréotypist—who inhabited one of the Seven Gables, and affords a capital specimen of the adventurous youth of the United States. Manly, comely, cheerful, kind, brimful of determined energy and cornmon sense, he has already tried some half-score of careers-schoolmaster, editor, agent, engineer

-and is sure to conquer fortune at last. Their conversation lets us into much of the story, and shows, besides, that poor Hepzibah will not make her fortune by her shop, for he comes to purchase biscuits, and she begs to be for one moment a gentlewoman, and not be forced into accepting money from her only friend. Then comes an old, humble, sauntering neighbor, who again helps on the narrative; then a greedy boy, who finding the cent which he offered for the gingerbread Jim Crow refused from pure disgust, returns in half an hour and eats the elephant. Then the rich Judge passes ; and Hepzibah trembles as his shadow darkens the window and then the cominon crew.

"Customers came in as the forenoon advanced, but rather slowly; in some cases too, it must be owned, with little satisfaction either to themselves or Miss Hepzibah ; nor, on the whole, with an aggregate of very rich emolument to the till. A little girl, sent by her mother to match a skein of cotton thread of a peculiar hue, took one that the near-sighted old lady pronounced extremely like, but very soon came running back with a blunt and cross message that it would not do, and besides, was very rotten! Then there was a pale, care-wrinkled woman, not old, but haggard, and already with streaks of gray among her hair, like silver ribbons; one of those women, naturally delicate, whom you at once recognize as worn to death by a brute, probably a drunken brute, of a husband, and at least nine children. She wanted a few pounds of flour, and offered the money, which the decayed gentlewoman silently rejected, and gave the poor soul better measure than if she had taken it. Shortly afterward, a man in a blue cotton frock, much soiled, came in and bought a pipe, filling the whole shop meanwhile with the hot odor of strong drink, not only exhaled in the torrid atinosphere of his breath, but oozing out of his whole system, like an inflammable

gas. It was impressed on Hepzibah's mind that this was the husband of the care-wrinkled woman. He asked for a paper of tobacco, and as she had neglected to provide herself with the article, her brutal customer dashed down his newly-purchased pipe, and left the shop, muttering some unintelligible words, which had the tone and bitterness of a curse. Hereupon Hepzibah threw up her eyes, unintentionally scowling in the face of Providence.

“No less than five persons during the forenoon inquired for ginger-beer or root-beer, or any drink of a similar beverage, and obtaining nothing of the kind, went off in exceedingly bad humor. Three of them left the door open; but the other two pulled it so spitefully in going out, that it played the very duse with Hepzibah’s nerves. A round, bustling, fire-ruddy housewife of the neighborhood burst breathless into the shop, fiercely demanding yeast; and when the poor gentlewoman, with her cold shyness of manner, gave her customer to understand that she did not keep the article, this very capable housekeeper took upon herself to administer a regular rebuke :

“A cent shop and no yeast !' quoth she ; that will never do ! Who ever heard of such a thing? Your loaf will never rise, no more than mine will to-day. You had better shut up shop at once.'

“Well,' said Hepzibah, heaving a deep sigh, perhaps I had.'”

And so the day wears on. Some come obviously from curiosity, and the old lady loses her temper, and becomes more and more bewildered.

“Her final operation was with the little devourer of Jim Crow and the elephant, who now proposed to eat a camel. In her tribulation, 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. 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 side-walk. She rewarded her cavalier with a smile, the cheery glow of which was seen reflected on his own face as he re entered the vehicle. The girl then turned toward 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 departed.

" Who care 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 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 so obedient to common rules as you at once recognize her to be, was widely in contrast at that moment with every thing 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 in hospitable in her first purposes, soon began to feel that the bolt ought to be shoved back, and the rusty key be turned in the reluctant lock.

"Can it be Phæbe ?' questioned she within herself. It must be little Phæbe ; for it can be nobody else ; and there is a look of her father about her too! Well! she must have a night's lodging I suppose, and to-morrow the child shall go back to her mother.'

“Phæbe Pyncheon slept, on the night of her arrival, in a chamber that looked down on the garden of the old house. It fronted toward the east, so that at a very seasonable hour a glowing crimson light came flooding through the window, and bathed the dingy ceiling and paper-hangings of its own hue. There were curtains to Phæbe's bed ; a dark antique canopy and ponderous

« AnteriorContinuar »