The House of the Seven Gables, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

XVII

The Flight of Two Owls

SUMMER as it was, the east wind set poor Hepzibah’s few remaining teeth chattering in her head, as she and Clifford faced it, on their way up Pyncheon Street, and towards the centre of the town. Not merely was it the shiver which this pitiless blast brought to her frame (although her feet and hands, especially, had never seemed so death-a-cold as now), but there was a moral sensation, mingling itself with the physical chill, and causing her to shake more in spirit than in body. The world’s broad, bleak atmosphere was all so comfortless! Such, indeed, is the impression which it makes on every new adventurer, even if he plunge into it while the warmest tide of life is bubbling through his veins. What, then, must it have been to Hepzibah and Clifford — so time-stricken as they were, yet so like children in their inexperience — as they left the doorstep, and passed from beneath the wide shelter of the Pyncheon Elm! They were wandering all abroad, on precisely such a pilgrimage as a child often meditates, to the world’s end, with perhaps a sixpence and a biscuit in his pocket. In Hepzibah’s mind, there was the wretched consciousness of being adrift. She had lost the faculty of self-guidance; but, in view of the difficulties around her, felt it hardly worth an effort to regain it, and was, moreover, incapable of making one.

As they proceeded on their strange expedition, she now and then cast a look sidelong at Clifford, and could not but observe that he was possessed and swayed by a powerful excitement. It was this, indeed, that gave him the control which he had at once, and so irresistibly, established over his movements. It not a little resembled the exhilaration of wine. Or, it might more fancifully be compared to a joyous piece of music, played with wild vivacity, but upon a disordered instrument. As the cracked jarring note might always be heard, and as it jarred loudest amidst the loftiest exultation of the melody, so was there a continual quake through Clifford, causing him most to quiver while he wore a triumphant smile, and seemed almost under a necessity to skip in his gait.

They met few people abroad, even on passing from the retired neighborhood of the House of the Seven Gables into what was ordinarily the more thronged and busier portion of the town. Glistening sidewalks, with little pools of rain, here and there, along their unequal surface; umbrellas displayed ostentatiously in the shop-windows, as if the life of trade had concentrated itself in that one article; wet leaves of the, horse-chestnut or elm-trees, torn off untimely by the blast and scattered along the public way; an unsightly, accumulation of mud in the middle of the street, which perversely grew the more unclean for its long and laborious washing — these were the more definable points of a very sombre picture. In the way of movement and human life, there was the hasty rattle of a cab or coach, its driver protected by a waterproof cap over his head and shoulders; the forlorn figure of an old man, who seemed to have crept out of some subterranean sewer, and was stooping along the kennel, and poking the wet rubbish with a stick, in quest of rusty nails; a merchant or two, at the door of the post-office, together with an editor and a miscellaneous politician, awaiting a dilatory mail; a few visages of retired sea-captains at the window of an insurance office, looking out vacantly at the vacant street, blaspheming at the weather, and fretting at the dearth as well of public news as local gossip. What a treasure-trove to these venerable quidnuncs, could they have guessed the secret which Hepzibah and Clifford were carrying along with them! But their two figures attracted hardly so much notice as that of a young girl, who passed at the same instant, and happened to raise her skirt a trifle too high above her ankles. Had it been a sunny and cheerful day, they could hardly have gone through the streets without making themselves obnoxious to remark. Now, probably, they were felt to be in keeping with the dismal and bitter weather, and therefore did not stand out in strong relief, as if the sun were shining on them, but melted into the gray gloom and were forgotten as soon as gone.

Poor Hepzibah! Could she have understood this fact, it would have brought her some little comfort; for, to all her other troubles — strange to say! — there was added the womanish and old-maiden-like misery arising from a sense of unseemliness in her attire. Thus, she was fain to shrink deeper into herself, as it were, as if in the hope of making people suppose that here was only a cloak and hood, threadbare and woefully faded, taking an airing in the midst of the storm, without any wearer!

As they went on, the feeling of indistinctness and unreality kept dimly hovering round about her, and so diffusing itself into her system that one of her hands was hardly palpable to the touch of the other. Any certainty would have been preferable to this. She whispered to herself, again and again, “Am I awake? — Am I awake?” and sometimes exposed her face to the chill spatter of the wind, for the sake of its rude assurance that she was. Whether it was Clifford’s purpose, or only chance, had led them thither, they now found themselves passing beneath the arched entrance of a large structure of gray stone. Within, there was a spacious breadth, and an airy height from floor to roof, now partially filled with smoke and steam, which eddied voluminously upward and formed a mimic cloud-region over their heads. A train of cars was just ready for a start; the locomotive was fretting and fuming, like a steed impatient for a headlong rush; and the bell rang out its hasty peal, so well expressing the brief summons which life vouchsafes to us in its hurried career. Without question or delay — with the irresistible decision, if not rather to be called recklessness, which had so strangely taken possession of him, and through him of Hepzibah — Clifford impelled her towards the cars, and assisted her to enter. The signal was given; the engine puffed forth its short, quick breaths; the train began its movement; and, along with a hundred other passengers, these two unwonted travellers sped onward like the wind.

At last, therefore, and after so long estrangement from everything that the world acted or enjoyed, they had been drawn into the great current of human life, and were swept away with it, as by the suction of fate itself.

Still haunted with the idea that not one of the past incidents, inclusive of Judge Pyncheon’s visit, could be real, the recluse of the Seven Gables murmured in her brother’s ear —

“Clifford! Clifford! Is not this a dream?”

“A dream, Hepzibah!” repeated he, almost laughing in her face. “On the contrary, I have never been awake before!”

Meanwhile, looking from the window, they could see the world racing past them. At one moment, they were rattling through a solitude; the next, a village had grown up around them; a few breaths more, and it had vanished, as if swallowed by an earthquake. The spires of meeting-houses seemed set adrift from their foundations; the broad-based hills glided away. Everything was unfixed from its age-long rest, and moving at whirlwind speed in a direction opposite to their own.

Within the car there was the usual interior life of the railroad, offering little to the observation of other passengers, but full of novelty for this pair of strangely enfranchised prisoners. It was novelty enough, indeed, that there were fifty human beings in close relation with them, under one long and narrow roof, and drawn onward by the same mighty influence that had taken their two selves into its grasp. It seemed marvellous how all these people could remain so quietly in their seats, while so much noisy strength was at work in their behalf. Some, with tickets in their hats (long travellers these, before whom lay a hundred miles of railroad), had plunged into the English scenery and adventures of pamphlet novels, and were keeping company with dukes and earls. Others, whose briefer span forbade their devoting themselves to studies so abstruse, beguiled the little tedium of the way with penny-papers. A party of girls, and one young man, on opposite sides of the car, found huge amusement in a game of ball. They tossed it to and fro, with peals of laughter that might be measured by mile-lengths; for, faster than the nimble ball could fly, the merry players fled unconsciously along, leaving the trail of their mirth afar behind, and ending their game under another sky than had witnessed its commencement. Boys, with apples, cakes, candy, and rolls of variously tinctured lozenges — merchandise that reminded Hepzibah of her deserted shop — appeared at each momentary stopping-place, doing up their business in a hurry, or breaking it short off, lest the market should ravish them away with it. New people continually entered. Old acquaintances — for such they soon grew to be, in this rapid current of affairs — continually departed. Here and there, amid the rumble and the tumult, sat one asleep. Sleep; sport; business; graver or lighter study; and the common and inevitable movement onward! It was life itself!

Clifford’s naturally poignant sympathies were all aroused. He caught the color of what was passing about him, and threw it back more vividly than he received it, but mixed, nevertheless, with a lurid and portentous hue. Hepzibah, on the other hand, felt herself more apart from human kind than even in the seclusion which she had just quitted.

“You are not happy, Hepzibah!” said Clifford apart, in a tone of aproach. “You are thinking of that dismal old house, and of Cousin, Jaffrey”— here came the quake through him —“and of Cousin Jaffrey sitting there, all by himself! Take my advice — follow my example — and let such things slip aside. Here we are, in the world, Hepzibah! — in the midst of life! — in the throng of our fellow beings! Let you and I be happy! As happy as that youth and those pretty girls, at their game of ball!”

“Happy —” thought Hepzibah, bitterly conscious, at the word, of her dull and heavy heart, with the frozen pain in it —“happy. He is mad already; and, if I could once feel myself broad awake, I should go mad too!”

If a fixed idea be madness, she was perhaps not remote from it. Fast and far as they had rattled and clattered along the iron track, they might just as well, as regarded Hepzibah’s mental images, have been passing up and down Pyncheon Street. With miles and miles of varied scenery between, there was no scene for her save the seven old gable-peaks, with their moss, and the tuft of weeds in one of the angles, and the shop-window, and a customer shaking the door, and compelling the little bell to jingle fiercely, but without disturbing Judge Pyncheon! This one old house was everywhere! It transported its great, lumbering bulk with more than railroad speed, and set itself phlegmatically down on whatever spot she glanced at. The quality of Hepzibah’s mind was too unmalleable to take new impressions so readily as Clifford’s. He had a winged nature; she was rather of the vegetable kind, and could hardly be kept long alive, if drawn up by the roots. Thus it happened that the relation heretofore existing between her brother and herself was changed. At home, she was his guardian; here, Clifford had become hers, and seemed to comprehend whatever belonged to their new position with a singular rapidity of intelligence. He had been startled into manhood and intellectual vigor; or, at least, into a condition that resembled them, though it might be both diseased and transitory.

The conductor now applied for their tickets; and Clifford, who had made himself the purse-bearer, put a bank-note into his hand, as he had observed others do.

“For the lady and yourself?” asked the conductor. “And how far?”

“As far as that will carry us,” said Clifford. “It is no great matter. We are riding for pleasure merely.”

“You choose a strange day for it, sir!” remarked a gimlet-eyed old gentleman on the other side of the car, looking at Clifford and his companion, as if curious to make them out.” The best chance of pleasure, in an easterly rain, I take it, is in a man’s own house, with a nice little fire in the chimney.”

“I cannot precisely agree with you,” said Clifford, courteously bowing to the old gentleman, and at once taking up the clew of conversation which the latter had proffered. “It had just occurred to me, on the contrary, that this admirable invention of the railroad — with the vast and inevitable improvements to be looked for, both as to speed and convenience — is destined to do away with those stale ideas of home and fireside, and substitute something better.”

“In the name of common-sense,” asked the old gentleman rather testily, “what can be better for a man than his own parlor and chimney-corner?”

“These things have not the merit which many good people attribute to them,” replied Clifford. “They may be said, in few and pithy words, to have ill served a poor purpose. My impression is, that our wonderfully increased and still increasing facilities of locomotion are destined to bring us around again to the nomadic state. You are aware, my dear sir — you must have observed it in your own experience — that all human progress is in a circle; or, to use a more accurate and beautiful figure, in an ascending spiral curve. While we fancy ourselves going straight forward, and attaining, at every step, an entirely new position of affairs, we do actually return to something long ago tried and abandoned, but which we now find etherealized, refined, and perfected to its ideal. The past is but a coarse and sensual prophecy of the present and the future. To apply this truth to the topic now under discussion. In the early epochs of our race, men dwelt in temporary huts, of bowers of branches, as easily constructed as a bird’s-nest, and which they built — if it should be called building, when such sweet homes of a summer solstice rather grew than were made with hands — which Nature, we will say, assisted them to rear where fruit abounded, where fish and game were plentiful, or, most especially, where the sense of beauty was to be gratified by a lovelier shade than elsewhere, and a more exquisite arrangement of lake, wood, and hill. This life possessed a charm which, ever since man quitted it, has vanished from existence. And it typified something better than itself. It had its drawbacks; such as hunger and thirst, inclement weather, hot sunshine, and weary and foot-blistering marches over barren and ugly tracts, that lay between the sites desirable for their fertility and beauty. But in our ascending spiral, we escape all this. These railroads — could but the whistle be made musical, and the rumble and the jar got rid of — are positively the greatest blessing that the ages have wrought out for us. They give us wings; they annihilate the toil and dust of pilgrimage; they spiritualize travel! Transition being so facile, what can be any man’s inducement to tarry in one spot? Why, therefore, should he build a more cumbrous habitation than can readily be carried off with him? Why should he make himself a prisoner for life in brick, and stone, and old worm-eaten timber, when he may just as easily dwell, in one sense, nowhere — in a better sense, wherever the fit and beautiful shall offer him a home?”

Clifford’s countenance glowed, as he divulged this theory; a youthful character shone out from within, converting the wrinkles and pallid duskiness of age into an almost transparent mask. The merry girls let their ball drop upon the floor, and gazed at him. They said to themselves, perhaps, that, before his hair was gray and the crow’s-feet tracked his temples, this now decaying man must have stamped the impress of his features on many a woman’s heart. But, alas! no woman’s eye had seen his face while it was beautiful.

“I should scarcely call it an improved state of things,” observed Clifford’s new acquaintance, “to live everywhere and nowhere!”

“Would you not?” exclaimed Clifford, with singular energy. “It is as clear to me as sunshine — were there any in the sky — that the greatest possible stumbling-blocks in the path of human happiness and improvement are these heaps of bricks and stones, consolidated with mortar, or hewn timber, fastened together with spike-nails, which men painfully contrive for their own torment, and call them house and home! The soul needs air; a wide sweep and frequent change of it. Morbid influences, in a thousand-fold variety, gather about hearths, and pollute the life of households. There is no such unwholesome atmosphere as that of an old home, rendered poisonous by one’s defunct forefathers and relatives. I speak of what I know. There is a certain house within my familiar recollection — one of those peaked-gable (there are seven of them), projecting-storied edifices, such as you occasionally see in our older towns — a rusty, crazy, creaky, dry-rotted, dingy, dark, and miserable old dungeon, with an arched window over the porch, and a little shop-door on one side, and a great, melancholy elm before it! Now, sir, whenever my thoughts recur to this seven-gabled mansion (the fact is so very curious that I must needs mention it), immediately I have a vision or image of an elderly man, of remarkably stern countenance, sitting in an oaken elbow-chair, dead, stone-dead, with an ugly flow of blood upon his shirt-bosom! Dead, but with open eyes! He taints the whole house, as I remember it. I could never flourish there, nor be happy, nor do nor enjoy what God meant me to do and enjoy.”

His face darkened, and seemed to contract, and shrivel itself up, and wither into age.

“Never, sir” he repeated. “I could never draw cheerful breath there!”

“I should think not,” said the old gentleman, eyeing Clifford earnestly, and rather apprehensively. “I should conceive not, sir, with that notion in your head!”

“Surely not,” continued Clifford; “and it were a relief to me if that house could be torn down, or burnt up, and so the earth be rid of it, and grass be sown abundantly over its foundation. Not that I should ever visit its site again! for, sir, the farther I get away from it, the more does the joy, the lightsome freshness, the heart-leap, the intellectual dance, the youth, in short — yes, my youth, my youth! — the more does it come back to me. No longer ago than this morning, I was old. I remember looking in the glass, and wondering at my own gray hair, and the wrinkles, many and deep, right across my brow, and the furrows down my cheeks, and the prodigious trampling of crow’s-feet about my temples! It was too soon! I could not bear it! Age had no right to come! I had not lived! But now do I look old? If so, my aspect belies me strangely; for — a great weight being off my mind — I feel in the very heyday of my youth, with the world and my best days before me!”

“I trust you may find it so,” said the old gentleman, who seemed rather embarrassed, and desirous of avoiding the observation which Clifford’s wild talk drew on them both. “You have my best wishes for it.”

“For Heaven’s sake, dear Clifford, be quiet!” whispered his sister. “They think you mad.”

“Be quiet yourself, Hepzibah!” returned her brother. “No matter what they think! I am not mad. For the first time in thirty years my thoughts gush up and find words ready for them. I must talk, and I will!”

He turned again towards the old gentleman, and renewed the conversation.

“Yes, my dear sir,” said he, “it is my firm belief and hope that these terms of roof and hearth-stone, which have so long been held to embody something sacred, are soon to pass out of men’s daily use, and be forgotten. Just imagine, for a moment, how much of human evil will crumble away, with this one change! What we call real estate — the solid ground to build a house on — is the broad foundation on which nearly all the guilt of this world rests. A man will commit almost any wrong — he will heap up an immense pile of wickedness, as hard as granite, and which will weigh as heavily upon his soul, to eternal ages — only to build a great, gloomy, dark-chambered mansion, for himself to die in, and for his posterity to be miserable in. He lays his own dead corpse beneath the underpinning, as one may say, and hangs his frowning picture on the wall, and, after thus converting himself into an evil destiny, expects his remotest great-grandchildren to be happy there. I do not speak wildly. I have just such a house in my mind’s eye!”

“Then, sir,” said the old gentleman, getting anxious to drop the subject, “you are not to blame for leaving it.”

“Within the lifetime of the child already born,” Clifford went on, “all this will be done away. The world is growing too ethereal and spiritual to bear these enormities a great while longer. To me, though, for a considerable period of time, I have lived chiefly in retirement, and know less of such things than most men — even to me, the harbingers of a better era are unmistakable. Mesmerism, now! Will that effect nothing, think you, towards purging away the grossness out of human life?”

“All a humbug!” growled the old gentleman.”

These rapping spirits, that little Phoebe told us of, the other day,” said Clifford —“what are these but the messengers of the spiritual world, knocking at the door of substance? And it shall be flung wide open!”

“A humbug, again!” cried the old gentleman, growing more and more testy at these glimpses of Clifford’s metaphysics. “I should like to rap with a good stick on the empty pates of the dolts who circulate such nonsense!”

“Then there is electricity — the demon, the angel, the mighty physical power, the all-pervading intelligence!” exclaimed Clifford. “Is that a humbug, too? Is it a fact — or have I dreamt it — that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time? Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence! Or, shall we say, it is itself a thought, nothing but thought, and no longer the substance which we deemed it!”

“If you mean the telegraph,” said the old gentleman, glancing his eye toward its wire, alongside the rail-track, “it is an excellent thing — that is, of course, if the speculators in cotton and politics don’t get possession of it. A great thing, indeed, sir, particularly as regards the detection of bank-robbers and murderers.”

“I don’t quite like it, in that point of view,” replied Clifford. “A bank-robber, and what you call a murderer, likewise, has his rights, which men of enlightened humanity and conscience should regard in so much the more liberal spirit, because the bulk of society is prone to controvert their existence. An almost spiritual medium, like the electric telegraph, should be consecrated to high, deep, joyful, and holy missions. Lovers, day by, day — hour by hour, if so often moved to do it — might send their heart-throbs from Maine to Florida, with some such words as these ‘I love you forever!’—‘My heart runs over with love!’—‘I love you more than I can!’ and, again, at the next message ‘I have lived an hour longer, and love you twice as much!’ Or, when a good man has departed, his distant friend should be conscious of an electric thrill, as from the world of happy spirits, telling him ‘Your dear friend is in bliss!’ Or, to an absent husband, should come tidings thus ‘An immortal being, of whom you are the father, has this moment come from God!’ and immediately its little voice would seem to have reached so far, and to be echoing in his heart. But for these poor rogues, the bank-robbers — who, after all, are about as honest as nine people in ten, except that they disregard certain formalities, and prefer to transact business at midnight rather than ‘Change-hours — and for these murderers, as you phrase it, who are often excusable in the motives of their deed, and deserve to be ranked among public benefactors, if we consider only its result — for unfortunate individuals like these, I really cannot applaud the enlistment of an immaterial and miraculous power in the universal world-hunt at their heels!”

“You can’t, hey?” cried the old gentleman, with a hard look.

“Positively, no!” answered Clifford. “It puts them too miserably at disadvantage. For example, sir, in a dark, low, cross-beamed, panelled room of an old house, let us suppose a dead man, sitting in an arm-chair, with a blood-stain on his shirt-bosom — and let us add to our hypothesis another man, issuing from the house, which he feels to be over-filled with the dead man’s presence — and let us lastly imagine him fleeing, Heaven knows whither, at the speed of a hurricane, by railroad! Now, sir, if the fugutive alight in some distant town, and find all the people babbling about that self-same dead man, whom he has fled so far to avoid the sight and thought of, will you not allow that his natural rights have been infringed? He has been deprived of his city of refuge, and, in my humble opinion, has suffered infinite wrong!”

“You are a strange man; sir” said the old gentleman, bringing his gimlet-eye to a point on Clifford, as if determined to bore right into him. “I can’t see through you!”

“No, I’ll be bound you can’t!” cried Clifford, laughing. “And yet, my dear sir, I am as transparent as the water of Maule’s well! But come, Hepzibah! We have flown far enough for once. Let us alight, as the birds do, and perch ourselves on the nearest twig, and consult wither we shall fly next!”

Just then, as it happened, the train reached a solitary way-station. Taking advantage of the brief pause, Clifford left the car, and drew Hepzibah along with him. A moment afterwards, the train — with all the life of its interior, amid which Clifford had made himself so conspicuous an object — was gliding away in the distance, and rapidly lessening to a point which, in another moment, vanished. The world had fled away from these two wanderers. They gazed drearily about them. At a little distance stood a wooden church, black with age, and in a dismal state of ruin and decay, with broken windows, a great rift through the main body of the edifice, and a rafter dangling from the top of the square tower. Farther off was a farm-house, in the old style, as venerably black as the church, with a roof sloping downward from the three-story peak, to within a man’s height of the ground. It seemed uninhabited. There were the relics of a wood-pile, indeed, near the door, but with grass sprouting up among the chips and scattered logs. The small rain-drops came down aslant; the wind was not turbulent, but sullen, and full of chilly moisture.

Clifford shivered from head to foot. The wild effervescence of his mood — which had so readily supplied thoughts, fantasies, and a strange aptitude of words, and impelled him to talk from the mere necessity of giving vent to this bubbling-up gush of ideas had entirely subsided. A powerful excitement had given him energy and vivacity. Its operation over, he forthwith began to sink.

“You must take the lead now, Hepzibah!” murmured he, with a torpid and reluctant utterance. “Do with me as you will!” She knelt down upon the platform where they were standing and lifted her clasped hands to the sky. The dull, gray weight of clouds made it invisible; but it was no hour for disbelief — no juncture this to question that there was a sky above, and an Almighty Father looking from it!

“O God!”— ejaculated poor, gaunt Hepzibah — then paused a moment, to consider what her prayer should be —“O God — our Father — are we not thy children? Have mercy on us!”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38