Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Hepzibah Pyncheon
By Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864)
From ‘The House of the Seven Gables’

ALL this time, however, we are loitering faint-heartedly on the threshold of our story. In very truth, we have an invincible reluctance to disclose what Miss Hepzibah Pyncheon was about to do.  1
  It has already been observed that in the basement story of the gable fronting on the street, an unworthy ancestor nearly a century ago had fitted up a shop. Ever since the old gentleman retired from trade and fell asleep under his coffin-lid, not only the shop door but the inner arrangements had been suffered to remain unchanged; while the dust of ages gathered inch-deep over the shelves and counter, and partly filled an old pair of scales, as if it were of value enough to be weighed. It treasured itself up too in the half-open till, where there still lingered a base sixpence, worth neither more nor less than the hereditary pride which had here been put to shame. Such had been the state and condition of the little shop in old Hepzibah’s childhood, when she and her brother used to play at hide-and-seek in its forsaken precincts. So it had remained until within a few days past.  2
  But now, though the shop window was still closely curtained from the public gaze, a remarkable change had taken place in its interior. The rich and heavy festoons of cobweb, which it had cost a long ancestral succession of spiders their life’s labor to spin and weave, had been carefully brushed away from the ceiling. The counter, shelves, and floor had all been scoured, and the latter was overstrewn with fresh blue sand. The brown scales too had evidently undergone rigid discipline, in an unavailing effort to rub off the rust, which, alas! had eaten through and through their substance. Neither was the little old shop any longer empty of merchantable goods. A curious eye, privileged to take an account and investigate behind the counter, would have discovered a barrel,—yea, two or three barrels and half-ditto,—one containing flour, another apples, and a third, perhaps, Indian meal. There was likewise a square box of pine-wood, full of soap in bars; also another of the same size in which were tallow candles, ten to the pound. A small stock of brown sugar, some white beans and split peas, and a few other commodities of low price and such as are constantly in demand, made up the bulkier portion of the merchandise. It might have been taken for a ghostly or phantasmagoric reflection of the old shopkeeper Pyncheon’s shabbily provided shelves, save that some of the articles were of a description and outward form which could hardly have been known in his day. For instance, there was a glass pickle jar, filled with fragments of Gibraltar rock; not indeed splinters of the veritable stone foundation of the famous fortress, but bits of delectable candy, neatly done up in white paper. Jim Crow, moreover, was seen executing his world-renowned dance in gingerbread. A party of leaden dragoons were galloping along one of the shelves, in equipments and uniform of modern cut; and there were some sugar figures, with no strong resemblance to the humanity of any epoch, but less unsatisfactorily representing our own fashions than those of a hundred years ago. Another phenomenon, still more strikingly modern, was a package of lucifer matches, which in old times would have been thought actually to borrow their instantaneous flame from the nether fires of Tophet.  3
  In short, to bring the matter at once to a point, it was incontrovertibly evident that somebody had taken the shop and fixtures of the long-retired and forgotten Mr. Pyncheon, and was about to renew the enterprise of that departed worthy, with a different set of customers. Who could this bold adventurer be? and of all places in the world, why had he chosen the House of the Seven Gables as the scene of his commercial speculations?  4
  We return to the elderly maiden. She at length withdrew her eyes from the dark countenance of the colonel’s portrait, heaved a sigh,—indeed, her breast was a very cave of Æolus that morning,—and stepped across the room on tiptoe, as is the customary gait of elderly women. Passing through an intervening passage, she opened a door that communicated with the shop, just now so elaborately described. Owing to the projection of the upper story—and still more to the thick shadow of the Pyncheon elm, which stood almost directly in front of the gable—the twilight here was still as much akin to night as morning. Another heavy sigh from Miss Hepzibah! After a moment’s pause on the threshold, peering towards the window with her near-sighted scowl as if frowning down some bitter enemy, she suddenly projected herself into the shop. The haste, and as it were the galvanic impulse, of the movement were really quite startling.  5
  Nervously—in a sort of frenzy, we might almost say—she began to busy herself in arranging some children’s playthings and other little wares, on the shelves and at the shop window. In the aspect of this dark-arrayed, pale-faced, ladylike old figure, there was a deeply tragic character that contrasted irreconcilably with the ludicrous pettiness of her employment. It seemed a queer anomaly that so gaunt and dismal a personage should take a toy in hand; a miracle that the toy did not vanish in her grasp; a miserably absurd idea that she should go on perplexing her stiff and sombre intellect with the question how to tempt little boys into her premises. Yet such is undoubtedly her object. Now she places a gingerbread elephant against the window, but with so tremulous a touch that it tumbles upon the floor, with the dismemberment of three legs and its trunk; it has ceased to be an elephant, and has become a few bits of musty gingerbread. There again she has upset a tumbler of marbles, all of which roll different ways, and each individual marble, devil-directed, into the most difficult obscurity that it can find. Heaven help our poor old Hepzibah, and forgive us for taking a ludicrous view of her position! As her rigid and rusty frame goes down upon its hands and knees in quest of the absconding marbles, we positively feel so much the more inclined to shed tears of sympathy, from the very fact that we must needs turn aside and laugh at her. For here—and if we fail to impress it suitably upon the reader, it is our own fault, not that of the theme—here is one of the truest points of melancholy interest that occur in ordinary life. It was the final throe of what called itself old gentility. A lady who had fed herself from childhood with the shadowy food of aristocratic reminiscences, and whose religion it was that a lady’s hand soils itself irremediably by doing aught for bread,—this born lady, after sixty years of narrowing means, is fain to step down from her pedestal of imaginary rank. Poverty, treading closely at her heels for a lifetime, has come up with her at last. She must 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.  6
  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 holiday; and nevertheless is felt as deeply, perhaps, as when a 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 unfortunate enough 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, records and traditions, and her claim as joint 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!  7
  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 needlework. 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 Primer, 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 intimate acquaintance with them. Besides, in our day the very A B C has become a science, greatly too abstruse to be any longer taught by pointing a pin from letter to letter. A modern child could teach old Hepzibah more 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 shop window, 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 humble 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 point 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.  8
  It was overpoweringly ridiculous,—we must honestly confess it,—the deportment of the maiden lady while setting her shop in order for the public eye. She stole on tiptoe to the window, as cautiously as if she conceived some bloody-minded villain to be watching behind the elm-tree with intent to take her life. Stretching out her long, lank arm, she put a paper of pearl buttons, a jew’s-harp, or whatever the small article might be, in its destined place, and straightway vanished back into the dusk as if the world need never hope for another glimpse of her. It might have been fancied indeed that she expected to minister to the wants of the community unseen, like a disembodied divinity or enchantress, holding forth her bargains to the reverential and awe-stricken purchaser in an invisible hand. But Hepzibah had no such flattering dream. She was well aware that she must ultimately come forward and stand revealed in her proper individuality; but like other sensitive persons, she could not bear to be observed in the gradual process, and chose rather to flash forth on the world’s astonished gaze at once.  9
  The inevitable moment was not much longer to be delayed. The sunshine might now be seen stealing down the front of the opposite house, from the windows of which came a reflected gleam, struggling through the boughs of the elm-tree and enlightening the interior of the shop more distinctly than heretofore. The town appeared to be waking up. A baker’s cart had already rattled through the street, chasing away the latest vestige of night’s sanctity with the jingle-jangle of its dissonant bells. A milkman was distributing the contents of his cans from door to door, and the harsh peal of a fisherman’s conch-shell was heard far off, around the corner. None of these tokens escaped Hepzibah’s notice. The moment had arrived. To delay longer would be only to lengthen out her misery. Nothing remained except to take down the bar from the shop door, leaving the entrance free—more than free; welcome, as if all were household friends, to every passer-by whose eyes might be attracted by the commodities of the window. This last act Hepzibah now performed, letting the bar fall with what smote upon her excited nerves as a most astounding clatter. Then, as if the only barrier betwixt herself and the world had been thrown down, and a flood of evil consequences would come tumbling through the gap, she fled into the inner parlor, threw herself into the ancestral elbow-chair, and wept.  10
  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 which 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 the 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? Her visage is not even ugly. It is redeemed from insignificance only by the contraction of her eyebrows into a near-sighted scowl. And finally, her great life trial seems to be that after sixty years of idleness, she finds it convenient to earn comfortable bread by setting up a shop in a small way. Nevertheless, if we look through all the heroic fortunes of mankind, we shall find this same entanglement of something mean and trivial with whatever is noblest in joy or sorrow. Life is made up of marble and mud. And without all the deeper trust in a comprehensive sympathy above us, we might hence be led to suspect the insult of a sneer as well as an immitigable frown, on the iron countenance of Fate. What is called poetic insight is the gift of discerning, in this sphere of strangely mingled elements, the beauty and the majesty which are compelled to assume a garb so sordid.  11

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