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.
The Old Manse
By Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864)
From ‘Mosses from an Old Manse’

BETWEEN two tall gate-posts of rough-hewn stone (the gate itself having fallen from its hinges at some unknown epoch) we beheld the gray front of the old parsonage terminating the vista of an avenue of black-ash trees. It was now a twelvemonth since the funeral procession of the venerable clergyman, its last inhabitant, had turned from that gateway toward the village burying-ground. The wheel track leading to the door, as well as the whole breadth of the avenue, was almost overgrown with grass, affording dainty mouthfuls to two or three vagrant cows and an old white horse who had his own living to pick up along the roadside. The glimmering shadows that lay half asleep between the door of the house and the public highway were a kind of spiritual medium, seen through which the edifice had not quite the aspect of belonging to the material world. Certainly, it had little in common with those ordinary abodes which stand so imminent upon the road that every passer-by can thrust his head, as it were, into the domestic circle. From these quiet windows the figures of passing travelers look too remote and dim to disturb the sense of privacy. In its near retirement and accessible seclusion, it was the very spot for the residence of a clergyman—a man not estranged from human life, yet enveloped, in the midst of it, with a veil woven of intermingled gloom and brightness. It was worthy to have been one of the time-honored parsonages of England, in which through many generations a succession of holy occupants pass from youth to age, and bequeath each an inheritance of sanctity to pervade the house and hover over it as with an atmosphere.  1
  Nor, in truth, had the Old Manse ever been profaned by a lay occupant until that memorable summer afternoon when I entered it as my home. A priest had built it; a priest had succeeded to it; other priestly men from time to time had dwelt in it; and children born in its chambers had grown up to assume the priestly character. It was awful to reflect how many sermons must have been written there. The latest inhabitant alone—he by whose translation to Paradise the dwelling was left vacant—had penned nearly three thousand discourses, besides the better if not the greater number that gushed living from his lips. How often, no doubt, had he paced to and fro along the avenue, attuning his meditations to the sighs and gentle murmurs and deep and solemn peals of the wind among the tops of the lofty trees! In that variety of natural utterances he could find something accordant with every passage of his sermon, were it of tenderness or reverential fear. The boughs over my head seemed shadowy with solemn thoughts, as well as with rustling leaves. I took shame to myself for having been so long a writer of idle stories, and ventured to hope that wisdom would descend upon me with the falling leaves of the avenue, and that I should light upon an intellectual treasure in the Old Manse well worth those hoards of long-hidden gold which people seek for in moss-grown houses. Profound treatises of morality, a layman’s unprofessional and therefore unprejudiced views of religion, histories (such as Bancroft might have written had he taken up his abode here, as he once purposed) bright with picture, gleaming over a depth of philosophic thought,—these were the works that might fitly have flowed from such a retirement. In the humblest event, I resolved at least to achieve a novel that should evolve some deep lesson, and should possess physical substance enough to stand alone….  2
  The study had three windows set with little old-fashioned panes of glass, each with a crack across it. The two on the western side looked or rather peeped between the willow branches down into the orchard, with glimpses of the river through the trees. The third, facing northward, commanded a broader view of the river at a spot where its hitherto obscure waters gleam forth into the light of history. It was at this window that the clergyman who then dwelt in the manse stood watching the outbreak of a long and deadly struggle between two nations. He saw the irregular array of his parishioners on the farther side of the river, and the glittering line of the British on the hither bank; he awaited in an agony of suspense the rattle of the musketry. It came; and there needed but a gentle wind to sweep the battle smoke around this quiet house….  3
  A youth in the service of the clergyman happened to be chopping wood that April morning at the back door of the manse; and when the noise of battle rang from side to side of the bridge, he hastened across the intervening field to see what might be going forward. It is rather strange, by the way, that this lad should have been so diligently at work when the whole population of town and country were startled out of their customary business by the advance of the British troops. Be that as it might, the tradition says that the lad had now left his task and hurried to the battle-field with the axe still in his hand. The British had by this time retreated; the Americans were in pursuit; and the late scene of strife was thus deserted by both parties. Two soldiers lay on the ground—one was a corpse; but as the young New-Englander drew nigh, the other Briton raised himself painfully on his hands and knees and gave a ghastly stare into his face. The boy—it must have been a nervous impulse without purpose, without thought, and betokening a sensitive and impressionable nature rather than a hardened one—the boy uplifted his axe and dealt the wounded soldier a fierce and fatal blow upon the head. I could wish that the grave might be opened; for I would fain know whether either of the skeleton soldiers has the mark of an axe on his skull.  4
  The story comes home to me like truth. Oftentimes as an intellectual and moral exercise I have sought to follow that poor youth through his subsequent career, and observe how his soul was tortured by the blood-stain, contracted as it had been before the long custom of war had robbed human life of its sanctity, and while it still seemed murderous to slay a brother man. This one circumstance has borne more fruit for me than all that history tells us of the fight….  5
  When summer was dead and buried, the Old Manse became as lonely as a hermitage. Not that ever—in my time at least—it had been thronged with company; but at no rare intervals we welcomed some friend out of the dusty glare and tumult of the world, and rejoiced to share with him the transparent obscurity that was floating over us. In one respect our precincts were like the Enchanted Ground through which the pilgrim traveled on his way to the Celestial City. The guests, each and all, felt a slumbrous influence upon them; they fell asleep in chairs, or took a more deliberate siesta on the sofa, or were seen stretched among the shadows of the orchard, looking up dreamily through the boughs. They could not have paid a more acceptable compliment to my abode, nor to my own qualities as a host. I held it as a proof that they left their cares behind them as they passed between the stone gate-posts at the entrance of our avenue, and that the so powerful opiate was the abundance of peace and quiet within and all around us. Others could give them pleasures and amusement or instruction—these could be picked up anywhere; but it was for me to give them rest—rest in a life of trouble! What better could be done for those weary and world-worn spirits? for him whose career of perpetual action was impeded and harassed by the rarest of his powers and the richest of his acquirements? for another, who had thrown his ardent heart from earliest youth into the strife of politics, and now, perchance, began to suspect that one lifetime is too brief for the accomplishment of any lofty aim? for her on whose feminine nature had been imposed the heavy gift of intellectual power such as a strong man might have staggered under, and with it the necessity to act upon the world?—in a word, not to multiply instances, what better could be done for anybody who came within our magic circle than to throw the spell of a tranquil spirit over him? And when it had wrought its full effect, then we dismissed him with but misty reminiscences, as if he had been dreaming of us….  6
  These hobgoblins of flesh and blood were attracted thither by the wide-spreading influence of a great original thinker, who had his earthly abode at the opposite extremity of our village. His mind acted upon other minds of a certain constitution with wonderful magnetism, and drew many men upon long pilgrimages to speak with him face to face. Young visionaries, to whom just so much of insight had been imparted as to make life all a labyrinth around them, came to seek the clue that should guide them out of their self-involved bewilderment. Gray-headed theorists, whose systems, at first air, had finally imprisoned them in an iron framework, traveled painfully to his door, not to ask deliverance but to invite the free spirit into their own thraldom. People that had lighted on a new thought, or a thought that they fancied new, came to Emerson, as the finder of a glittering gem hastens to a lapidary to ascertain its quality and value. Uncertain, troubled, earnest wanderers through the midnight of a moral world beheld its intellectual fire as a beacon burning on a hill-top, and climbing the difficult ascent, looked forth into the surrounding obscurity more hopefully than hitherto. The light revealed objects unseen before,—mountains, gleaming lakes, glimpses of a creation among the chaos; but also, as was unavoidable, it attracted bats and owls and the whole host of night birds, which flapped their dusky wings against the gazer’s eyes, and sometimes were mistaken for fowls of angelic feather. Such delusions always hover nigh whenever a beacon fire of truth is kindled.  7
  For myself, there had been epochs of my life when I too might have asked of this prophet the master word that should solve me the riddle of the universe; but now, being happy, I felt as if there were no question to be put, and therefore admired Emerson as a poet of deep beauty and austere tenderness, but sought nothing from him as a philosopher. It was good nevertheless to meet him in the wood paths, or sometimes in our avenue, with that pure intellectual gleam diffused about his presence like the garment of a Shining One; and he so quiet, so simple, so without pretension, encountering each man alike as if expecting to receive more than he could impart. And in truth, the heart of many an ordinary man had, perchance, inscriptions which he could not read. But it was impossible to dwell in his vicinity without inhaling more or less the mountain atmosphere of his lofty thought, which in the brains of some people wrought a singular giddiness,—new truth being as heady as new wine. Never was a poor little country village infested with such a variety of queer, strangely dressed, oddly behaved mortals, most of whom took upon themselves to be important agents of the world’s destiny, yet were simply bores of a very intense water. Such, I imagine, is the invariable character of persons who crowd so closely about an original thinker as to draw in his unuttered breath, and thus to become imbued with a false originality. This triteness of novelty is enough to make any man of common-sense blaspheme at all ideas of less than a century’s standing, and pray that the world may be petrified and rendered immovable in precisely the worst moral and physical state that it ever yet arrived at, rather than be benefited by such schemes of such philosophers….  8
  Glancing back over what I have written, it seems but the scattered reminiscences of a single summer. In fairyland there is no measurement of time; and in a spot so sheltered from the turmoil of life’s ocean, three years hasten away with a noiseless flight, as the breezy sunshine chases the cloud shadows across the depths of a still valley. Now came hints, growing more and more distinct, that the owner of the old house was pining for his native air. Carpenters next appeared, making a tremendous racket among the outbuildings, strewing the green grass with pine shavings and chips of chestnut joists, and vexing the whole antiquity of the place with their discordant renovations. Soon, moreover, they divested our abode of the veil of woodbine which had crept over a large portion of its southern face. All the aged mosses were cleared unsparingly away, and there were horrible whispers about brushing up the external walls with a coat of paint,—a purpose as little to my taste as might be that of rouging the venerable cheeks of one’s grandmother. But the hand that renovates is always more sacrilegious than that which destroys. In fine, we gathered up our household goods, drank a farewell cup of tea in our pleasant little breakfast-room,—delicately fragrant tea, an unpurchasable luxury, one of the many angel gifts that had fallen like dew upon us,—and passed forth between the tall stone gate-posts, as uncertain as the wandering Arabs where our tent might next be pitched. Providence took me by the hand, and—an oddity of dispensation which, I trust, there is no irreverence in smiling at—has led me, as the newspapers announce, while I am writing from the Old Manse, into a custom-house. As a story-teller I have often contrived strange vicissitudes for my imaginary personages, but none like this.  9

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