Excerpts from Chapter 3, "The First Customer," of The House of the Seven
Gables which focus on Hepzibah.
MISS HEPZIBAH PYNCHEON sat in the oaken elbow-chair, with her
hands over her face, giving way to that heavy down-sinking of the heart which
most persons have experienced, when the image of hope itself seems ponderously
moulded of lead, on the eve of an enterprise at once doubtful and momentous.
She was suddenly startled by the tinkling alarum--high, sharp, and irregular--of
a little bell. [LINK TO RECORD # -THE SHOPPE BELL] The maiden lady arose
upon her feet, as pale as a ghost at cock-crow; for she was an enslaved spirit,
and this the talisman to which she owed obedience. This little bell--to
speak in plainer terms--being fastened over the shop-door, was so contrived
as to vibrate by means of a steel spring, and thus convey notice to the inner
regions of the house, when any customer should cross the threshold. Its ugly
and spiteful little din (heard now for the first time, perhaps, since Hepzibah's
periwigged predecessor had retired from trade) at once set every nerve of her
body in responsive and tumultuous vibration. The crisis was upon her! Her first
customer was at the door!
Without giving herself time for a second thought, she rushed
into the shop, pale, wild, desperate in gesture and expression, scowling portentously,
and looking far better qualified to do fierce battle with a house-breaker than
to stand smiling behind the counter, bartering small wares for a copper recompense.
Any ordinary customer, indeed, would have turned his back and fled. And yet
there was nothing fierce in Hepzibah's poor old heart; nor had she, at the moment,
a single bitter thought against the world at large, or one individual man or
woman. She wished them all well, but wished, too, that she herself were done
with them, and in her quiet grave.
"But I am a woman!" said Hepzibah, piteously. "I was going
to say, a lady,--but I consider that as past."
rejoined Hepzibah, drawing up her gaunt figure, with slightly
offended dignity. "You are a man, a young man, and brought up, I suppose, as
almost everybody is now-a-days, with a view to seeking your fortune. But
I was born a lady, and have always lived one; no matter in what narrowness of
means, always a lady."
"Let me be a lady a moment longer," replied Hepzibah, with
a manner of antique stateliness, to which a melancholy smile lent a kind of
grace. She put the biscuits into his hand, but rejected the compensation.
For some reason or other, not very easy to analyze, there had
hardly been so bitter a pang, in all her previous misery about the matter, as
what thrilled Hepzibah's heart, on overhearing the above conversation. The testimony
in regard to her scowl was frightfully important; it seemed to hold up her image,
wholly relieved from the false light of her self-partialities, and so hideous
that she dared not look at it. She was absurdly hurt, moreover, by the slight
and idle effect that her setting up shop--an event of such breathless interest
to herself--appeared to have upon the public, of which these two men were the
nearest representatives. A glance; a passing word or two; a coarse laugh, and
she was doubtless forgotten, before they turned the corner!
The structure of ancient aristocracy had been demolished by
him, even as if his childish gripe had torn down the seven-gabled mansion. Now
let Hepzibah turn the old Pyncheon portraits with their faces to the wall, and
take the map of her eastern territory to kindle the kitchen fire, and blow up
the flame with the empty breath of her ancestral traditions! What had she to
do with ancestry? Nothing; no more than with posterity! No lady, now, but simply
Hepzibah Pyncheon, a forlorn old maid, and keeper of a cent-shop!"