Excerpts from Chapter 5, "May and November," of The House of the Seven
Gables, which focus on Phoebe
. . . Phoebe quietly awoke, and, for a moment, did not recognize where
she was, nor how those heavy curtains chanced to be festooned around her.
Nothing, indeed, was absolutely plain to her, except that it was now early
morning, and that, whatever might happen next, it was proper, first of
all, to get up and say her prayers. She was the more inclined to devotion,
from the grim aspect of the chamber and its furniture, especially the tall,
stiff chairs; one of which stood close by her bedside, and looked as if
some old-fashioned personage had been sitting there all night, and had
vanished only just in season to escape discovery.
Little Phoebe was one of those persons who possess, as their exclusive
patrimony, the gift of practical arrangement. It is a kind of natural magic
that enables these favored ones to bring out the hidden capabilities of
things around them; and particularly to give a look of comfort and habitableness
to any place which, for however brief a period, may happen to be their
home. A wild hut of underbrush, tossed together by wayfarers through the
primitive forest, would acquire the home aspect by one night's lodging
of such a woman, and would retain it long after her quiet figure had disappeared
into the surrounding shade. No less a portion of such homely witchcraft
was requisite, to reclaim, as it were, Phoebe's waste, cheerless, and dusky
chamber, which had been untenanted so long--except by spiders, and mice,
and rats, and ghosts--that it was all overgrown with the desolation which
watches to obliterate every trace of man's happier hours. What was precisely
Phoebe's process, we find it impossible to say. She appeared to have no
preliminary design, but gave a touch here, and another there; brought some
articles of furniture to light, and dragged others into the shadow; looped
up or let down a window-curtain; and, in the course of half an hour, had
fully succeeded in throwing a kindly and hospitable smile over the apartment.
. . .
"You will find me a cheerful little body," answered Phoebe, smiling,
and yet with a kind of gentle dignity; "and I mean to earn my bread. You
know I have not been brought up a Pyncheon. A girl learns many things in
a New England village."
"Ah! Phoebe," said Hepzibah, sighing, "your knowledge would do but little
for you here! And then it is a wretched thought, that you should fling
away your young days in a place like this. Those cheeks would not be so
rosy, after a month or two. Look at my face!" and, indeed, the contrast
was very striking,--"you see how pale I am! It is my idea that the dust
and continual decay of these old houses are unwholesome for the lungs."
"There is the garden,--the flowers to be taken care of," observed Phoebe.
"I should keep myself healthy with exercise in the open air."
… Phoebe, and the fire that boiled the teakettle, were equally bright,
cheerful, and efficient, in their respective offices. Hepzibah gazed forth
from her habitual sluggishness, the necessary result of long solitude,
as from another sphere. She could not help being interested, however, and
even amused, at the readiness with which her new inmate adapted herself
to the circumstances, and brought the house, moreover, and all its rusty
old appliances, into a suitableness for her purposes. Whatever she did,
too, was done without conscious effort, and with frequent outbreaks of
song, which were exceedingly pleasant to the ear. This natural tunefulness
made Phoebe seem like a bird in a shadowy tree; or conveyed the idea that
the stream of life warbled through her heart as a brook sometimes warbles
through a pleasant little dell. It betokened the cheeriness of an active
temperament, finding joy in its activity, and, therefore, rendering it
beautiful; it was a New England trait,--the stern old stuff of Puritanism,
with a gold thread in the web.
"Do not trouble yourself, dear cousin!" cried Phoebe, starting lightly
up. "I am shopkeeper today."
"You, child!" exclaimed Hepzibah. "What can a little country-girl know
of such matters?"
"Oh, I have done all the shopping for the family, at our village, store,"
said Phoebe. "And I have had a table at a fancy fair, and made better sales
than anybody. These things are not to be learnt; they depend upon a knack,
that comes, I suppose," added she, smiling, "with one's mother's blood.
You shall see that I am as nice a little saleswoman as I am a housewife!"
As to Phoebe's not being a lady, or whether she were a lady or no, it
was a point, perhaps, difficult to decide, but which could hardly have
come up for judgment at all, in any fair and healthy mind. Out of New England,
it would be impossible to meet with a person combining so many ladylike
attributes with so many others that form no necessary (if compatible) part
of the character. She shocked no canon of taste; she was admirably in keeping
with herself, and never jarred against surrounding circumstances. Her figure,
to be sure,--so small as to be almost childlike, and so elastic that motion
seemed as easy or easier to it than rest,--would hardly have suited one's
idea of a countess. Neither did her face--with the brown ringlets on either
side, and the slightly piquant nose, and the wholesome bloom, and the clear
shade of tan, and the half a dozen freckles, friendly remembrancers of
the April sun and breeze--precisely give us a right to call her beautiful.
But there was both lustre and depth in her eyes. She was very pretty; as
graceful as a bird, and graceful much in the same way; as pleasant about
the house as a gleam of sunshine falling on the floor through a shadow
of twinkling leaves, or as a ray of firelight that dances on the wall,
while evening is drawing nigh. Instead of discussing her claim to rank
among ladies, it would be preferable to regard Phoebe as the example of
feminine grace and availability combined, in a state of society, if there
were any such, where ladies did not exist. There it should be woman's office
to move in the midst of practical affairs, and to gild them all, the very
homeliest,--were it even the scouring of pots and kettles,--with an atmosphere
of loveliness and joy. (Chapter