The House of the Seven Gables HTML version

3. The First Customer
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. 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 housebreaker 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.
The applicant, by this time, stood within the doorway. Coming freshly, as he did, out of
the morning light, he appeared to have brought some of its cheery influences into the
shop along with him. It was a slender young man, not more than one or two and twenty
years old, with rather a grave and thoughtful expression for his years, but likewise a
springy alacrity and vigor. These qualities were not only perceptible, physically, in his
make and motions, but made themselves felt almost immediately in his character. A
brown beard, not too silken in its texture, fringed his chin, but as yet without completely
hiding it; he wore a short mustache, too, and his dark, high-featured countenance looked
all the better for these natural ornaments. As for his dress, it was of the simplest kind; a
summer sack of cheap and ordinary material, thin checkered pantaloons, and a straw hat,
by no means of the finest braid. Oak Hall might have supplied his entire equipment. He
was chiefly marked as a gentleman--if such, indeed, he made any claim to be--by the
rather remarkable whiteness and nicety of his clean linen.
He met the scowl of old Hepzibah without apparent alarm, as having heretofore
encountered it and found it harmless.