Returning to the arched window, she lifted her eyes,--scowling, poor,
dim-sighted Hepzibah, in the face of Heaven!--and strove hard to send
up a prayer through the dense gray pavement of clouds. Those mists had
gathered, as if to symbolize a great, brooding mass of human trouble,
doubt, confusion, and chill indifference, between earth and the better
regions. Her faith was too weak; the prayer too heavy to be thus
uplifted. It fell back, a lump of lead, upon her heart. It smote her
with the wretched conviction that Providence intermeddled not in these
petty wrongs of one individual to his fellow, nor had any balm for
these little agonies of a solitary soul; but shed its justice, and its
mercy, in a broad, sunlike sweep, over half the universe at once. Its
vastness made it nothing. But Hepzibah did not see that, just as there
comes a warm sunbeam into every cottage window, so comes a lovebeam of
God's care and pity for every separate need.
At last, finding no other pretext for deferring the torture that she
was to inflict on Clifford,--her reluctance to which was the true cause
of her loitering at the window, her search for the artist, and even her
abortive prayer,--dreading, also, to hear the stern voice of Judge
Pyncheon from below stairs, chiding her delay,--she crept slowly, a
pale, grief-stricken figure, a dismal shape of woman, with almost
torpid limbs, slowly to her brother's door, and knocked!
There was no reply.
And how should there have been? Her hand, tremulous with the shrinking
purpose which directed it, had smitten so feebly against the door that
the sound could hardly have gone inward. She knocked again. Still no
response! Nor was it to be wondered at. She had struck with the entire
force of her heart's vibration, communicating, by some subtile
magnetism, her own terror to the summons. Clifford would turn his face
to the pillow, and cover his head beneath the bedclothes, like a
startled child at midnight. She knocked a third time, three regular
strokes, gentle, but perfectly distinct, and with meaning in them; for,
modulate it with what cautious art we will, the hand cannot help
playing some tune of what we feel upon the senseless wood.
Clifford returned no answer.
"Clifford! Dear brother!" said Hepzibah. "Shall I come in?"
Two or three times, and more, Hepzibah repeated his name, without
result; till, thinking her brother's sleep unwontedly profound, she
undid the door, and entering, found the chamber vacant. How could he
have come forth, and when, without her knowledge? Was it possible
that, in spite of the stormy day, and worn out with the irksomeness
within doors he had betaken himself to his customary haunt in the
garden, and was now shivering under the cheerless shelter of the
summer-house? She hastily threw up a window, thrust forth her turbaned
head and the half of her gaunt figure, and searched the whole garden
through, as completely as her dim vision would allow. She could see
the interior of the summer-house, and its circular seat, kept moist by
the droppings of the roof. It had no occupant. Clifford was not
thereabouts; unless, indeed, he had crept for concealment (as, for a
moment, Hepzibah fancied might be the case) into a great, wet mass of
tangled and broad-leaved shadow, where the squash-vines were clambering
tumultuously upon an old wooden framework, set casually aslant against
the fence. This could not be, however; he was not there; for, while
Hepzibah was looking, a strange grimalkin stole forth from the very
spot, and picked his way across the garden. Twice he paused to snuff
the air, and then anew directed his course towards the parlor window.
Whether it was only on account of the stealthy, prying manner common to
the race, or that this cat seemed to have more than ordinary mischief
in his thoughts, the old gentlewoman, in spite of her much perplexity,
felt an impulse to drive the animal away, and accordingly flung down a
window stick. The cat stared up at her, like a detected thief or
murderer, and, the next instant, took to flight. No other living
creature was visible in the garden. Chanticleer and his family had
either not left their roost, disheartened by the interminable rain, or
had done the next wisest thing, by seasonably returning to it.
Hepzibah closed the window.