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,

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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.