"Hepzibah!--Hepzibah!" cried he with no little force and distinctness,
"why do you keep that odious picture on the wall? Yes, yes!--that is
precisely your taste! I have told you, a thousand times, that it was
the evil genius of the house!--my evil genius particularly! Take it
down, at once!"
"Dear Clifford," said Hepzibah sadly, "you know it cannot be!"
"Then, at all events," continued he, still speaking with some energy,
"pray cover it with a crimson curtain, broad enough to hang in folds,
and with a golden border and tassels. I cannot bear it! It must not
stare me in the face!"
"Yes, dear Clifford, the picture shall be covered," said Hepzibah
soothingly. "There is a crimson curtain in a trunk above stairs,--a
little faded and moth-eaten, I'm afraid,--but Phoebe and I will do
wonders with it."
"This very day, remember" said he; and then added, in a low,
self-communing voice, "Why should we live in this dismal house at all?
Why not go to the South of France?--to Italy?--Paris, Naples, Venice,
Rome? Hepzibah will say we have not the means. A droll idea that!"
He smiled to himself, and threw a glance of fine sarcastic meaning
But the several moods of feeling, faintly as they were marked, through
which he had passed, occurring in so brief an interval of time, had
evidently wearied the stranger. He was probably accustomed to a sad
monotony of life, not so much flowing in a stream, however sluggish, as
stagnating in a pool around his feet. A slumberous veil diffused
itself over his countenance, and had an effect, morally speaking, on
its naturally delicate and elegant outline, like that which a brooding
mist, with no sunshine in it, throws over the features of a landscape.
He appeared to become grosser,--almost cloddish. If aught of interest
or beauty--even ruined beauty--had heretofore been visible in this man,
the beholder might now begin to doubt it, and to accuse his own
imagination of deluding him with whatever grace had flickered over that
visage, and whatever exquisite lustre had gleamed in those filmy eyes.
Before he had quite sunken away, however, the sharp and peevish tinkle
of the shop-bell made itself audible. Striking most disagreeably on
Clifford's auditory organs and the characteristic sensibility of his
nerves, it caused him to start upright out of his chair.
"Good heavens, Hepzibah! what horrible disturbance have we now in the
house?" cried he, wreaking his resentful impatience--as a matter of
course, and a custom of old--on the one person in the world that loved
him. "I have never heard such a hateful clamor! Why do you permit it?
In the name of all dissonance, what can it be?"
It was very remarkable into what prominent relief--even as if a dim
picture should leap suddenly from its canvas--Clifford's character was
thrown by this apparently trifling annoyance. The secret was, that an
individual of his temper can always be pricked more acutely through his
sense of the beautiful and harmonious than through his heart. It is
even possible--for similar cases have often happened--that if Clifford,
in his foregoing life, had enjoyed the means of cultivating his taste
to its utmost perfectibility, that subtile attribute might, before this
period, have completely eaten out or filed away his affections. Shall
we venture to pronounce, therefore, that his long and black calamity
may not have had a redeeming drop of mercy at the bottom?