"Dear Clifford, I wish I could keep the sound from your ears," said
Hepzibah, patiently, but reddening with a painful suffusion of shame.
"It is very disagreeable even to me. But, do you know, Clifford, I
have something to tell you? This ugly noise,--pray run, Phoebe, and see
who is there!--this naughty little tinkle is nothing but our shop-bell!"
"Shop-bell!" repeated Clifford, with a bewildered stare.
"Yes, our shop-bell," said Hepzibah, a certain natural dignity, mingled
with deep emotion, now asserting itself in her manner. "For you must
know, dearest Clifford, that we are very poor. And there was no other
resource, but either to accept assistance from a hand that I would push
aside (and so would you!) were it to offer bread when we were dying for
it,--no help, save from him, or else to earn our subsistence with my
own hands! Alone, I might have been content to starve. But you were to
be given back to me! Do you think, then, dear Clifford," added she,
with a wretched smile, "that I have brought an irretrievable disgrace
on the old house, by opening a little shop in the front gable? Our
great-great-grandfather did the same, when there was far less need! Are
you ashamed of me?"
"Shame! Disgrace! Do you speak these words to me, Hepzibah?" said
Clifford,--not angrily, however; for when a man's spirit has been
thoroughly crushed, he may be peevish at small offences, but never
resentful of great ones. So he spoke with only a grieved emotion. "It
was not kind to say so, Hepzibah! What shame can befall me now?"
And then the unnerved man--he that had been born for enjoyment, but had
met a doom so very wretched--burst into a woman's passion of tears. It
was but of brief continuance, however; soon leaving him in a quiescent,
and, to judge by his countenance, not an uncomfortable state. From
this mood, too, he partially rallied for an instant, and looked at
Hepzibah with a smile, the keen, half-derisory purport of which was a
puzzle to her.
"Are we so very poor, Hepzibah?" said he.
Finally, his chair being deep and softly cushioned, Clifford fell
asleep. Hearing the more regular rise and fall of his breath (which,
however, even then, instead of being strong and full, had a feeble kind
of tremor, corresponding with the lack of vigor in his
character),--hearing these tokens of settled slumber, Hepzibah seized
the opportunity to peruse his face more attentively than she had yet
dared to do. Her heart melted away in tears; her profoundest spirit
sent forth a moaning voice, low, gentle, but inexpressibly sad. In
this depth of grief and pity she felt that there was no irreverence in
gazing at his altered, aged, faded, ruined face. But no sooner was she
a little relieved than her conscience smote her for gazing curiously at
him, now that he was so changed; and, turning hastily away, Hepzibah
let down the curtain over the sunny window, and left Clifford to