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The Christmas Banquet

"I have here attempted," said Roderick, unfolding a few sheets of
manuscript, as he sat with Rosina and the sculptor in the summer-
house,--"I have attempted to seize hold of a personage who glides
past me, occasionally, in my walk through life. My former sad
experience, as you know, has gifted me with some degree of insight
into the gloomy mysteries of the human heart, through which I have
wandered like one astray in a dark cavern, with his torch fast
flickering to extinction. But this man, this class of men, is a
hopeless puzzle."

"Well, but propound him," said the sculptor. "Let us have an idea
of hint, to begin with."

"Why, indeed," replied Roderick, "he is such a being as I could
conceive you to carve out of marble, and some yet unrealized
perfection of human science to endow with an exquisite mockery of
intellect; but still there lacks the last inestimable touch of a
divine Creator. He looks like a man; and, perchance, like a better
specimen of man than you ordinarily meet. You might esteem him
wise; he is capable of cultivation and refinement, and has at least
an external conscience; but the demands that spirit makes upon
spirit are precisely those to which he cannot respond. When at last
you come close to him you find him chill and unsubstantial,--a mere

"I believe," said Rosina, "I have a glimmering idea of what you

"Then be thankful," answered her husband, smiling; "but do not
anticipate any further illumination from what I am about to read. I
have here imagined such a man to be--what, probably, he never is--
conscious of the deficiency in his spiritual organization. Methinks
the result would be a sense of cold unreality wherewith he would go
shivering through the world, longing to exchange his load of ice for
any burden of real grief that fate could fling upon a human being."

Contenting himself with this preface, Roderick began to read.

In a certain old gentleman's last will and testament there appeared
a bequest, which, as his final thought and deed, was singularly in
keeping with a long life of melancholy eccentricity. He devised a
considerable sum for establishing a fund, the interest of which was
to be expended, annually forever, in preparing a Christmas Banquet
for ten of the most miserable persons that could be found. It
seemed not to be the testator's purpose to make these half a score
of sad hearts merry, but to provide that the stern or fierce
expression of human discontent should not be drowned, even for that
one holy and joyful day, amid the acclamations of festal gratitude
which all Christendom sends up. And he desired, likewise, to
perpetuate his own remonstrance against the earthly course of
Providence, and his sad and sour dissent from those systems of
religion or philosophy which either find sunshine in the world or
draw it down from heaven.

The task of inviting the guests, or of selecting among such as might
advance their claims to partake of this dismal hospitality, was
confided to the two trustees or stewards of the fund. These
gentlemen, like their deceased friend, were sombre humorists, who
made it their principal occupation to number the sable threads in
the web of human life, and drop all the golden ones out of the
reckoning. They performed their present office with integrity and
judgment. The aspect of the assembled company, on the day of the
first festival, might not, it is true, have satisfied every beholder
that these were especially the individuals, chosen forth from all
the world, whose griefs were worthy to stand as indicators of the
mass of human suffering. Yet, after due consideration, it could not
be disputed that here was a variety of hopeless discomfort, which,
if it sometimes arose from causes apparently inadequate, was thereby
only the shrewder imputation against the nature and mechanism of

The arrangements and decorations of the banquet were probably
intended to signify that death in life which had been the testator's
definition of existence. The hall, illuminated by torches, was hung
round with curtains of deep and dusky purple, and adorned with
branches of cypress and wreaths of artificial flowers, imitative of
such as used to be strewn over the dead. A sprig of parsley was
laid by every plate. The main reservoir of wine, was a sepulchral
urn of silver, whence the liquor was distributed around the table in
small vases, accurately copied from those that held the tears of
ancient mourners. Neither had the stewards--if it were their taste
that arranged these details--forgotten the fantasy of the old
Egyptians, who seated a skeleton at every festive board, and mocked
their own merriment with the imperturbable grin of a death's-head.
Such a fearful guest, shrouded in a black mantle, sat now at the
head of the table. It was whispered, I know not with what truth,
that the testator himself had once walked the visible world with the
machinery of that sane skeleton, and that it was one of the
stipulations of his will, that he should thus be permitted to sit,
from year to year, at the banquet which he had instituted. If so, it
was perhaps covertly implied that he had cherished no hopes of bliss
beyond the grave to compensate for the evils which he felt or
imagined here. And if, in their bewildered conjectures as to the
purpose of earthly existence, the banqueters should throw aside the
veil, and cast an inquiring glance at this figure of death, as
seeking thence the solution otherwise unattainable, the only reply
would be a stare of the vacant eye-caverns and a grin of the
skeleton jaws. Such was the response that the dead man had fancied
himself to receive when he asked of Death to solve the riddle of his
life; and it was his desire to repeat it when the guests of his
dismal hospitality should find themselves perplexed with the same

"What means that wreath?" asked several of the company, while
viewing the decorations of the table.

They alluded to a wreath of cypress, which was held on high by a
skeleton arm, protruding from within the black mantle.

"It is a crown," said one of the stewards, "not for the worthiest,
but for the wofulest, when he shall prove his claim to it."

The guest earliest bidden to the festival was a man of soft and
gentle character, who had not energy to struggle against the heavy
despondency to which his temperament rendered him liable; and
therefore with nothing outwardly to excuse him from happiness, he
had spent a life of quiet misery that made his blood torpid, and
weighed upon his breath, and sat like a ponderous night-fiend upon
every throb of his unresisting heart. His wretchedness seemed as
deep as his original nature, if not identical with it. It was the
misfortune of a second guest to cherish within his bosom a diseased
heart, which had become so wretchedly sore that the continual and
unavoidable rubs of the world, the blow of an enemy, the careless
jostle of a stranger, and even the faithful and loving touch of a
friend, alike made ulcers in it. As is the habit of people thus
afflicted, he found his chief employment in exhibiting these
miserable sores to any who would give themselves the pain of viewing
them. A third guest was a hypochondriac, whose imagination wrought
necromancy in his outward and inward world, and caused him to see
monstrous faces in the household fire, and dragons in the clouds of
sunset, and fiends in the guise of beautiful women, and something
ugly or wicked beneath all the pleasant surfaces of nature. His
neighbor at table was one who, in his early youth, had trusted
mankind too much, and hoped too highly in their behalf, and, in
meeting with many disappointments, had become desperately soured.
For several years back this misanthrope bad employed himself in
accumulating motives for hating and despising his race,--such as
murder, lust, treachery, ingratitude, faithlessness of trusted
friends, instinctive vices of children, impurity of women, hidden
guilt in men of saint-like aspect,--and, in short, all manner of
black realities that sought to decorate themselves with outward
grace or glory. But at every atrocious fact that was added to his
catalogue, at every increase of the sad knowledge which he spent his
life to collect, the native impulses of the poor man's loving and
confiding heart made him groan with anguish. Next, with his heavy
brow bent downward, there stole into the hall a man naturally
earnest and impassioned, who, from his immemorial infancy, had felt
the consciousness of a high message to the world; but, essaying to
deliver it, had found either no voice or form of speech, or else no
ears to listen. Therefore his whole life was a bitter questioning
of himself: "Why have not men acknowledged my mission? Am I not a
self-deluding fool? What business have I on earth? Where is my
grave?" Throughout the festival, he quaffed frequent draughts from
the sepulchral urn of wine, hoping thus to quench the celestial fire
that tortured his own breast and could not benefit his race.

Then there entered, having flung away a ticket for a ball, a gay
gallant of yesterday, who had found four or five wrinkles in his
brow, and more gray hairs than he could well number on his head.
Endowed with sense and feeling, he had nevertheless spent his youth
in folly, but had reached at last that dreary point in life where
Folly quits us of her own accord, leaving us to make friends with
Wisdom if we can. Thus, cold and desolate, he had come to seek
Wisdom at the banquet, and wondered if the skeleton were she. To
eke out the company, the stewards had invited a distressed poet from
his home in the almshouse, and a melancholy idiot from the street-
corner. The latter had just the glimmering of sense that was
sufficient to make him conscious of a vacancy, which the poor
fellow, all his life long, had mistily sought to fill up with
intelligence, wandering up and down the streets, and groaning
miserably because his attempts were ineffectual. The only lady in
the hall was one who had fallen short of absolute and perfect
beauty, merely by the trifling defect of a slight cast in her left
eye. But this blemish, minute as it was, so shocked the pure ideal
of her soul, rather than her vanity, that she passed her life in
solitude, and veiled her countenance even from her own gaze. So the
skeleton sat shrouded at one end of the table, and this poor lady at
the other,

One other guest remains to be described. He was a young man of
smooth brow, fair cheek, and fashionable mien. So far as his
exterior developed him, he might much more suitably have found a
place at some merry Christmas table, than have been numbered among
the blighted, fate-stricken, fancy-tortured set of ill-starred
banqueters. Murmurs arose among the guests as they noted, the
glance of general scrutiny which the intruder threw over his
companions. What had he to do among them? Why did not the skeleton
of the dead founder of the feast unbend its rattling joints, arise,
and motion the unwelcome stranger from the board?

"Shameful!" said the morbid man, while a new ulcer broke out in his
heart. "He comes to mock us! we shall be the jest of his tavern
friends I--he will make a farce of our miseries, and bring it out
upon the stage!"

"O, never mind him!" said the hypochondriac, smiling sourly. "He
shall feast from yonder tureen of viper-soup; and if there is a
fricassee of scorpions on the table, pray let him have his share of
it. For the dessert, he shall taste the apples of Sodom, then, if
he like our Christmas fare, let him return again next year!"

"Trouble him not," murmured the melancholy man, with gentleness.
"What matters it whether the consciousness of misery come a few
years sooner or later? If this youth deem himself happy now, yet
let him sit with us for the sake of the wretchedness to come."

The poor idiot approached the young man with that mournful aspect of
vacant inquiry which his face continually wore, and which caused
people to say that he was always in search of his missing wits.
After no little examination he touched the stranger's hand, but
immediately drew back his own, shaking his head and shivering,

"Cold, cold, cold!" muttered the idiot.

The young man shivered too, and smiled.

"Gentlemen, and you, madam," said one of the stewards of the
festival, "do not conceive so ill either of our caution or judgment,
as to imagine that we have admitted this young stranger--Gervayse
Hastings by name--without a full investigation and thoughtful
balance of his claims. Trust me, not a guest at the table is better
entitled to his seat."

The steward's guaranty was perforce satisfactory. The company,
therefore, took their places, and addressed themselves to the
serious business of the feast, but were soon disturbed by the
hypochondriac, who thrust back his chair, complaining that a dish of
stewed toads and vipers was set before him, and that there was green
ditchwater in his cup of wine. This mistake being amended, he
quietly resumed his seat. The wine, as it flowed freely from the
sepulchral urn, seemed to come imbued with all gloomy inspirations;
so that its influence was not to cheer, but either to sink the
revellers into a deeper melancholy, or elevate their spirits to an
enthusiasm of wretchedness. The conversation was various. They
told sad stories about people who might have been Worthy guests at
such a festival as the present. They talked of grisly incidents in
human history; of strange crimes, which, if truly considered, were
but convulsions of agony; of some lives that had been altogether
wretched, and of others, which, wearing a general semblance of
happiness, had yet been deformed, sooner or later, by misfortune, as
by the intrusion of a grim face at a banquet; of death-bed scenes,
and what dark intimations might be gathered from the words of dying
men; of suicide, and whether the more eligible mode were by halter,
knife, poison, drowning, gradual starvation, or the fumes of
charcoal. The majority of the guests, as is the custom with people
thoroughly and profoundly sick at heart, were anxious to make their
own woes the theme of discussion, and prove themselves most
excellent in anguish. The misanthropist went deep into the
philosophy of evil, and wandered about in the darkness, with now and
then a gleam of discolored light hovering on ghastly shapes and
horrid scenery. Many a miserable thought, such as men have stumbled
upon from age to age, did he now rake up again, and gloat over it as
an inestimable gem, a diamond, a treasure far preferable to those
bright, spiritual revelations of a better world, which are like
precious stones from heaven's pavement. And then, amid his lore of
wretchedness he hid his face and wept.

It was a festival at which the woful man of Uz might suitably have
been a guest, together with all, in each succeeding age, who have
tasted deepest of the bitterness of life. And be it said, too, that
every son or daughter of woman, however favored with happy fortune,
might, at one sad moment or another, have claimed the privilege of a
stricken heart, to sit down at this table. But, throughout the
feast, it was remarked that the young stranger, Gervayse Hastings,
was unsuccessful in his attempts to catch its pervading spirit. At
any deep, strong thought that found utterance, and which was torn
out, as it were, from the saddest recesses of human consciousness,
he looked mystified and bewildered; even more than the poor idiot,
who seemed to grasp at such things with his earnest heart, and thus
occasionally to comprehend them. The young man's conversation was
of a colder and lighter kind, often brilliant, but lacking the
powerful characteristics of a nature that had been developed by

"Sir," said the misanthropist, bluntly, in reply to some observation
by Gervayse Hastings, "pray do not address me again. We have no
right to talk together. Our minds have nothing in common. By what
claim you appear at this banquet I cannot guess; but methinks, to a
man who could say what you have just now said, my companions and
myself must seem no more than shadows flickering on the wall. And
precisely such a shadow are you to us."

The young man smiled and bowed, but, drawing himself back in his
chair, he buttoned his coat over his breast, as if the banqueting-
Ball were growing chill. Again the idiot fixed his melancholy stare
upon the youth, and murmured, "Cold! cold! cold!"

The banquet drew to its conclusion, and the guests departed.
Scarcely had they stepped across the threshold of the hall, when the
scene that had there passed seemed like the vision of a sick fancy,
or an exhalation from a stagnant heart. Now and then, however,
during the year that ensued, these melancholy people caught glimpses
of one another, transient, indeed, but enough to prove that they
walked the earth with the ordinary allotment of reality. Sometimes
a pair of them came face to face, while stealing through the evening
twilight, enveloped in their sable cloaks. Sometimes they casually
met in churchyards. Once, also, it happened that two of the dismal
banqueters mutually started at recognizing each other in the noonday
sunshine of a crowded street, stalking there like ghosts astray.
Doubtless they wondered why the skeleton did not come abroad at
noonday too.

But whenever the necessity of their affairs compelled these
Christmas guests into the bustling world, they were sure to
encounter the young man who had so unaccountably been admitted to
the festival. They saw him among the gay and fortunate; they caught
the sunny sparkle of his eye; they heard the light and careless
tones of his voice, and muttered to themselves with such indignation
as only the aristocracy of wretchedness could kindle, "The traitor!
The vile impostor! Providence, in its own good time, may give him a
right to feast among us!" But the young man's unabashed eye dwelt
upon their gloomy figures as they passed him, seeming to say,
perchance with somewhat of a sneer, "First, know my secret then,
measure your claims with mine!"

The step of Time stole onward, and soon brought merry Christmas
round again, with glad and solemn worship in the churches, and
sports, games, festivals, and everywhere the bright face of Joy
beside the household fire. Again likewise the hall, with its
curtains of dusky purple, was illuminated by the death-torches
gleaming on the sepulchral decorations of the banquet. The veiled,
skeleton sat in state, lifting the cypress-wreath above its head, as
the guerdon of some guest illustrious in the qualifications which
there claimed precedence. As the stewards deemed the world
inexhaustible in misery, and were desirous of recognizing it in all
its forms, they had not seen fit to reassemble the company of the
former year. New faces now threw their gloom across the table.

There was a man of nice conscience, who bore a blood-stain in his
heart--the death of a fellow-creature--which, for his more
exquisite torture, had chanced with such a peculiarity of
circumstances, that he could not absolutely determine whether his
will had entered into the deed or not. Therefore, his whole life
was spent in the agony of an inward trial for murder, with a
continual sifting of the details of his terrible calamity, until his
mind had no longer any thought, nor his soul any emotion,
disconnected with it, There was a mother, too,--a mother once, but a
desolation now,--who, many years before, had gone out on a pleasure-
party, and, returning, found her infant smothered in its little bed.
And ever since she has been tortured with the fantasy that her
buried baby lay smothering in its coffin. Then there was an aged
lady, who had lived from time immemorial with a constant tremor
quivering through her-frame. It was terrible to discern her dark
shadow tremulous upon the wall; her lips, likewise, were tremulous;
and the expression of her eye seemed to indicate that her soul was
trembling too. Owing to the bewilderment and confusion which made
almost a chaos of her intellect, it was impossible to discover what
dire misfortune had thus shaken her nature to its depths; so that
the stewards had admitted her to the table, not from any
acquaintance with her history, but on the safe testimony of her
miserable aspect. Some surprise was expressed at the presence of a
bluff, red-faced gentleman, a certain Mr. Smith, who had evidently
the fat of many a rich feast within him, and the habitual twinkle of
whose eye betrayed a disposition to break forth into uproarious
laughter for little cause or none. It turned out, however, that,
with the best possible flow of spirits, our poor friend was
afflicted with a physical disease of the heart, which threatened
instant death on the slightest cachinnatory indulgence, or even that
titillation of the bodily frame produced by merry thoughts. In this
dilemma he had sought admittance to the banquet, on the ostensible
plea of his irksome and miserable state, but, in reality, with the
hope of imbibing a life-preserving melancholy.

A married couple had been invited from a motive of bitter humor, it
being well understood that they rendered each other unutterably
miserable whenever they chanced to meet, and therefore must
necessarily be fit associates at the festival. In contrast with
these was another couple still unmarried, who had interchanged their
hearts in early life, but had been divided by circumstances as
impalpable as morning mist, and kept apart so long that their
spirits now found it impossible to meet, Therefore, yearning for
communion, yet shrinking from one another and choosing none beside,
they felt themselves companionless in life, and looked upon eternity
as a boundless desert. Next to the skeleton sat a mere son of
earth,--a hunter of the Exchange,--a gatherer of shining dust,--a
man whose life's record was in his ledger, and whose soul's prison-
house the vaults of the bank where he kept his deposits. This
person had been greatly perplexed at his invitation, deeming himself
one of the most fortunate men in the city; but the stewards
persisted in demanding his presence, assuring him that he had no
conception how miserable he was.

And now appeared a figure which we must acknowledge as our
acquaintance of the former festival. It was Gervayse Hastings,
whose presence had then caused so much question and criticism, and
who now took his place with the composure of one whose claims were
satisfactory to himself and must needs be allowed by others. Yet his
easy and unruffled face betrayed no sorrow.

The well-skilled beholders gazed a moment into his eves and shook
their heads, to miss the unuttered sympathy--the countersign never
to be falsified--of those whose hearts are cavern-mouths through
which they descend into a region of illimitable woe and recognize
other wanderers there.

"Who is this youth?" asked the man with a bloodstain on his
conscience. "Surely he has never gone down into the depths! I know
all the aspects of those who have passed through the dark valley.
By what right is he among us?"

"Ah, it is a sinful thing to come hither without a sorrow," murmured
the aged lady, in accents that partook of the eternal tremor which
pervaded her whole being "Depart, young man! Your soul has never
been shaken, and, therefore, I tremble so much the more to look at

"His soul shaken! No; I'll answer for it," said bluff Mr. Smith,
pressing his hand upon his heart and making himself as melancholy as
he could, for fear of a fatal explosion of laughter. "I know the
lad well; he has as fair prospects as any young man about town, and
has no more right among us miserable creatures than the child
unborn. He never was miserable and probably never will be!"

"Our honored guests," interposed the stewards, "pray have patience
with us, and believe, at least, that our deep veneration for the
sacredness of this solemnity would preclude any wilful violation of
it. Receive this young man to your table. It may not be too much
to say, that no guest here would exchange his own heart for the one
that beats within that youthful bosom!"

"I'd call it a bargain, and gladly, too," muttered Mr. Smith, with a
perplexing mixture of sadness and mirthful conceit. "A plague upon
their nonsense! My own heart is the only really miserable one in
the company; it will certainly be the death of me at last!"

Nevertheless, as on the former occasion, the judgment of the
stewards being without appeal, the company sat down. The obnoxious
guest made no more attempt to obtrude his conversation on those
about him, but appeared to listen to the table-talk with peculiar
assiduity, as if some inestimable secret, otherwise beyond his
reach, might be conveyed in a casual word. And in truth, to those
who could understand and value it, there was rich matter in the
upgushings and outpourings of these initiated souls to whom sorrow
had been a talisman, admitting them into spiritual depths which no
other spell can open. Sometimes out of the midst of densest gloom
there flashed a momentary radiance, pure as crystal, bright as the
flame of stars, and shedding such a glow upon the mysteries of life,
that the guests were ready to exclaim, "Surely the riddle is on the
point of being solved!" At such illuminated intervals the saddest
mourners felt it to be revealed that mortal griefs are but shadowy
and external; no more than the sable robes voluminously shrouding a
certain divine reality, and thus indicating what might otherwise be
altogether invisible to mortal eye.

"Just now," remarked the trembling old woman, "I seemed to see
beyond the outside. And then my everlasting tremor passed away!"

"Would that I could dwell always in these momentary gleams of
light!" said the man of stricken conscience. "Then the blood-stain
in my heart would be washed clean away."

This strain of conversation appeared so unintelligibly absurd to
good Mr. Smith, that he burst into precisely the fit of laughter
which his physicians had warned him against, as likely to prove
instantaneously fatal. In effect, he fell back in his chair a
corpse, with a broad grin upon his face, while his ghost, perchance,
remained beside it bewildered at its unpremeditated exit. This
catastrophe of course broke up the festival.

"How is this? You do not tremble!" observed the tremulous old woman
to Gervayse Hastings, who was gazing at the dead man with singular
intentness. "Is it not awful to see him so suddenly vanish out of
the midst of life,--this man of flesh and blood, whose earthly
nature was so warm and strong? There is a never-ending tremor in my
soul, but it trembles afresh at, this! And you are calm!"

"Would that he could teach me somewhat!" said Gervayse Hastings,
drawing a long breath. "Men pass before me like shadows on the
wall; their actions, passions, feelings, are flickerings of the
light, and then they vanish! Neither the corpse, nor yonder
skeleton, nor this old woman's everlasting tremor, can give me what
I seek."

And then the company departed.

We cannot linger to narrate, in such detail, more circumstances of
these singular festivals, which, in accordance with the founder's
will, continued to be kept with the regularity of an established
institution. In process of time the stewards adopted the custom of
inviting, from far and near, those individuals whose misfortunes
were prominent above other men's, and whose mental and moral
development might, therefore, be supposed to possess a corresponding
interest. The exiled noble of the French Revolution, and the broken
soldier of the Empire, were alike represented at the table. Fallen
monarchs, wandering about the earth, have found places at that
forlorn and miserable feast. The statesman, when his party flung him
off, might, if he chose it, be once more a great man for the space
of a single banquet. Aaron Burr's name appears on the record at a
period when his ruin--the profoundest and most striking, with more
of moral circumstance in it than that of almost any other man--was
complete in his lonely age. Stephen Guard, when his wealth weighed
upon him like a mountain, once sought admittance of his own accord.
It is not probable, however, that these men had any lesson to teach
in the lore of discontent and misery which might not equally well
have been studied in the common walks of life. Illustrious
unfortunates attract a wider sympathy, not because their griefs are
more intense, but because, being set on lofty pedestals, they the
better serve mankind as instances and bywords of calamity.

It concerns our present purpose to say that, at each successive
festival, Gervayse Hastings showed his face, gradually changing from
the smooth beauty of his youth to the thoughtful comeliness of
manhood, and thence to the bald, impressive dignity of age. He was
the only individual invariably present. Yet on every occasion there
were murmurs, both from those who knew his character and position,
and from them whose hearts shrank back as denying his companionship
in their mystic fraternity.

"Who is this impassive man?" had been asked a hundred times. "Has he
suffered? Has he sinned? There are no traces of either. Then
wherefore is he here?"

"You must inquire of the stewards or of himself," was the constant
reply. "We seem to know him well here in our city, and know
nothing of him but what is creditable and fortunate. Yet hither he
comes, year after year, to this gloomy banquet, and sits among the
guests like a marble statue. Ask yonder skeleton, perhaps that may
solve the riddle!"

It was in truth a wonder. The life of Gervayse Hastings was not
merely a prosperous, but a brilliant one. Everything had gone well
with him. He was wealthy, far beyond the expenditure that was
required by habits of magnificence, a taste of rare purity and
cultivation, a love of travel, a scholar's instinct to collect a
splendid library, and, moreover, what seemed a magnificent
liberality to the distressed. He had sought happiness, and not
vainly, if a lovely and tender wife, and children of fair promise,
could insure it. He had, besides, ascended above the limit which
separates the obscure from the distinguished, and had won a
stainless reputation in affairs of the widest public importance.
Not that he was a popular character, or had within him the
mysterious attributes which are essential to that species of
success. To the public he was a cold abstraction, wholly destitute
of those rich lines of personality, that living warmth, and the
peculiar faculty of stamping his own heart's impression on a
multitude of hearts, by which the people recognize their favorites.
And it must be owned that, after his most intimate associates had
done their best to know him thoroughly, and love him warmly, they
were startled to find how little hold he had upon their affections.
They approved, they admired, but still in those moments when the
human spirit most craves reality, they shrank back from Gervayse
Hastings, as powerless to give them what they sought. It was the
feeling of distrustful regret with which we should draw back the
hand after extending it, in an illusive twilight, to grasp the hand
of a shadow upon the wall.

As the superficial fervency of youth decayed, this peculiar effect
of Gervayse Hastings's character grew more perceptible. His
children, when he extended his arms, came coldly to his knees, but
never climbed them of their own accord. His wife wept secretly, and
almost adjudged herself a criminal because she shivered in the chill
of his bosom. He, too, occasionally appeared not unconscious of the
chillness of his moral atmosphere, and willing, if it might be so,
to warm himself at a kindly fire. But age stole onward and benumbed
him snore and more. As the hoar-frost began to gather on him his
wife went to her grave, and was doubtless warmer there; his children
either died or were scattered to different homes of their own; and
old Gervayse Hastings, unscathed by grief,--alone, but needing no
companionship,--continued his steady walk through life, and still
one very Christmas day attended at the dismal banquet. His
privilege as a guest had become prescriptive now. Had he claimed
the head of the table, even the skeleton would have been ejected
from its seat.

Finally, at the merry Christmas-tide, when he had numbered fourscore
years complete, this pale, highbrowed, marble-featured old man once
more entered the long-frequented hall, with the same impassive
aspect that had called forth so much dissatisfied remark at his
first attendance. Time, except in matters merely external, had done
nothing for him, either of good or evil. As he took his place he
threw a calm, inquiring glance around the table, as if to ascertain
whether any guest had yet appeared, after so many unsuccessful
banquets, who might impart to him the mystery--the deep, warm
secret--the life within the life--which, whether manifested in joy
or sorrow, is what gives substance to a world of shadows.

"My friends," said Gervayse Hastings, assuming a position which his
long conversance with the festival caused to appear natural, "you
are welcome! I drink to you all in this cup of sepulchral wine."

The guests replied courteously, but still in a manner that proved
them unable to receive the old man as a member of their sad
fraternity. It may be well to give the reader an idea of the
present company at the banquet.

One was formerly a clergyman, enthusiastic in his profession, and
apparently of the genuine dynasty of those old Puritan divines whose
faith in their calling, and stern exercise of it, had placed them
among the mighty of the earth. But yielding to the speculative
tendency of the age, he had gone astray from the firm foundation of
an ancient faith, and wandered into a cloud-region, where everything
was misty and deceptive, ever mocking him with a semblance of
reality, but still dissolving when he flung himself upon it for
support and rest. His instinct and early training demanded
something steadfast; but, looking forward, he beheld vapors piled on
vapors, and behind him an impassable gulf between the man of
yesterday and to-day, on the borders of which he paced to and fro,
sometimes wringing his hands in agony, and often making his own woe
a theme of scornful merriment. This surely was a miserable man.
Next, there was a theorist,--one of a numerous tribe, although he
deemed himself unique since the creation,--a theorist, who had
conceived a plan by which all the wretchedness of earth, moral and
physical, might be done away, and the bliss of the millennium at
once accomplished. But, the incredulity of mankind debarring him
from action, he was smitten with as much grief as if the whole mass
of woe which he was denied the opportunity to remedy were crowded
into his own bosom. A plain old man in black attracted much of the
company's notice, on the supposition that he was no other than
Father Miller, who, it seemed, had given himself up to despair at
the tedious delay of the final conflagration. Then there was a man
distinguished for native pride and obstinacy, who, a little while
before, had possessed immense wealth, and held the control of a vast
moneyed interest which he had wielded in the same spirit as a
despotic monarch would wield the power of his empire, carrying on a
tremendous moral warfare, the roar and tremor of which was felt at
every fireside in the land. At length came a crushing ruin,--a
total overthrow of fortune, power, and character,--the effect of
which on his imperious and, in many respects, noble and lofty nature
might have entitled him to a place, not merely at our festival, but
among the peers of Pandemonium.

There was a modern philanthropist, who had become so deeply sensible
of the calamities of thousands and millions of his fellow-creatures,
and of the impracticableness of any general measures for their
relief, that he had no heart to do what little good lay immediately
within his power, but contented himself with being miserable for
sympathy. Near him sat a gentleman in a predicament hitherto
unprecedented, but of which the present epoch probably affords
numerous examples. Ever since he was of capacity to read a
newspaper, this person had prided himself on his consistent
adherence to one political party, but, in the confusion of these
latter days, had got bewildered and knew not whereabouts his party
was. This wretched condition, so morally desolate and disheartening
to a man who has long accustomed himself to merge his individuality
in the mass of a great body, can only be conceived by such as have
experienced it. His next companion was a popular orator who had
lost his voice, and--as it was pretty much all that he had to lose--
had fallen into a state of hopeless melancholy. The table was
likewise graced by two of the gentler sex,--one, a half-starved,
consumptive seamstress, the representative of thousands just as
wretched; the other, a woman of unemployed energy, who found herself
in the world with nothing to achieve, nothing to enjoy, and nothing
even to suffer. She had, therefore, driven herself to the verge of
madness by dark breedings over the wrongs of her sex, and its
exclusion from a proper field of action. The roll of guests being
thus complete, a side-table had been set for three or four
disappointed office-seekers, with hearts as sick as death, whom the
stewards had admitted partly because their calamities really
entitled them to entrance here, and partly that they were in
especial need of a good dinner. There was likewise a homeless dog,
with his tail between his legs, licking up the crumbs and gnawing
the fragments of the feast,--such a melancholy cur as one sometimes
sees about the streets without a master, and willing to follow the
first that will accept his service.

In their own way, these were as wretched a set of people as ever had
assembled at the festival. There they sat, with the veiled skeleton
of the founder holding aloft the cypress-wreath, at one end of the
table, and at the other, wrapped in furs, the withered figure of
Gervayse Hastings, stately, calm, and cold, impressing the company
with awe, yet so little interesting their sympathy that he might
have vanished into thin air without their once exclaiming, "Whither
is he gone?"

"Sir," said the philanthropist, addressing the old man, "you have
been so long a guest at this annual festival, and have thus been
conversant with so many varieties of human affliction, that, not
improbably, you have thence derived some great and important
lessons. How blessed were your lot could you reveal a secret by
which all this mass of woe might be removed!"

"I know of but one misfortune," answered Gervayse Hastings, quietly,
"and that is my own."

"Your own!" rejoined the philanthropist. "And looking back on your
serene and prosperous life, how can you claim to be the sole
unfortunate of the human race?"

"You will not understand it," replied Gervayse Hastings, feebly, and
with a singular inefficiency of pronunciation, and sometimes putting
one word for another. "None have understood it, not even those who
experience the like. It is a chillness, a want of earnestness, a
feeling as if what should be my heart were a thing of vapor, a
haunting perception of unreality! Thus seeming to possess all that
other men have, all that men aim at, I have really possessed
nothing, neither joy nor griefs. All things, all persons,--as was
truly said to me at this table long and long ago,--have been like
shadows flickering on the wall. It was so with my wife and
children, with those who seemed my friends: it is so with
yourselves, whom I see now before one. Neither have I myself any
real existence, but am a shadow like the rest."

"And how is it with your views of a future life?" inquired the
speculative clergyman.

"Worse than with you," said the old man, in a hollow and feeble
tone; "for I cannot conceive it earnestly enough to feel either hope
or fear. Mine,--mine is the wretchedness! This cold heart,--this
unreal life! Ah! it grows colder still."

It so chanced that at this juncture the decayed ligaments of the
skeleton gave way, and the dry hones fell together in a heap, thus
causing the dusty wreath of cypress to drop upon the table. The
attention of the company being thus diverted for a single instant
from Gervayse Hastings, they perceived, on turning again towards
him, that the old man had undergone a change. His shadow had ceased
to flicker on the wall.

"Well, Rosina, what is your criticism?" asked Roderick, as he rolled
up the manuscript.

"Frankly, your success is by no means complete," replied she. "It is
true, I have an idea of the character you endeavor to describe; but
it is rather by dint of my own thought than your expression."

"That is unavoidable," observed the sculptor, "because the
characteristics are all negative. If Gervayse Hastings could have
imbibed one human grief at the gloomy banquet, the task of
describing him would have been infinitely easier. Of such persons--
and we do meet with these moral monsters now and then--it is
difficult to conceive how they came to exist here, or what there is
in them capable of existence hereafter. They seem to be on the
outside of everything; and nothing wearies the soul more than an
attempt to comprehend them within its grasp."

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Short Stories