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Sights From A Steeple

From Twice Told Tales

O! I have climbed high, and my reward is small. Here I stand, with
wearied knees, earth, indeed, at a dizzy depth below, but heaven far,
far beyond me still. O that I could soar up into the very zenith, where
man never breathed, nor eagle ever flew, and where the ethereal azure
melts away from the eye, and appears only a deepened shade of
nothingness! And yet I shiver at that cold and solitary thought. What
clouds are gathering in the golden west, with direful intent against the
brightness and the warmth of this dimmer afternoon! They are ponderous
air-ships, black as death, and freighted with the tempest; and at
intervals their thunder, the signal-guns of that unearthly squadron,
rolls distant along the deep of heaven. These nearer heaps of fleecy
vapor--methinks I could roll and toss upon them the whole day long!--
seem scattered here and there, for the repose of tired pilgrims through
the sky. Perhaps--for who can tell?--beautiful spirits are disporting
themselves there, and will bless my mortal eye with the brief appearance
of their curly locks of golden light, and laughing faces, fair and faint
as the people of a rosy dream. Or, where the floating mass so
imperfectly obstructs the color of the firmament, a slender foot and
fairy limb, resting too heavily upon the frail support, may be thrust
through, and suddenly withdrawn, while longing fancy follows them in
vain. Yonder again is an airy archipelago, where the sunbeams love to
linger in their journeyings through space. Every one of those little
clouds has been dipped and steeped in radiance, which the slightest
pressure might disengage in silvery profusion, like water wrung from a
sea-maid's hair. Bright they are as a young man's visions, and, like
them, would be realized in chillness, obscurity, and tears. I will look
on them no more.

In three parts of the visible circle, whose centre is this spire, I
discern cultivated fields, villages, white country-seats, the waving
lines of rivulets, little placid lakes, and here and there a rising
ground, that would fain be termed a hill. On the fourth side is the sea,
stretching away towards a viewless boundary, blue and calm, except where
the passing anger of a shadow flits across its surface, and is gone.
Hitherward, a broad inlet penetrates far into the land; on the verge of
the harbor, formed by its extremity, is a town; and over it am I, a
watchman, all-heeding and unheeded. O that the multitude of chimneys
could speak, like those of Madrid, and betray, in smoky whispers, the
secrets of all who, since their first foundation, have assembled at the
hearths within! O that the Limping Devil of Le Sage would perch beside
me here, extend his wand over this contiguity of roofs, uncover every
chamber, and make me familiar with their inhabitants! The most desirable
mode of existence might be that of a spiritualized Paul Pry hovering
invisible round man and woman, witnessing their deeds, searching into
their hearts, borrowing brightness from their felicity, and shade from
their sorrow, and retaining no emotion peculiar to himself. But none of
these things are possible; and if I would know interior of brick walls,
or the mystery of human bosoms, I can but guess.

Yonder is a fair street, extending north and south. The stately mansions
are placed each on its carpet of verdant grass, and a long flight of
steps descends from every door to the pavement. Ornamental trees--the
broad-leafed horse-chestnut, the elm so lofty and bending, the graceful
but infrequent willow, and others whereof I know not the names--grow
thrivingly among brick and stone. The oblique rays of the sun are
intercepted by these green citizens, and by the houses, so that one side
of the street is a shaded and pleasant walk. On its whole extent there
is now but a single passenger, advancing from the upper end; and be,
unless distance and the medium of a pocket spyglass do him more than
justice, is a fine young man of twenty. He saunters slowly forward,
slapping his left hand with his folded gloves, bending his eyes upon the
pavement, and sometimes raising them to throw a glance before him.
Certainly, he has a pensive air. Is he in doubt, or in debt? Is he, if
the question be allowable, in love? Does he strive to be melancholy and
gentlemanlike? Or, is he merely overcome by the heat? But I bid him
farewell, for the present. The door of one of the houses--an
aristocratic edifice, with curtains of purple and gold waving from the
windows--is now opened, and down the steps come two ladies, swinging
their parasols, and lightly arrayed for a summer ramble. Both are young,
both are pretty; but methinks the left-hand lass is the fairer of the
twain; and, though she be so serious at this moment, I could swear that
there is a treasure of gentle fun within her. They stand talking a
little while upon the steps, and finally proceed up the street.
Meantime, as their faces are now turned from me, I may look elsewhere.

Upon that wharf, and down the corresponding street, is a busy contrast to
the quiet scene which I have just noticed. Business evidently has its
centre there, and many a man is wasting the summer afternoon in labor and
anxiety, in losing riches, or in gaining them, when he would be wiser to
flee away to some pleasant country village, or shaded lake in the forest,
or wild and cool seabeach. I see vessels unlading at the wharf, and
precious merchandise strewn upon the ground, abundantly as at the bottom
of the sea, that market whence no goods return, and where there is no
captain nor supercargo to render an account of sales. Here, the clerks
are diligent with their paper and pencils, and sailors ply the block and
tackle that hang over the hold, accompanying their toil with cries, long
drawn and roughly melodious, till the bales and puncheons ascend to upper
air. At a little distance, a group of gentlemen are assembled round the
door of a warehouse. Grave seniors be they, and I would wager--if it
were safe, in these times, to be responsible for any one--that the least
eminent among them might vie with old Vicentio, that incomparable
trafficker of Pisa. I can even select the wealthiest of the company.
It is the elderly personage, in somewhat rusty black, with powdered hair,
the superfluous whiteness of which is visible upon the cape of his coat.
His twenty ships are wafted on some of their many courses by every breeze
that blows, and his name--I will venture to say, though I know it not--is
a familiar sound among the far-separated merchants of Europe and the

But I bestow too much of my attention in this quarter. On looking again
to the long and shady walk, I perceive that the two fair girls have
encountered the young man. After a sort of shyness in the recognition,
he turns back with them. Moreover, he has sanctioned my taste in regard
to his companions by placing himself on the inner side of the pavement,
nearest the Venus to whom I--enacting on a steeple-top, the part of Paris
on the top of Ida--adjudged the golden apple.

In two streets, converging at right angles towards my watchtower,
I distinguish three different processions. One is a proud array of
voluntary soldiers, in bright uniform, resembling, from the height whence
I look down, the painted veterans that garrison the windows of a toyshop.
And yet, it stirs my heart; their regular advance, their nodding plumes,
the sunflash on their bayonets and musket-barrels, the roll of their
drums ascending past me, and the fife ever and anon piercing through,--
these things have wakened a warlike fire, peaceful though I be. Close to
their rear marches a battalion of schoolboys, ranged in crooked and
irregular platoons, shouldering sticks, thumping a harsh and unripe
clatter from an instrument of tin, and ridiculously aping the intricate
manoeuvres of the foremost band. Nevertheless, as slight differences are
scarcely perceptible from a churchspire, one might be tempted to ask,
"Which are the boys?" or, rather, "Which the men?" But, leaving these,
let us turn to the third procession, which, though sadder in outward
show, may excite identical reflections in the thoughtful mind. It is a
funeral. A hearse, drawn by a black and bony steed, and covered by a
dusty pall; two or three coaches rumbling over the stones, their drivers
half asleep; a dozen couple of careless mourners in their every-day
attire; such was not the fashion of our fathers, when they carried a
friend to his grave. There is now no doleful clang of the bell to
proclaim sorrow to the town. Was the King of Terrors more awful in those
days than in our own, that wisdom and philosophy have been able to
produce this change? Not so. Here is a proof that he retains his proper
majesty. The military men, and the military boys, are wheeling round the
corner, and meet the funeral full in the face. Immediately the drum is
silent, all but the tap that regulates each simultaneous footfall. The
soldiers yield the path to the dusty hearse and unpretending train, and
the children quit their ranks, and cluster on the sidewalks, with
timorous and instinctive curiosity. The mourners enter the churchyard at
the base of the steeple, and pause by an open grave among the burial-
stones; the lightning glimmers on them as they lower down the coffin, and
the thunder rattles heavily while they throw the earth upon its lid.
Verily, the shower is near, and I tremble for the young man and the
girls, who have now disappeared from the long and shady street.

How various are the situations of the people covered by the roofs beneath
me, and how diversified are the events at this moment befalling them; The
new-born, the aged, the dying, the strong in life, and the recent dead
are in the chambers of these many mansions. The full of hope, the happy,
the miserable, and the desperate dwell together within the circle of my
glance. In some of the houses over which my eyes roam so coldly, guilt
is entering into hearts that are still tenanted by a debased and trodden
virtue,--guilt is on the very edge of commission, and the impending deed
might be averted; guilt is done, and the criminal wonders if it be
irrevocable. There are broad thoughts struggling in my mind, and, were I
able to give them distinctness, they would make their way in eloquence.
Lo! the raindrops are descending.

The clouds, within a little time, have gathered over all the sky, hanging
heavily, as if about to drop in one unbroken mass upon the earth. At
intervals, the lightning flashes from their brooding hearts, quivers,
disappears, and then comes the thunder, travelling slowly after its twin-
born flame. A strong wind has sprung up, howls through the darkened
streets, and raises the dust in dense bodies, to rebel against the
approaching storm. The disbanded soldiers fly, the funeral has already
vanished like its dead, and all people hurry homeward,--all that have a
home; while a few lounge by the corners, or trudge on desperately, at
their leisure. In a narrow lane, which communicates with the shady
street, I discern the rich old merchant, putting himself to the top of
his speed, lest the rain should convert his hair-powder to a paste.
Unhappy gentleman! By the slow vehemence, and painful moderation
wherewith he journeys, it is but too evident that Podagra has left its
thrilling tenderness in his great toe. But yonder, at a far more rapid
pace, come three other of my acquaintance, the two pretty girls and the
young man, unseasonably interrupted in their walk. Their footsteps are
supported by the risen dust,--the wind lends them its velocity,--they fly
like three sea-birds driven landward by the tempestuous breeze. The
ladies would not thus rival Atalanta if they but knew that any one were
at leisure to observe them. Ah! as they hasten onward, laughing in the
angry face of nature, a sudden catastrophe has chanced. At the corner
where the narrow lane enters into the street, they come plump against the
old merchant, whose tortoise motion has just brought him to that point.
He likes not the sweet encounter; the darkness of the whole air gathers
speedily upon his visage, and there is a pause on both sides. Finally,
he thrusts aside the youth with little courtesy, seizes an arm of each of
the two girls, and plods onward, like a magician with a prize of captive
fairies. All this is easy to be understood. How disconsolate the poor
lover stands! regardless of the rain that threatens an exceeding damage
to his well-fashioned habiliments, till he catches a backward glance of
mirth from a bright eye, and turns away with whatever comfort it conveys.

The old man and his daughters are safely housed, and now the storm lets
loose its fury. In every dwelling I perceive the faces of the
chambermaids as they shut down the windows, excluding the impetuous
shower, and shrinking away from the quick fiery glare. The large drops
descend with force upon the slated roofs, and rise again in smoke. There
is a rush and roar, as of a river through the air, and muddy streams
bubble majestically along the pavement, whirl their dusky foam into the
kennel, and disappear beneath iron grates. Thus did Arethusa sink. I
love not my station here aloft, in the midst of the tumult which I am
powerless to direct or quell, with the blue lightning wrinkling on my
brow, and the thunder muttering its first awful syllables in my ear. I
will descend. Yet let me give another glance to the sea, where the foam
breaks out in long white lines upon a broad expanse of blackness, or
boils up in far distant points, like snowy mountain-tops in the eddies of
a flood; and let me look once more at the green plain, and little hills
of the country, over which the giant of the storm is striding in robes of
mist, and at the town, whose obscured and desolate streets might beseem a
city of the dead; and turning a single moment to the sky, now gloomy as
an author's prospects, I prepare to resume my station on lower earth.
But stay! A little speck of azure has widened in the western heavens;
the sunbeams find a passage, and go rejoicing through the tempest; and on
yonder darkest cloud, born, like hallowed hopes, of the glory of another
world, and the trouble and tears of this, brightens forth the Rainbow!

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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