Nothing like our story was ever written or ever will be, but if it could be told, it would be such as the angels might take delight to hear."
So wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne to his future wife, in one of a series of the most exquisite love letters with which either fiction or fact has acquainted the world. It is indeed, even so far as it can be told by-outsiders, a story of the highest and noblest beauty. A novelist who had conceived it in his brain would have been acclaimed as the greatest poetical writer of his age.
A Strange Household
Nathaniel Hawthorne was brought up in a strange house. His mother was almost Hindu in her seclusion after the death of her husband, who was a sea-captain. She seldom emerged from her darkened room, and into that room no human being save herself was allowed to penetrate for many years. She was a woman of great force of character, and those who were privileged to meet her spoke of the wonderful expressive-ness of her face. She had two daughters and a son. Elizabeth, the first-born, inherited some of her mother's peculiar qualities, and, after a love disappointment, retired into almost as complete seclusion as her mother. Louisa, although she was a little more manageable in her views of life, seems to have been of a rather stiff character. It would have been difficult indeed for any girl to be natural in such a household.
In these strange conditions grew up the only son of the house, Nathaniel, a dreamy boy with the soul of a poet, and eyes in which burned the divine fire. He soon fell more or less into the ways of the rest of his family, seldom going but till after dark, dreaming his life away, looking at the world, as it were, through a small window in a dark room, and even so, seeing more in it than most people who lived a normal life. He went to college, but thence he came home again, and sank into the same meditative sort of existence in the old house in Salem. After, a while he began to publish short stories, in a quiet way. They gained an immediate attention among the appreciative. It began to be rumoured that "The Gentle Boy and other stories came from the Hawthorne household. One day a lady called, and saw Louisa Hawthorne. She was announced as Miss Elizabeth Peabody, and she reminded Miss Hawthorne that as children the two families had played together. Recently she had heard that Miss Elizabeth Hawthorne had written "The Gentle Boy," and she had called to express her admiration of that story. Louisa explained that it was the work of her brother.
"Handsomer than Lord Byron"
This visit was the means of reopening the connection between the two families. Some time afterwards, the two Misses Hawthorne went one evening to call on the Peabody family. They were accompanied by Nathaniel, who, although he was shy, with that sort of external shyness which comes on a man whose womenfolk have never made social matters easy to him, was certainly not a morbid recluse. Miss Elizabeth Peabody received them. It was her first view of Nathaniel since he had been a small child, and presently she excused herself for a minute, and ran upstairs to her sister's room.
"Oh, Sophia," she cried, "you must get up and dress and come down. The Hawthornes are here, and you never saw anything so splendid as he is. He is handsomer than Lord Byron ! " Sophia, the invalid sister, laughed at Elizabeth's enthusiasm.
"Well," she said," if they call once, it means that they will call again, and I can see them then."
So Elizabeth went down and explained that her sister did not feel well enough to see them that day.
This was nothing unusual. Sophia, for seventeen years, had never for one single hour been wholly out of pain. Sometimes her head merely throbbed dully, sometimes it submitted her to tortures such as even the Inquisition would not have inflicted. So the Hawthornes went away, after a very pleasant visit, for Elizabeth was extremely cultured, and a charming companion. This was in 1836, when Sophia was twenty-five, and Hawthorne was thirty-two.
Before very long Hawthorne did call again, and this time Sophia came downstairs, dressed in a simple white wrapper, and sat down on the sofa. Elizabeth said, " My sister Sophia," and Hawthorne rose and looked at her intently, with "a piercing, indrawing gaze." The conversation went on very animatedly, and frequently Sophia would make a remark in an unusually low, sweet voice. Every time that this happened, Hawthorne's luminous gaze was directed on her. He saw a small, slight figure, beautifully formed and very graceful.
Over her face flitted such exquisite expressions that it was difficult to decide if she were a soul-stirring beauty, or plain. As a matter of fact, her features were not beautiful, and yet beauty rested on her face as sunset rests on the mountains, and turns their harsh outlines into a dream of loveliness. Unremitting suffering had not quite effaced the marks of an inborn high-spirited nature, but the chief element in Sophia was her sweetness. Everyone loved her. Elizabeth kept a small school in the same house, and the necessity for not disturbing Miss Sophia kept the children more quiet and gentle than any discipline could have done. They governed themselves for her sake. Her soft grey eyes, a tender yet resolute mouth, a glorious smile, were only details in the wonderful impression her beautiful nature made on all who knew her.
On this second visit Hawthorne was not so shy. On the first he had looked almost fierce in the attempt to seem at ease. But now a force was at work which already washed away the small earthly barriers of self-consciousness. These two had been set aside from the world, as it were, until their meeting, she by her ill-health, he by the gloomy conditions of his home, and by a slight lameness which for some years had kept him to his books, by making exercise impossible.