Nathaniel Hawthorne: Edward Fane's Rosebud

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HERE is hard­ly a more dif­fi­cult ex­er­cise of fancy than, while gaz­ing at a fig­ure of melan­choly age, to recre­ate its youth, and with­out en­tire­ly oblit­er­at­ing the iden­ti­ty of form and fea­tures to re­store those graces which Time has snatched away. Some old peo­ple — es­pe­cial­ly women — so age-worn and woe­ful are they, seem never to have been young and gay. It is eas­i­er to con­ceive that such gloomy phan­toms were sent into the world as with­ered and de­crepit as we be­hold them now, with sym­pa­thies only for pain and grief, to watch at death-beds and weep at fu­ner­als. Even the sable gar­ments of their wid­ow­hood ap­pear es­sen­tial to their ex­is­tence; all their at­tributes com­bine to ren­der them dark­some shad­ows creep­ing strange­ly amid the sun­shine of human life. Yet it is no un­prof­itable task to take one of these dole­ful crea­tures and set Fancy res­o­lute­ly at work to bright­en the dim eye, and dark­en the sil­very locks, and paint the ashen cheek with rose-col­or, and re­pair the shrunk­en and crazy form, till a dewy maid­en shall be seen in the old ma­tron's el­bow-chair. The mir­a­cle being wrought, then let the years roll back again, each sad­der than the last, and the whole weight of age and sor­row set­tle down upon the youth­ful fig­ure. Wrin­kles and fur­rows, the hand­writ­ing of Time, may thus be de­ci­phered and found to con­tain deep lessons of thought and feel­ing.

Such prof­it might be de­rived by a skil­ful ob­serv­er from my much-re­spect­ed friend the Widow Toothak­er, a nurse of great re­pute who has breathed the at­mo­sphere of sick-cham­bers and dy­ing-breaths these forty years. See! she sits cow­er­ing over her lone­some hearth with her gown and upper pet­ti­coat drawn up­ward, gath­er­ing thrifti­ly into her per­son the whole warmth of the fire which now at night­fall be­gins to dis­si­pate the au­tum­nal chill of her cham­ber. The blaze quiv­ers capri­cious­ly in front, al­ter­nate­ly glim­mer­ing into the deep­est chasms of her wrin­kled vis­age, and then per­mit­ting a ghost­ly dim­ness to mar the out­lines of her ven­er­a­ble fig­ure. And Nurse Toothak­er holds a tea­spoon in her right hand with which to stir up the con­tents of a tum­bler in her left, whence steams a va­pory fra­grance ab­horred of tem­per­ance so­ci­eties. Now she sips, now stirs, now sips again. Her sad old heart has need to be re­vived by the rich in­fu­sion of Gene­va which is mixed half and half with hot water in the tum­bler. All day long she has been sit­ting by a death-pil­low, and quit­ted it for her home only when the spir­it of her pa­tient left the clay and went home­ward too. But now are her melan­choly med­i­ta­tions cheered and her tor­pid blood warmed and her shoul­ders light­ened of at least twen­ty pon­der­ous years by a draught from the true foun­tain of youth in a case-bot­tle. It is strange that men should deem that fount a fable, when its liquor fills more bot­tles than the Congress-wa­ter. — Sip it again, good nurse, and see whether a sec­ond draught will not take off an­oth­er score of years, and per­haps ten more, and show us in your high-backed chair the bloom­ing damsel who plight­ed troths with Ed­ward Fane. — Get you gone, Age and Wid­ow­hood! — Come back, un­wed­ded Youth! — But, alas! the charm will not work. In spite of Fancy's most po­tent spell, I can see only an old dame cow­er­ing over the fire, a pic­ture of decay and des­o­la­tion, while the Novem­ber blast roars at her in the chim­ney and fit­ful show­ers rush sud­den­ly against the win­dow.

Yet there was a time when Rose Grafton — such was the pret­ty maid­en-name of Nurse Toothak­er — pos­sessed beau­ty that would have glad­dened this dim and dis­mal cham­ber as with sun­shine. It won for her the heart of Ed­ward Fane, who has since made so great a fig­ure in the world and is now a grand old gen­tle­man with pow­dered hair and as gouty as a lord. These early lovers thought to have walked hand in hand through life. They had wept to­geth­er for Ed­ward's lit­tle sis­ter Mary, whom Rose tend­ed in her sick­ness — part­ly be­cause she was the sweet­est child that ever lived or died, but more for love of him. She was but three years old. Being such an in­fant, Death could not em­body his ter­rors in her lit­tle corpse; nor did Rose fear to touch the dead child's brow, though chill, as she curled the silken hair around it, nor to take her tiny hand and clasp a flow­er with­in its fin­gers. Af­ter­ward, when she looked through the pane of glass in the cof­fin-lid and be­held Mary's face, it seemed not so much like death or life as like a wax-work wrought into the per­fect image of a child asleep and dream­ing of its moth­er's smile. Rose thought her too fair a thing to be hid­den in the grave, and won­dered that an angel did not snatch up lit­tle Mary's cof­fin and bear the slum­ber­ing babe to heav­en and bid her wake im­mor­tal. But when the sods were laid on lit­tle Mary, the heart of Rose was trou­bled. She shud­dered at the fan­ta­sy that in grasp­ing the child's cold fin­gers her vir­gin hand had ex­changed a first greet­ing with mor­tal­i­ty and could never lose the earthy taint. How many a greet­ing since! But as yet she was a fair young girl with the dew­drops of fresh feel­ing in her bosom, and, in­stead of "Rose" — which seemed too ma­ture a name for her half-opened beau­ty — her lover called her "Rose­bud."

The rose­bud was des­tined never to bloom for Ed­ward Fane. His moth­er was a rich and haughty dame with all the aris­to­crat­ic prej­u­dices of colo­nial times. She scorned Rose Grafton's hum­ble parent­age and caused her son to break his faith, though, had she let him choose, he would have prized his Rose­bud above the rich­est di­a­mond. The lovers part­ed, and have sel­dom met again. Both may have vis­it­ed the same man­sions, but not at the same time, for one was bid­den to the fes­tal hall and the other to the sick-cham­ber; he was the guest of Plea­sure and Pros­per­i­ty, and she of An­guish. Rose, after their sep­a­ra­tion, was long se­clud­ed with­in the dwelling of Mr. Toothak­er, whom she mar­ried with the re­venge­ful hope of break­ing her false lover's heart. She went to her bride­groom's arms with bit­ter­er tears, they say, than young girls ought to shed at the thresh­old of the bridal-cham­ber. Yet, though her hus­band's head was get­ting gray and his heart had been chilled with an au­tum­nal frost, Rose soon began to love him, and won­dered at her own con­ju­gal af­fec­tion. He was all she had to love; there were no chil­dren.

In a year or two poor Mr. Toothak­er was vis­it­ed with a weari­some in­fir­mi­ty which set­tled in his joints and made him weak­er than a child. He crept forth about his busi­ness, and came home at din­ner-time and even­tide, not with the manly tread that glad­dens a wife's heart, but slow­ly, fee­bly, jot­ting down each dull foot­step with a melan­choly dub of his staff. We must par­don his pret­ty wife if she some­times blushed to own him. Her vis­i­tors, when they heard him com­ing, looked for the ap­pear­ance of some old, old man, but he dragged his nerve­less limbs into the par­lor — and there was Mr. Toothak­er! The dis­ease in­creas­ing, he never went into the sun­shine save with a staff in his right hand and his left on his wife's shoul­der, bear­ing heav­i­ly down­ward like a dead man's hand. Thus, a slen­der woman still look­ing maid­en-like, she sup­port­ed his tall, broad-chest­ed frame along the path­way of their lit­tle gar­den, and plucked the roses for her gray-haired hus­band, and spoke sooth­ing­ly as to an in­fant. His mind was palsied with his body; its ut­most en­er­gy was pee­vish­ness. In a few months more she helped him up the stair­case with a pause at every step, and a longer one upon the land­ing-place, and a heavy glance be­hind as he crossed the thresh­old of his cham­ber. He knew, poor man! that the precincts of those four walls would thence­forth be his world — his world, his home, his tomb, at once a dwelling-and a buri­al-place — till he were borne to a dark­er and a nar­row­er one. But Rose was with him in the tomb. He leaned upon her in his daily pas­sage from the bed to the chair by the fire­side, and back again from the weary chair to the joy­less bed — his bed and hers, their mar­riage-bed — till even this short jour­ney ceased and his head lay all day upon the pil­low and hers all night be­side it. How long poor Mr. Toothak­er was kept in mis­ery! Death seemed to draw near the door, and often to lift the latch, and some­times to thrust his ugly skull into the cham­ber, nod­ding to Rose and point­ing at her hus­band, but still de­layed to enter. "This bedrid­den wretch can­not es­cape me," quoth Death. "I will go forth and run a race with the swift and fight a bat­tle with the strong, and come back for Toothak­er at my leisure." Oh, when the de­liv­er­er came so near, in the dull an­guish of her worn-out sym­pa­thies did she never long to cry, "Death, come in"?

But no; we have no right to as­cribe such a wish to our friend Rose. She never failed in a wife's duty to her poor sick hus­band. She mur­mured not though a glimpse of the sunny sky was as strange to her as him, nor an­swered pee­vish­ly though his com­plain­ing ac­cents roused her from sweet­est dream only to share his wretched­ness. He knew her faith, yet nour­ished a cankered jeal­ousy; and when the slow dis­ease had chilled all his heart save one luke­warm spot which Death's frozen fin­gers were search­ing for, his last words were, "What would my Rose have done for her first love, if she has been so true and kind to a sick old man like me?" And then his poor soul crept away and left the body life­less, though hard­ly more so than for years be­fore, and Rose a widow, though in truth it was the wed­ding-night that wid­owed her. She felt glad, it must be owned, when Mr. Toothak­er was buried, be­cause his corpse had re­tained such a like­ness to the man half alive that she hear­kened for the sad mur­mur of his voice bid­ding her shift his pil­low. But all through the next win­ter, though the grave had held him many a month, she fan­cied him call­ing from that cold bed, "Rose, Rose! Come put a blan­ket on my feet!"

So now the Rose­bud was the widow Toothak­er. Her trou­bles had come early, and, te­dious as they seemed, had passed be­fore all her bloom was fled. She was still fair enough to cap­ti­vate a bach­e­lor, or with a widow's cheer­ful grav­i­ty she might have won a wid­ow­er, steal­ing into his heart in the very guise of his dead wife. But the widow Toothak­er had no such pro­jects. By her watch­ings and con­tin­u­al cares her heart had be­come knit to her first hus­band with a con­stan­cy which changed its very na­ture and made her love him for his in­fir­mi­ties, and in­fir­mi­ty for his sake. When the palsied old man was gone, even her early lover could not have sup­plied his place. She had dwelt in a sick-cham­ber and been the com­pan­ion of a half-dead wretch till she could scarce­ly breathe in a free air and felt ill at ease with the healthy and the happy. She missed the fra­grance of the doc­tor's stuff. She walked the cham­ber with a noise­less foot­fall. If vis­i­tors came in, she spoke in soft and sooth­ing ac­cents, and was star­tled and shocked by their loud voic­es. Often in the lone­some evening she looked tim­o­rous­ly from the fire­side to the bed, with al­most a hope of rec­og­niz­ing a ghast­ly face upon the pil­low. Then went her thoughts sadly to her hus­band's grave. If one im­pa­tient throb had wronged him in his life­time, if she had se­cret­ly re­pined be­cause her buoy­ant youth was im­pris­oned with his tor­pid age, if ever while slum­ber­ing be­side him a treach­er­ous dream had ad­mit­ted an­oth­er into her heart, — yet the sick man had been prepar­ing a re­venge which the dead now claimed. On his painful pil­low he had cast a spell around her; his groans and mis­ery had proved more cap­ti­vat­ing charms than gayety and youth­ful grace; in his sem­blance Dis­ease it­self had won the Rose­bud for a bride, nor could his death dis­solve the nup­tials. By that in­dis­sol­u­ble bond she had gained a home in every sick-cham­ber, and nowhere else; there were her brethren and sis­ters; thith­er her hus­band sum­moned her with that voice which had seemed to issue from the grave of Toothak­er. At length she rec­og­nized her des­tiny.

We have be­held her as the maid, the wife, the widow; now we see her in a sep­a­rate and in­su­lat­ed char­ac­ter: she was in all her at­tributes Nurse Toothak­er. And Nurse Toothak­er alone, with her own shriv­elled lips, could make known her ex­pe­ri­ence in that ca­pac­i­ty. What a his­to­ry might she record of the great sick­ness­es in which she has gone hand in hand with the ex­ter­mi­nat­ing angel! She re­mem­bers when the small-pox hoist­ed a red ban­ner on al­most every house along the street. She has wit­nessed when the ty­phus fever swept off a whole house­hold, young and old, all but a lone­ly moth­er, who vain­ly shrieked to fol­low her last loved one. Where would be Death's tri­umph if none lived to weep? She can speak of strange mal­adies that have bro­ken out as if spon­ta­neous­ly, but were found to have been im­port­ed from for­eign lands with rich silks and other mer­chan­dise, the costli­est por­tion of the cargo. And once, she rec­ol­lects, the peo­ple died of what was con­sid­ered a new pesti­lence, till the doc­tors traced it to the an­cient grave of a young girl who thus caused many deaths a hun­dred years after her own buri­al. Strange that such black mis­chief should lurk in a maid­en's grave! She loves to tell how strong men fight with fiery fevers, ut­ter­ly re­fus­ing to give up their breath, and how con­sump­tive vir­gins fade out of the world, scarce­ly re­luc­tant, as if their lovers were woo­ing them to a far coun­try. — Tell us, thou fear­ful woman; tell us the death-se­crets. Fain would I search out the mean­ing of words faint­ly gasped with in­ter­min­gled sobs and bro­ken sen­tences half-au­di­bly spo­ken be­tween earth and the judg­ment-seat.

An awful woman! She is the pa­tron-saint of young physi­cians and the bo­som-friend of old ones. In the man­sions where she en­ters the in­mates pro­vide them­selves black gar­ments; the cof­fin-mak­er fol­lows her, and the bell tolls as she comes away from the thresh­old. Death him­self has met her at so many a bed­side that he puts forth his bony hand to greet Nurse Toothak­er. She is an awful woman. And oh, is it con­ceiv­able that this hand­maid of human in­fir­mi­ty and af­flic­tion — so dark­ly stained, so thor­ough­ly im­bued with all that is sad­dest in the doom of mor­tals — can ever again be bright and glad­some even though bathed in the sun­shine of eter­ni­ty? By her long com­mu­nion with woe has she not for­feit­ed her in­her­i­tance of im­mor­tal joy? Does any germ of bliss sur­vive with­in her?

Hark! an eager knock­ing st Nurse Toothak­er's door. She starts from her drowsy rever­ie, sets aside the empty tum­bler and tea­spoon, and lights a lamp at the dim em­bers of the fire. "Rap, rap, rap!" again, and she hur­ries adown the stair­case, won­der­ing which of her friends can be at death's door now, since there is such an earnest mes­sen­ger at Nurse Toothak­er's. Again the peal re­sounds just as her hand is on the lock. "Be quick, Nurse Toothak­er!" cries a man on the doorstep. "Old Gen­er­al Fane is taken with the gout in his stom­ach and has sent for you to watch by his death-bed. Make haste, for there is no time to lose." — "Fane! Ed­ward Fane! And has he sent for me at last? I am ready. I will get on my cloak and be­gone. So," adds the sable-gowned, ashen-vis­aged, fu­ne­re­al old fig­ure, "Ed­ward Fane re­mem­bers his Rose­bud."

Our ques­tion is an­swered. There is a germ of bliss with­in her. Her long-hoard­ed con­stan­cy, her mem­o­ry of the bliss that was re­main­ing amid the gloom of her af­ter-life like a sweet-smelling flow­er in a cof­fin, is a sym­bol that all may be re­newed. In some hap­pi­er clime the Rose­bud may re­vive again with all the dew­drops in its bosom.