Nathaniel Hawthorne: Wakefield

I

N some old mag­a­zine or news­pa­per I rec­ol­lect a story, told as truth, of a man — let us call him Wake­field — who ab­sent­ed him­self for a long time from his wife. The fact, thus ab­stract­ed­ly stat­ed, is not very un­com­mon, nor, with­out a prop­er dis­tinc­tion of cir­cum­stances, to be con­demned ei­ther as naughty or non­sen­si­cal. How­beit, this, though far from the most ag­gra­vat­ed, is per­haps the strangest in­stance on record of mar­i­tal delin­quen­cy, and, more­over, as re­mark­able a freak as may be found in the whole list of human odd­i­ties. The wed­ded cou­ple lived in Lon­don. The man, under pre­tence of going a jour­ney, took lodg­ings in the next street to his own house, and there, un­heard of by his wife or friends and with­out the shad­ow of a rea­son for such self-ban­ish­ment, dwelt up­ward of twen­ty years. Dur­ing that pe­ri­od he be­held his home every day, and fre­quent­ly the for­lorn Mrs. Wake­field. And after so great a gap in his mat­ri­mo­ni­al fe­lic­i­ty — when his death was reck­oned cer­tain, his es­tate set­tled, his name dis­missed from mem­o­ry and his wife long, long ago re­signed to her au­tum­nal wid­ow­hood — he en­tered the door one evening qui­et­ly as from a day's ab­sence, and be­came a lov­ing spouse till death.

This out­line is all that I re­mem­ber. But the in­ci­dent, though of the purest orig­i­nal­i­ty, un­ex­am­pled, and prob­a­bly never to be re­peat­ed, is one, I think, which ap­peals to the gen­er­al sym­pa­thies of mankind. We know, each for him­self, that none of us would per­pe­trate such a folly, yet feel as if some other might. To my own con­tem­pla­tions, at least, it has often re­curred, al­ways ex­cit­ing won­der, but with a sense that the story must be true and a con­cep­tion of its hero's char­ac­ter. When­ev­er any sub­ject so forcibly af­fects the mind, time is well spent in think­ing of it. If the read­er choose, let him do his own med­i­ta­tion; or if he pre­fer to ram­ble with me through the twen­ty years of Wake­field's va­gary, I bid him wel­come, trust­ing that there will be a per­vad­ing spir­it and a moral, even should we fail to find them, done up neat­ly and con­densed into the final sen­tence. Thought has al­ways its ef­fi­ca­cy and every strik­ing in­ci­dent its moral.

What sort of a man was Wake­field? We are free to shape out our own idea and call it by his name. He was now in the merid­i­an of life; his mat­ri­mo­ni­al af­fec­tions, never vi­o­lent, were sobered into a calm, ha­bit­u­al sen­ti­ment; of all hus­bands, he was like­ly to be the most con­stant, be­cause a cer­tain slug­gish­ness would keep his heart at rest wher­ev­er it might be placed. He was in­tel­lec­tu­al, but not ac­tive­ly so; his mind oc­cu­pied it­self in long and lazy mus­ings that tend­ed to no pur­pose or had not vigor to at­tain it; his thoughts were sel­dom so en­er­get­ic as to seize hold of words. Imag­i­na­tion, in the prop­er mean­ing of the term, made no part of Wake­field's gifts. With a cold but not de­praved nor wan­der­ing heart, and a mind never fever­ish with ri­otous thoughts nor per­plexed with orig­i­nal­i­ty, who could have an­tic­i­pat­ed that our friend would en­ti­tle him­self to a fore­most place among the doers of ec­cen­tric deeds? Had his ac­quain­tances been asked who was the man in Lon­don the surest to per­form noth­ing to-day which should be re­mem­bered on the mor­row, they would have thought of Wake­field. Only the wife of his bosom might have hes­i­tat­ed. She, with­out hav­ing an­a­lyzed his char­ac­ter, was part­ly aware of a quiet self­ish­ness that had rust­ed into his in­ac­tive mind; of a pe­cu­liar sort of van­i­ty, the most un­easy at­tribute about him; of a dis­po­si­tion to craft which had sel­dom pro­duced more pos­i­tive ef­fects than the keep­ing of petty se­crets hard­ly worth re­veal­ing; and, last­ly, of what she called a lit­tle strangeness some­times in the good man. This lat­ter qual­i­ty is in­de­fin­able, and per­haps non-ex­is­tent.

Let us now imag­ine Wake­field bid­ding adieu to his wife. It is the dusk of an Oc­to­ber evening. His equip­ment is a drab great­coat, a hat cov­ered with an oil-cloth, top-boots, an um­brel­la in one hand and a small port­man­teau in the other. He has in­formed Mrs. Wake­field that he is to take the night-coach into the coun­try. She would fain in­quire the length of his jour­ney, its ob­ject and the prob­a­ble time of his re­turn, but, in­dul­gent to his harm­less love of mys­tery, in­ter­ro­gates him only by a look. He tells her not to ex­pect him pos­i­tive­ly by the re­turn-coach nor to be alarmed should he tarry three or four days, but, at all events, to look for him at sup­per on Fri­day evening. Wake­field, him­self, be it con­sid­ered, has no sus­pi­cion of what is be­fore him. He holds out his hand; she gives her own and meets his part­ing kiss in the mat­ter-of-course way of a ten years' mat­ri­mo­ny, and forth goes the mid­dle-aged Mr. Wake­field, al­most re­solved to per­plex his good lady by a whole week's ab­sence. After the door has closed be­hind him, she per­ceives it thrust part­ly open and a vi­sion of her hus­band's face through the aper­ture, smil­ing on her and gone in a mo­ment. For the time this lit­tle in­ci­dent is dis­missed with­out a thought, but long af­ter­ward, when she has been more years a widow than a wife, that smile re­curs and flick­ers across all her rem­i­nis­cences of Wake­field's vis­age. In her many mus­ings she sur­rounds the orig­i­nal smile with a mul­ti­tude of fan­tasies which make it strange and awful; as, for in­stance, if she imag­ines him in a cof­fin, that part­ing look is frozen on his pale fea­tures; or if she dreams of him in heav­en, still his blessed spir­it wears a quiet and crafty smile. Yet for its sake, when all oth­ers have given him up for dead, she some­times doubts whether she is a widow.

But our busi­ness is with the hus­band. We must hurry after him along the street ere he lose his in­di­vid­u­al­i­ty and melt into the great mass of Lon­don life. It would be vain search­ing for him there. Let us fol­low close at his heels, there­fore, until, after sev­er­al su­per­flu­ous turns and dou­blings, we find him com­fort­ably es­tab­lished by the fire­side of a small apart­ment pre­vi­ous­ly be­spo­ken. He is in the next street to his own and at his jour­ney's end. He can scarce­ly trust his good-for­tune in hav­ing got thith­er un­per­ceived, rec­ol­lect­ing that at one time he was de­layed by the throng in the very focus of a light­ed lantern, and again there were foot­steps that seemed to tread be­hind his own, dis­tinct from the mul­ti­tudi­nous tramp around him, and anon he heard a voice shout­ing afar and fan­cied that it called his name. Doubt­less a dozen busy­bod­ies had been watch­ing him and told his wife the whole af­fair.

Poor Wake­field! lit­tle know­est thou thine own in­signif­i­cance in this great world. No mor­tal eye but mine has traced thee. Go qui­et­ly to thy bed, fool­ish man, and on the mor­row, if thou wilt be wise, get thee home to good Mrs. Wake­field and tell her the truth. Re­move not thy­self even for a lit­tle week from thy place in her chaste bosom. Were she for a sin­gle mo­ment to deem thee dead or lost or last­ing­ly di­vid­ed from her, thou wouldst be woe­ful­ly con­scious of a change in thy true wife for ever after. It is per­ilous to make a chasm in human af­fec­tions — not that they gape so long and wide, but so quick­ly close again.

Al­most re­pent­ing of his frol­ic, or what­ev­er it may be termed, Wake­field lies down be­times, and, start­ing from his first nap, spreads forth his arms into the wide and soli­tary waste of the un­ac­cus­tomed bed, "No," thinks he, gath­er­ing the bed­clothes about him; "I will not sleep alone an­oth­er night." In the morn­ing he rises ear­li­er than usual and sets him­self to con­sid­er what he re­al­ly means to do. Such are his loose and ram­bling modes of thought that he has taken this very sin­gu­lar step with the con­scious­ness of a pur­pose, in­deed, but with­out being able to de­fine it suf­fi­cient­ly for his own con­tem­pla­tion. The vague­ness of the pro­ject and the con­vul­sive ef­fort with which he plunges into the ex­e­cu­tion of it are equal­ly char­ac­ter­is­tic of a fee­ble-mind­ed man. Wake­field sifts his ideas, how­ev­er, as minute­ly as he may, and finds him­self cu­ri­ous to know the progress of mat­ters at home — how his ex­em­plary wife will en­dure her wid­ow­hood of a week, and, briefly, how the lit­tle sphere of crea­tures and cir­cum­stances in which he was a cen­tral ob­ject will be af­fect­ed by his re­moval. A mor­bid van­i­ty, there­fore, lies near­est the bot­tom of the af­fair. But how is he to at­tain his ends? Not, cer­tain­ly, by keep­ing close in this com­fort­able lodg­ing, where, though he slept and awoke in the next street to his home, he is as ef­fec­tu­al­ly abroad as if the stage-coach had been whirling him away all night. Yet should he reap­pear, the whole pro­ject is knocked in the head. His poor brains being hope­less­ly puz­zled with this dilem­ma, he at length ven­tures out, part­ly re­solv­ing to cross the head of the street and send one hasty glance to­ward his for­sak­en domi­cile. Habit — for he is a man of habits — takes him by the hand and guides him, whol­ly un­aware, to his own door, where, just at the crit­i­cal mo­ment, he is aroused by the scrap­ing of his foot upon the step. — Wake­field, whith­er are you going?

At that in­stant his fate was turn­ing on the pivot. Lit­tle dream­ing of the doom to which his first back­ward step de­votes him, he hur­ries away, breath­less with ag­i­ta­tion hith­er­to un­felt, and hard­ly dares turn his head at the dis­tant cor­ner. Can it be that no­body caught sight of him? Will not the whole house­hold — the de­cent Mrs. Wake­field, the smart maid-ser­vant and the dirty lit­tle foot­boy — raise a hue-and-cry through Lon­don streets in pur­suit of their fugi­tive lord and mas­ter? Won­der­ful es­cape! He gath­ers courage to pause and look home­ward, but is per­plexed with a sense of change about the fa­mil­iar ed­i­fice such as af­fects us all when, after a sep­a­ra­tion of months or years, we again see some hill or lake or work of art with which we were friends of old. In or­di­nary cases this in­de­scrib­able im­pres­sion is caused by the com­par­i­son and con­trast be­tween our im­per­fect rem­i­nis­cences and the re­al­i­ty. In Wake­field the magic of a sin­gle night has wrought a sim­i­lar trans­for­ma­tion, be­cause in that brief pe­ri­od a great moral change has been ef­fect­ed. But this is a se­cret from him­self. Be­fore leav­ing the spot he catch­es a far and mo­men­tary glimpse of his wife pass­ing athwart the front win­dow with her face turned to­ward the head of the street. The crafty nin­com­poop takes to his heels, scared with the idea that among a thou­sand such atoms of mor­tal­i­ty her eye must have de­tect­ed him. Right glad is his heart, though his brain be some­what dizzy, when he finds him­self by the coal-fire of his lodg­ings.

So much for the com­mence­ment of this long whim-wham. After the ini­tial con­cep­tion and the stir­ring up of the man's slug­gish tem­per­a­ment to put it in prac­tice, the whole mat­ter evolves it­self in a nat­u­ral train. We may sup­pose him, as the re­sult of deep de­lib­er­a­tion, buy­ing a new wig of red­dish hair and se­lect­ing sundry gar­ments, in a fash­ion un­like his cus­tom­ary suit of brown, from a Jew's old-clothes bag. It is ac­com­plished: Wake­field is an­oth­er man. The new sys­tem being now es­tab­lished, a ret­ro­grade move­ment to the old would be al­most as dif­fi­cult as the step that placed him in his un­par­al­leled po­si­tion. Fur­ther­more, he is ren­dered ob­sti­nate by a sulk­i­ness oc­ca­sion­al­ly in­ci­dent to his tem­per and brought on at pre­sent by the in­ad­e­quate sen­sa­tion which he con­ceives to have been pro­duced in the bosom of Mrs. Wake­field. He will not go back until she be fright­ened half to death. Well, twice or thrice has she passed be­fore his sight, each time with a heav­ier step, a paler cheek and more anx­ious brow, and in the third week of his non-ap­pear­ance he de­tects a por­tent of evil en­ter­ing the house in the guise of an apothe­cary. Next day the knock­er is muf­fled. To­ward night­fall comes the char­i­ot of a physi­cian and de­posits its big-wigged and solemn bur­den at Wake­field's door, whence after a quar­ter of an hour's visit he emerges, per­chance the her­ald of a fu­ner­al. Dear woman! will she die?

By this time Wake­field is ex­cit­ed to some­thing like en­er­gy of feel­ing, but still lingers away from his wife's bed­side, plead­ing with his con­science that she must not be dis­turbed at such a junc­ture. If aught else re­strains him, he does not know it. In the course of a few weeks she grad­u­al­ly re­cov­ers. The cri­sis is over; her heart is sad, per­haps, but quiet, and, let him re­turn soon or late, it will never be fever­ish for him again. Such ideas glim­mer through the mist of Wake­field's mind and ren­der him in­dis­tinct­ly con­scious that an al­most im­pass­able gulf di­vides his hired apart­ment from his for­mer home. "It is but in the next street," he some­times says. Fool! it is in an­oth­er world. Hith­er­to he has put off' his re­turn from one par­tic­u­lar day to an­oth­er; hence­for­ward he leaves the pre­cise time un­de­ter­mined — not to-mor­row; prob­a­bly next week; pret­ty soon. Poor man! The dead have near­ly as much chance of re­vis­it­ing their earth­ly homes as the self-ban­ished Wake­field.

Would that I had a folio to write, in­stead of an ar­ti­cle of a dozen pages! Then might I ex­em­pli­fy how an in­flu­ence be­yond our con­trol lays its strong hand on every deed which we do and weaves its con­se­quences into an iron tis­sue of ne­ces­si­ty.

Wake­field is spell­bound. We must leave him for ten years or so to haunt around his house with­out once cross­ing the thresh­old, and to be faith­ful to his wife with all the af­fec­tion of which his heart is ca­pa­ble, while he is slow­ly fad­ing out of hers. Long since, it must be re­marked, he has lost the per­cep­tion of sin­gu­lar­i­ty in his con­duct.

Now for a scene. Amid the throng of a Lon­don street we dis­tin­guish a man, now wax­ing el­der­ly, with few char­ac­ter­is­tics to at­tract care­less ob­servers, yet bear­ing in his whole as­pect the hand­writ­ing of no com­mon fate for such as have the skill to read it. He is mea­gre; his low and nar­row fore­head is deeply wrin­kled; his eyes, small and lus­tre­less, some­times wan­der ap­pre­hen­sive­ly about him, but of­ten­er seem to look in­ward. He bends his head and moves with an in­de­scrib­able obliq­ui­ty of gait, as if un­will­ing to dis­play his full front to the world. Watch him long enough to see what we have de­scribed, and you will allow that cir­cum­stances — which often pro­duce re­mark­able men from Na­ture's or­di­nary hand­i­work — have pro­duced one such here. Next, leav­ing him to sidle along the foot­walk, cast your eyes in the op­po­site di­rec­tion, where a port­ly fe­male con­sid­er­ably in the wane of life, with a prayer-book in her hand, is pro­ceed­ing to yon­der church. She has the placid mien of set­tled wid­ow­hood. Her re­grets have ei­ther died away or have be­come so es­sen­tial to her heart that they would be poor­ly ex­changed for joy. Just as the lean man and well-con­di­tioned woman are pass­ing a slight ob­struc­tion oc­curs and brings these two fig­ures di­rect­ly in con­tact. Their hands touch; the pres­sure of the crowd forces her bosom against his shoul­der; they stand face to face, star­ing into each other's eyes. After a ten years' sep­a­ra­tion thus Wake­field meets his wife. The throng ed­dies away and car­ries them asun­der. The sober widow, re­sum­ing her for­mer pace, pro­ceeds to church, but paus­es in the por­tal and throws a per­plexed glance along the street. She pass­es in, how­ev­er, open­ing her prayer-book as she goes.

And the man? With so wild a face that busy and self­ish Lon­don stands to gaze after him he hur­ries to his lodg­ings, bolts the door and throws him­self upon the bed. The la­tent feel­ings of years break out; his fee­ble mind ac­quires a brief en­er­gy from their strength; all the mis­er­able strangeness of his life is re­vealed to him at a glance, and he cries out pas­sion­ate­ly, "Wake­field, Wake­field! You are mad!" Per­haps he was so. The sin­gu­lar­i­ty of his sit­u­a­tion must have so mould­ed him to it­self that, con­sid­ered in re­gard to his fel­low-crea­tures and the busi­ness of life, he could not be said to pos­sess his right mind. He had con­trived — or, rather, he had hap­pened — to dis­sev­er him­self from the world, to van­ish, to give up his place and priv­i­leges with liv­ing men with­out being ad­mit­ted among the dead. The life of a her­mit is no­wise par­al­lel to his. He was in the bus­tle of the city as of old, but the crowd swept by and saw him not; he was, we may fig­u­ra­tive­ly say, al­ways be­side his wife and at his hearth, yet must never feel the warmth of the one nor the af­fec­tion of the other. It was Wake­field's un­prece­dent­ed fate to re­tain his orig­i­nal share of human sym­pa­thies and to be still in­volved in human in­ter­ests, while he had lost his re­cip­ro­cal in­flu­ence on them. It would be a most cu­ri­ous spec­u­la­tion to trace out the ef­fect of such cir­cum­stances on his heart and in­tel­lect sep­a­rate­ly and in uni­son. Yet, changed as he was, he would sel­dom be con­scious of it, but deem him­self the same man as ever; glimpses of the truth, in­deed, would come, but only for the mo­ment, and still he would keep say­ing, "I shall soon go back," nor re­flect that he had been say­ing so for twen­ty years.

I con­ceive, also, that these twen­ty years would ap­pear in the ret­ro­spect scarce­ly longer than the week to which Wake­field had at first lim­it­ed his ab­sence. He would look on the af­fair as no more than an in­ter­lude in the main busi­ness of his life. When, after a lit­tle while more, he should deem it time to re-en­ter his par­lor, his wife would clap her hands for joy on be­hold­ing the mid­dle-aged Mr. Wake­field. Alas, what a mis­take! Would Time but await the close of our fa­vorite fol­lies, we should be young men — all of us — and till Dooms­day.

One evening, in the twen­ti­eth year since he van­ished, Wake­field is tak­ing his cus­tom­ary walk to­ward the dwelling which he still calls his own. It is a gusty night of au­tumn, with fre­quent show­ers that pat­ter down upon the pave­ment and are gone be­fore a man can put up his um­brel­la. Paus­ing near the house, Wake­field dis­cerns through the par­lor-win­dows of the sec­ond floor the red glow and the glim­mer and fit­ful flash of a com­fort­able fire. On the ceil­ing ap­pears a grotesque shad­ow of good Mrs. Wake­field. The cap, the nose and chin and the broad waist form an ad­mirable car­i­ca­ture, which dances, more­over, with the up-flick­er­ing and down-sink­ing blaze al­most too mer­ri­ly for the shade of an el­der­ly widow. At this in­stant a show­er chances to fall, and is driv­en by the un­man­ner­ly gust full into Wake­field's face and bosom. He is quite pen­e­trat­ed with its au­tum­nal chill. Shall he stand wet and shiv­er­ing here, when his own hearth has a good fire to warm him and his own wife will run to fetch the gray coat and small-clothes which doubt­less she has kept care­ful­ly in the clos­et of their bed­cham­ber? No; Wake­field is no such fool. He as­cends the steps — heav­i­ly, for twen­ty years have stiff­ened his legs since he came down, but he knows it not. — Stay, Wake­field! Would you go to the sole home that is left you? Then step into your grave. — The door opens. As he pass­es in we have a part­ing glimpse of his vis­age, and rec­og­nize the crafty smile which was the pre­cur­sor of the lit­tle joke that he has ever since been play­ing off at his wife's ex­pense. How un­mer­ci­ful­ly has he quizzed the poor woman! Well, a good night's rest to Wake­field!

This happy event — sup­pos­ing it to be such — could only have oc­curred at an un­premed­i­tat­ed mo­ment. We will not fol­low our friend across the thresh­old. He has left us much food for thought, a por­tion of which shall lend its wis­dom to a moral and be shaped into a fig­ure. Amid the seem­ing con­fu­sion of our mys­te­ri­ous world in­di­vid­u­als are so nice­ly ad­just­ed to a sys­tem, and sys­tems to one an­oth­er and to a whole, that by step­ping aside for a mo­ment a man ex­pos­es him­self to a fear­ful risk of los­ing his place for ever. Like Wake­field, he may be­come, as it were, the out­cast of the uni­verse.