FEATHERT

 

1852
TWICE-TOLD TALES
FEATHERTOP: A MORALIZED LEGEND
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

DICKON," cried Mother Rigby, "a coal for my pipe!" The pipe was
in the old dame's mouth when she said these words. She had thrust it
there after filling it with tobacco, but without stooping to light
it at the hearth, where indeed there was no appearance of a fire
having been kindled that morning. Forthwith, however, as soon as the
order was given, there was an intense red glow out of the bowl of
the pipe, and a whiff of smoke from Mother Rigby's lips. Whence the
coal came, and how brought thither by an invisible hand, I have
never been able to discover.
"Good!" quoth Mother Rigby, with a nod of her head. "Thank ye,
Dickon! And now for making this scarecrow. Be within call, Dickon,
in case I need you again."
The good woman had risen thus early (for as yet it was
scarcely sunrise) in order to set about making a scarecrow, which
she intended to put in the middle of her corn-patch. It was now the
latter week of May, and the crows and blackbirds had already
discovered the little, green, rolled-up leaf of the Indian corn just
peeping out of the soil. She was determined, therefore, to contrive as
lifelike a scarecrow as ever was seen, and to finish it immediately,
from top to toe, so that it should begin its sentinel's duty that very
morning. Now Mother Rigby (as everybody must have heard) was one of
the most cunning and potent witches in New England, and might, with
very little trouble, have made a scarecrow ugly enough to frighten the
minister himself. But on this occasion, as she had awakened in an
uncommonly pleasant humor, and was further dulcified by her pipe of
tobacco, she resolved to produce something fine, beautiful, and
splendid, rather than hideous and horrible.
"I don't want to set up a hobgoblin in my own corn-patch, and
almost at my own doorstep," said Mother Rigby to herself, puffing
out a whiff of smoke; "I could do it if I pleased, but I'm tired of
doing marvellous things, and so I'll keep within the bounds of
everyday business just for variety's sake. Besides, there is no use in
scaring the little children for a mile roundabout, though 'tis true
I'm a witch."
It was settled, therefore, in her own mind, that the scarecrow
should represent a fine gentleman of the period, so far as the
materials at hand would allow. Perhaps it may be as well to
enumerate the chief of the articles that went to the composition of
this figure.
The most important item of all, probably, although it made so
little show, was a certain broomstick, on which Mother Rigby had taken
many an airy gallop at midnight, and which now served the scarecrow by
way of a spinal column, or, as the unlearned phrase it, a backbone.
One of its arms was a disabled flail which used to be wielded by
Goodman Rigby, before his spouse worried him out of this troublesome
world; the other, if I mistake not, was composed of the pudding
stick and a broken rung of a chair, tied loosely together at the
elbow. As for its legs, the right was a hoe handle, and the left an
undistinguished and miscellaneous stick from the woodpile. Its
lungs, stomach, and other affairs of that kind were nothing better
than a meal bag stuffed with straw. Thus we have made out the skeleton
and entire corporosity of the scarecrow, with the exception of its
head; and this was admirably supplied by a somewhat withered and
shrivelled pumpkin, in which Mother Rigby cut two holes for the
eyes, and a slit for the mouth, leaving a bluish-colored knob in the
middle to pass for a nose. It was really quite a respectable face.
"I've seen worse ones on human shoulders, at any rate," said Mother
Rigby. "And many a fine gentleman has a pumpkin head, as well as my
scarecrow."
But the clothes, in this case, were to be the making of the man. So
the good old woman took down from a peg an ancient plum-colored coat
of London make, and with relics of embroidery on its seams, cuffs,
pocket-flaps, and button-holes, but lamentably worn and faded, patched
at the elbows, tattered at the skirts, and threadbare all over. On the
left breast was a round hole, whence either a star of nobility had
been rent away, or else the hot heart of some former wearer had
scorched it through and through. The neighbors said that this rich
garment belonged to the Black Man's wardrobe, and that he kept it at
Mother Rigby's cottage for the convenience of slipping it on
whenever he wished to make a grand appearance at the governor's table.
To match the coat there was a velvet waistcoat of very ample size, and
formerly embroidered with foliage that had been as brightly golden
as the maple leaves in October, but which had now quite vanished out
of the substance of the velvet. Next came a pair of scarlet
breeches, once worn by the French governor of Louisbourg, and the
knees of which had touched the lower step of the throne of Louis le
Grand. The Frenchman had given these small-clothes to an Indian
powwow, who parted with them to the old witch for a gill of strong
waters, at one of their dances in the forest. Furthermore, Mother
Rigby produced a pair of silk stockings and put them on the figure's
legs, where they showed as unsubstantial as a dream, with the wooden
reality of the two sticks making itself miserably apparent through the
holes. Lastly, she put her dead husband's wig on the bare scalp of the
pumpkin, and surmounted the whole with a dusty three-cornered hat,
in which was stuck the longest tail feather of a rooster.
Then the old dame stood the figure up in a corner of her cottage
and chuckled to behold its yellow semblance of a visage, with its
nobby little nose thrust into the air. It had a strangely
self-satisfied aspect, and seemed to say, "Come look at me!"
"And you are well worth looking at, that's a fact!" quoth Mother
Rigby, in admiration at her own handiwork. "I've made many a puppet
since I've been a witch, but methinks this is the finest of them
all. 'Tis almost too good for a scarecrow. And, by the by, I'll just
fill a fresh pipe of tobacco and then take him out to the corn-patch."
While filling her pipe the old woman continued to gaze with
almost motherly affection at the figure in the corner. To say the
truth, whether it were chance, or skill, or downright witchcraft,
there was something wonderfully human in this ridiculous shape,
bedizened with its tattered finery; and as for the countenance, it
appeared to shrivel its yellow surface into a grin- a funny kind of
expression betwixt scorn and merriment, as if it understood itself
to be a jest at mankind. The more Mother Rigby looked the better she
was pleased.
"Dickon," cried she sharply, "another coal for my pipe!"
Hardly had she spoken, than, just as before, there was a
red-glowing coal on the top of the tobacco. She drew in a long whiff
and puffed it forth again into the bar of morning sunshine which
struggled through the one dusty pane of her cottage window. Mother
Rigby always liked to flavor her pipe with a coal of fire from the
particular chimney corner whence this had been brought. But where that
chimney corner might be, or who brought the coal from it- further than
that the invisible messenger seemed to respond to the name of
Dickon- I cannot tell.
"That puppet yonder," thought Mother Rigby, still with her eyes
fixed on the scarecrow, "is too good a piece of work to stand all
summer in a corn-patch, frightening away the crows and blackbirds.
He's capable of better things. Why, I've danced with a worse one, when
partners happened to be scarce, at our witch meetings in the forest!
What if I should let him take his chance among the other men of
straw and empty fellows who go bustling about the world?"
The old witch took three or four more whiffs of her pipe and
smiled.
"He'll meet plenty of his brethren at every street corner!"
continued she. "Well; I didn't mean to dabble in witchcraft today,
further than the lighting of my pipe, but a witch I am, and a witch
I'm likely to be, and there's no use trying to shirk it. I'll make a
man of my scarecrow, were it only for the joke's sake!"
While muttering these words, Mother Rigby took the pipe from her
own mouth and thrust it into the crevice which represented the same
feature in the pumpkin visage of the scarecrow.
"Puff, darling, puff!" said she. "Puff away, my fine fellow! your
life depends on it!"
This was a strange exhortation, undoubtedly, to be addressed to a
mere thing of sticks, straw, and old clothes, with nothing better than
a shrivelled pumpkin for a head- as we know to have been the
scarecrow's case. Nevertheless, as we must carefully hold in
remembrance, Mother Rigby was a witch of singular power and dexterity;
and, keeping this fact duly before our minds, we shall see nothing
beyond credibility in the remarkable incidents of our story. Indeed,
the great difficulty will be at once got over, if we can only bring
ourselves to believe that, as soon as the old dame bade him puff,
there came a whiff of smoke from the scarecrow's mouth. It was the
very feeblest of whiffs, to be sure; but it was followed by another
and another, each more decided than the preceding one.
"Puff away, my pet! puff away, my pretty one!" Mother Rigby kept
repeating, with her pleasantest smile. "It is the breath of life to
ye; and that you may take my word for."
Beyond all question the pipe was bewitched. There must have been
a spell either in the tobacco or in the fiercely-glowing coal that
so mysteriously burned on top of it, or in the pungently-aromatic
smoke which exhaled from the kindled weed. The figure, after a few
doubtful attempts, at length blew forth a volley of smoke extending
all the way from the obscure corner into the bar of sunshine. There it
eddied and melted away among the motes of dust. It seemed a convulsive
effort; for the two or three next whiffs were fainter, although the
coal still glowed and threw a gleam over the scarecrow's visage. The
old witch clapped her skinny hands together, and smiled
encouragingly upon her handiwork. She saw that the charm worked
well. The shrivelled, yellow face, which heretofore had been no face
at all, had already a thin, fantastic haze, as it were of human
likeness, shifting to and fro across it: sometimes vanishing entirely,
but growing more perceptible than ever with the next whiff from the
pipe. The whole figure, in like manner, assumed a show of life, such
as we impart to ill-defined shapes among the clouds, and half
deceive ourselves with the pastime of our own fancy.
If we must needs pry closely into the matter, it may be doubted
whether there was any real change, after all, in the sordid,
wornout, worthless, and ill-jointed substance of the scarecrow; but
merely a spectral illusion, and a cunning effect of light and shade so
colored and contrived as to delude the eyes of most men. The
miracles of witchcraft seem always to have had a very shallow
subtlety; and, at least, if the above explanation do not hit the truth
of the process, I can suggest no better.
"Well puffed, my pretty lad!" still cried old Mother Rigby.
"Come, another good stout whiff, and let it be with might and main.
Puff for thy life, I tell thee! Puff out of the very bottom of thy
heart, if any heart thou hast, or any bottom to it! Well done,
again! Thou didst suck in that mouthful as if for the pure love of
it."
And then the witch beckoned to the scarecrow, throwing so much
magnetic potency into her gesture that it seemed as if it must
inevitably be obeyed, like the mystic call of the loadstone when it
summons the iron.
"Why lurkest thou in the corner, lazy one?" said she. "Step
forth! Thou hast the world before thee!"
Upon my word, if the legend were not one which I heard on my
grandmother's knee, and which had established its place among things
credible before my childish judgment could analyze its probability,
I question whether I should have the face to tell it now.
In obedience to Mother Rigby's word, and extending its arm as if to
reach her outstretched hand, the figure made a step forward- a kind of
hitch and jerk, however, rather than a step- then tottered and
almost lost its balance. What could the witch expect? It was
nothing, after all, but a scarecrow stuck upon two sticks. But the
strong-willed old beldam scowled, and beckoned, and flung the energy
of her purpose so forcibly at this poor combination of rotten wood,
and musty straw, and ragged garments, that it was compelled to show
itself a man, in spite of the reality of things. So it stepped into
the bar of sunshine. There it stood- poor devil of a contrivance
that it was!- with only the thinnest vesture of human similitude about
it, through which was evident the stiff, rickety, incongruous,
faded, tattered, good-for-nothing patchwork of its substance, ready to
sink in a heap upon the floor, as conscious of its own unworthiness to
be erect. Shall I confess the truth? At its present point of
vivification, the scarecrow reminds me of some of the lukewarm and
abortive characters, composed of heterogeneous materials, used for the
thousandth time, and never worth using, with which romance writers
(and myself, no doubt, among the rest) have so over-peopled the
world of fiction.
But the fierce old hag began to get angry and show a glimpse of her
diabolic nature (like a snake's head, peeping with a hiss out of her
bosom), at this pusillanimous behavior of the thing which she had
taken the trouble to put together.
"Puff away, wretch!" cried she, wrathfully. "Puff, puff, puff, thou
thing of straw and emptiness! thou rag or two! thou meal bag! thou
pumpkin head! thou nothing! Where shall I find a name vile enough to
call thee by? Puff, I say, and suck in thy fantastic life along with
the smoke! else I snatch the pipe from thy mouth and hurl thee where
that red coal came from."
Thus threatened, the unhappy scarecrow had nothing for it but to
puff away for dear life. As need was, therefore, it applied itself
lustily to the pipe, and sent forth such abundant volleys of tobacco
smoke that the small cottage kitchen became all vaporous. The one
sunbeam struggled mistily through, and could but imperfectly define
the image of the cracked and dusty window pane on the opposite wall.
Mother Rigby, meanwhile, with one brown arm akimbo and the other
stretched towards the figure, loomed grimly amid the obscurity with
such port and expression as when she was wont to heave a ponderous
nightmare on her victims and stand at the bedside to enjoy their
agony. In fear and trembling did this poor scarecrow puff. But its
efforts, it must be acknowledged, served an excellent purpose; for,
with each successive whiff, the figure lost more and more of its dizzy
and perplexing tenuity and seemed to take denser substance. Its very
garments, moreover, partook of the magical change, and shone with
the gloss of novelty and glistened with the skilfully embroidered gold
that had long ago been rent away. And, half revealed among the
smoke, a yellow visage bent its lustreless eyes on Mother Rigby.
At last the old witch clinched her fist and shook it at the figure.
Not that she was positively angry, but merely acting on the principle-
perhaps untrue, or not the only truth, though as high a one as
Mother Rigby could be expected to attain- that feeble and torpid
natures, being incapable of better inspiration, must be stirred up
by fear. But here was the crisis. Should she fail in what she now
sought to effect, it was her ruthless purpose to scatter the miserable
simulacre into its original elements.
"Thou hast a man's aspect," said she, sternly. "Have also the
echo and mockery of a voice! I bid thee speak!"
The scarecrow gasped, struggled, and at length emitted a murmur,
which was so incorporated with its smoky breath that you could
scarcely tell whether it were indeed a voice or only a whiff of
tobacco. Some narrators of this legend hold the opinion that Mother
Rigby's conjurations and the fierceness of her will had compelled a
familiar spirit into the figure, and that the voice was his.
"Mother," mumbled the poor stifled voice, "be not so awful with me!
I would fain speak; but being without wits, what can I say?"
"Thou canst speak, darling, canst thou?" cried Mother Rigby,
relaxing her grim countenance into a smile. "And what shalt thou
say, quotha! Say, indeed! Art thou of the brotherhood of the empty
skull, and demandest of me what thou shalt say? Thou shalt say a
thousand things, and saying them a thousand times over, thou shalt
still have said nothing! Be not afraid, I tell thee! When thou
comest into the world (whither I purpose sending thee forthwith)
thou shalt not lack the wherewithal to talk. Talk! Why, thou shalt
babble like a mill-stream, if thou wilt. Thou hast brains enough for
that, I trow!"
"At your service, mother," responded the figure.
"And that was well said, my pretty one," answered Mother Rigby.
"Then thou speakest like thyself, and meant nothing. Thou shalt have a
hundred such set phrases, and five hundred to the boot of them. And
now, darling, I have taken so much pains with thee and thou art so
beautiful, that, by my troth, I love thee better than any witch's
puppet in the world; and I've made them of all sorts- clay, wax,
sticks, night fog, morning mist, sea foam, and chimney smoke. But thou
art the very best. So give heed to what I say."
"Yes, kind mother," said the figure, "with all my heart!"
"With all thy heart!" cried the old witch, setting her hands to her
sides and laughing loudly. "Thou hast such a pretty way of speaking.
With all thy heart! And thou didst put thy hand to the left side of
thy waistcoat as if thou really hadst one!"
So now, in high good humor with this fantastic contrivance of hers,
Mother Rigby told the scarecrow that it must go and play its part in
the great world, where not one man in a hundred, she affirmed, was
gifted with more real substance than itself. And, that he might hold
up his head with the best of them, she endowed him, on the spot,
with an unreckonable amount of wealth. It consisted partly of a gold
mine in Eldorado, and of ten thousand shares in a broken bubble, and
of half a million acres of vineyard at the North Pole, and of a castle
in the air, and a chateau in Spain, together with all the rents and
income therefrom accruing. She further made over to him the cargo of a
certain ship, laden with salt of Cadiz, which she herself, by her
necromantic arts, had caused to founder, ten years before, in the
deepest part of mid-ocean. If the salt were not dissolved, and could
be brought to market, it would fetch a pretty penny among the
fishermen. That he might not lack ready money, she gave him a copper
farthing of Birmingham manufacture, being all the coin she had about
her, and likewise a great deal of brass, which she applied to his
forehead, thus making it yellower than ever.
"With that brass alone," quoth Mother Rigby, "thou canst pay thy
way all over the earth. Kiss me, pretty darling! I have done my best
for thee."
Furthermore, that the adventurer might lack no possible advantage
towards a fair start in life, this excellent old dame gave him a token
by which he was to introduce himself to a certain magistrate, member
of the council, merchant, and elder of the church (the four capacities
constituting but one man), who stood at the head of society in the
neighboring metropolis. The token was neither more nor less than a
single word, which Mother Rigby whispered to the scarecrow, and
which the scarecrow was to whisper to the merchant.
"Gouty as the old fellow is, he'll run thy errands for thee, when
once thou hast given him that word in his ear," said the old witch.
"Mother Rigby knows the worshipful Justice Gookin, and the
worshipful Justice knows Mother Rigby!"
Here the witch thrust her wrinkled face close to the puppet's,
chuckling irrepressibly, and fidgeting all through her system with
delight at the idea which she meant to communicate.
"The worshipful Master Gookin," whispered she, "hath a comely
maiden to his daughter. And hark ye, my pet! Thou hast a fair outside,
and a pretty wit enough of thine own. Yea, a pretty wit enough! Thou
wilt think better of it when thou hast seen more of other people's
wits. Now, with thy outside and thy inside, thou art the very man to
win a young girl's heart. Never doubt it! I tell thee it shall be
so. Put but a bold face on the matter, sigh, smile, flourish thy
hat, thrust forth thy leg like a dancing-master, put thy right hand to
the left side of thy waistcoat, and pretty Polly Gookin is thine own!"
All this while the new creature had been sucking in and exhaling
the vapory fragrance of his pipe, and seemed now to continue this
occupation as much for the enjoyment it afforded as because it was
an essential condition of his existence. It was wonderful to see how
exceedingly like a human being it behaved. Its eyes (for it appeared
to possess a pair) were bent on Mother Rigby, and at suitable
junctures it nodded or shook its head. Neither did it lack words
proper for the occasion: "Really! Indeed! Pray tell me! Is it
possible! Upon my word! By no means! Oh! Ah! Hem!" and other such
weighty utterances as imply attention, inquiry, acquiescence, or
dissent on the part of the auditor. Even had you stood by and seen the
scarecrow made, you could scarcely have resisted the conviction that
it perfectly understood the cunning counsels which the old witch
poured into its counterfeit of an ear. The more earnestly it applied
its lips to the pipe, the more distinctly was its human likeness
stamped among visible realities, the more sagacious grew its
expression, the more lifelike its gestures and movements, and the more
intelligibly audible its voice. Its garments, too, glistened so much
the brighter with an illusory magnificence. The very pipe, in which
burned the spell of all this wonderwork, ceased to appear as a
smoke-blackened earthen stump, and became a meerschaum, with painted
bowl and amber mouthpiece.
It might be apprehended, however, that as the life of the
illusion seemed identical with the vapor of the pipe, it would
terminate simultaneously with the reduction of the tobacco to ashes.
But the beldam foresaw the difficulty.
"Hold thou the pipe, my precious one," said she, "while I fill it
for thee again."
It was sorrowful to behold how the fine gentleman began to fade
back into a scarecrow while Mother Rigby shook the ashes out of the
pipe and proceeded to replenish it from her tobacco-box.
"Dickon," cried she, in her high, sharp tone, "another coal for
this pipe!"
No sooner said than the intensely red speck of fire was glowing
within the pipe-bowl; and the scarecrow, without waiting for the
witch's bidding, applied the tube to his lips and drew in a few short,
convulsive whiffs, which soon, however, became regular and equable.
"Now, mine own heart's darling," quoth Mother Rigby, "whatever
may happen to thee, thou must stick to thy pipe. Thy life is in it;
and that, at least, thou knowest well, if thou knowest nought besides.
Stick to thy pipe, I say! Smoke, puff, blow thy cloud; and tell the
people, if any question be made, that it is for thy health, and that
so the physician orders thee to do. And, sweet one, when thou shalt
find thy pipe getting low, go apart into some corner, and (first
filling thyself with smoke) cry sharply, 'Dickon, a fresh pipe of
tobacco!' and, 'Dickon, another coal for my pipe!' and have it into
thy pretty mouth as speedily as may be. Else, instead of a gallant
gentleman in a gold-laced coat, thou wilt be but a jumble of sticks
and tattered clothes, and a bag of straw, and a withered pumpkin!
Now depart, my treasure, and good luck go with thee!"
"Never fear, mother!" said the figure, in a stout voice, and
sending forth a courageous whiff of smoke, "I will thrive, if an
honest man and a gentleman may!"
"Oh, thou wilt be the death of me!" cried the old witch,
convulsed with laughter. "That was well said. If an honest man and a
gentleman may! Thou playest thy part to perfection. Get along with
thee for a smart fellow; and I will wager on thy head, as a man of
pith and substance, with a brain and what they call a heart, and all
else that a man should have, against any other thing on two legs. I
hold myself a better witch than yesterday, for thy sake. Did not I
make thee? And I defy any witch in New England to make such another!
Here; take my staff along with thee!"
The staff, though it was but a plain oaken stick, immediately
took the aspect of a gold-headed cane.
"That gold head has as much sense in it as thine own," said
Mother Rigby, "and it will guide thee straight to worshipful Master
Gookin's door. Get thee gone, my pretty pet, my darling, my precious
one, my treasure; and if any ask thy name, it is Feathertop. For
thou hast a feather in thy hat, and I have thrust a handful of
feathers into the hollow of thy head, and thy wig, too, is of the
fashion they call Feathertop- so be Feathertop thy name!"
And, issuing from the cottage, Feathertop strode manfully towards
town. Mother Rigby stood at the threshold, well pleased to see how the
sunbeams glistened on him, as if all his magnificence were real, and
how diligently and lovingly he smoked his pipe, and how handsomely
he walked, in spite of a little stiffness of his legs. She watched him
until out of sight, and threw a witch benediction after her darling,
when a turn of the road snatched him from her view.
Betimes in the forenoon, when the principal street of the
neighboring town was just at its acme of life and bustle, a stranger
of very distinguished figure was seen on the sidewalk. His port as
well as his garments betokened nothing short of nobility. He wore a
richly-embroidered plum-colored coat, a waistcoat of costly velvet,
magnificently adorned with golden foliage, a pair of splendid
scarlet breeches, and the finest and glossiest of white silk
stockings. His head was covered with a peruke, so daintily powdered
and adjusted that it would have been sacrilege to disorder it with a
hat; which, therefore (and it was a gold-laced hat, set off with a
snowy feather), he carried beneath his arm. On the breast of his
coat glistened a star. He managed his gold-headed cane with an airy
grace, peculiar to the fine gentlemen of the period; and, to give
the highest possible finish to his equipment, he had lace ruffles at
his wrist, of a most ethereal delicacy, sufficiently avouching how
idle and aristocratic must be the hands which they half concealed.
It was a remarkable point in the accoutrement of this brilliant
personage that he held in his left hand a fantastic kind of a pipe,
with an exquisitely painted bowl and an amber mouthpiece. This he
applied to his lips as often as every five or six paces, and inhaled a
deep whiff of smoke, which, after being retained a moment in his
lungs, might be seen to eddy gracefully from his mouth and nostrils.
As may well be supposed, the street was all astir to find out the
stranger's name.
"It is some great nobleman, beyond question," said one of the
towns-people. "Do you see the star at his breast?"
"Nay; it is too bright to be seen," said another. "Yes; he must
needs be a nobleman, as you say. But by what conveyance, think you,
can his lordship have voyaged or travelled hither? There has been no
vessel from the old country for a month past; and if he have arrived
overland from the southward, pray where are his attendants and
equipage?"
"He needs no equipage to set off his rank," remarked a third. "If
he came among us in rags, nobility would shine through a hole in his
elbow. I never saw such dignity of aspect. He has the old Norman blood
in his veins, I warrant him."
"I rather take him to be a Dutchman, or one of your high
Germans," said another citizen. "The men of those countries have
always the pipe at their mouths."
"And so has a Turk," answered his companion. "But, in my
judgment, this stranger hath been bred at the French court, and hath
there learned politeness and grace of manner, which none understand so
well as the nobility of France. That gait, now! A vulgar spectator
might deem it stiff- he might call it a hitch and jerk- but, to my
eye, it hath an unspeakable majesty, and must have been acquired by
constant observation of the deportment of the Grand Monarque. The
stranger's character and office are evident enough. He is a French
ambassador, come to treat with our rulers about the cession of
Canada."
"More probably a Spaniard," said another, "and hence his yellow
complexion; or, most likely, he is from the Havana, or from some
port on the Spanish Main, and comes to make investigation about the
piracies which our government is thought to connive at. Those settlers
in Peru and Mexico have skins as yellow as the gold which they dig out
of their mines."
"Yellow or not," cried a lady, "he is a beautiful man! so tall,
so slender! such a fine, noble face, with so well-shaped a nose, and
all that delicacy of expression about the mouth! And, bless me, how
bright his star is! It positively shoots out flames!"
"So do your eyes, fair lady," said the stranger, with a bow and a
flourish of his pipe; for he was just passing at the instant. "Upon my
honor, they have quite dazzled me."
"Was ever so original and exquisite a compliment?" murmured the
lady, in an ecstasy of delight.
Amid the general admiration excited by the stranger's appearance,
there were only two dissenting voices. One was that of an
impertinent cur, which, after snuffing at the heels of the
glistening figure, put its tail between its legs and skulked into
its master's back yard, vociferating an execrable howl. The other
dissentient was a young child, who squalled at the fullest stretch
of his lungs, and babbled some unintelligible nonsense about a
pumpkin.
Feathertop meanwhile pursued his way along the street. Except for
the few complimentary words to the lady, and now and then a slight
inclination of the head in requital of the profound reverences of
the bystanders, he seemed wholly absorbed in his pipe. There needed no
other proof of his rank and consequence than the perfect equanimity
with which he comported himself, while the curiosity and admiration of
the town swelled almost into clamor around him. With a crowd gathering
behind his footsteps, he finally reached the mansion-house of the
worshipful Justice Gookin, entered the gate, ascended the steps of the
front door, and knocked. In the interim, before his summons was
answered, the stranger was observed to shake the ashes out of his
pipe.
"What did he say in that sharp voice?" inquired one of the
spectators.
"Nay, I know not," answered his friend. "But the sun dazzles my
eyes strangely. How dim and faded his lordship looks all of a
sudden! Bless my wits, what is the matter with me?"
"The wonder is, said the other, "that his pipe, which was out
only an instant ago, should be all alight again, and with the
reddest coal I ever saw. There is something mysterious about this
stranger. What a whiff of smoke was that! Dim and faded did you call
him? Why, as he turns about the star on his breast is all ablaze."
"It is, indeed," said his companion; "and it will go near to dazzle
pretty Polly Gookin, whom I see peeping at it out of the chamber
window."
The door being now opened, Feathertop turned to the crowd, made a
stately bend of his body like a great man acknowledging the
reverence of the meaner sort, and vanished into the house. There was a
mysterious kind of a smile, if it might not better be called a grin or
grimace, upon his visage; but, of all the throng that beheld him,
not an individual appears to have possessed insight enough to detect
the illusive character of the stranger except a little child and a cur
dog.
Our legend here loses somewhat of its continuity, and, passing over
the preliminary explanation between Feathertop and the merchant,
goes in quest of the pretty Polly Gookin. She was a damsel of a
soft, round figure, with light hair and blue eyes, and a fair, rosy
face, which seemed neither very shrewd nor very simple. This young
lady had caught a glimpse of the glistening stranger while standing at
the threshold, and had forthwith put on a laced cap, a string of
beads, her finest kerchief, and her stiffest damask petticoat in
preparation for the interview. Hurrying from her chamber to the
parlor, she had ever since been viewing herself in the large
looking-glass and practising pretty airs- now a smile, now a
ceremonious dignity of aspect, and now a softer smile than the former,
kissing her hand likewise, tossing her head, and managing her fan;
while within the mirror an unsubstantial little maid repeated every
gesture and did all the foolish things that Polly did, but without
making her ashamed of them. In short, it was the fault of pretty
Polly's ability rather than her will if she failed to be as complete
an artifice as the illustrious Feathertop himself; and, when she
thus tampered with her own simplicity, the witch's phantom might
well hope to win her.
No sooner did Polly hear her father's gouty footsteps approaching
the parlor door, accompanied with the stiff clatter of Feathertop's
high-heeled shoes, than she seated herself bolt upright and innocently
began warbling a song.
"Polly! daughter Polly!" cried the old merchant. "Come hither,
child."
Master Gookin's aspect, as he opened the door, was doubtful and
troubled.
"This gentleman," continued he, presenting the stranger, "is the
Chevalier Feathertop- nay, I beg his pardon, my Lord Feathertop- who
hath brought me a token of remembrance from an ancient friend of mine.
Pay your duty to his lordship, child, and honor him as his quality
deserves."
After these few words of introduction, the worshipful magistrate
immediately quitted the room. But, even in that brief moment, had
the fair Polly glanced aside at her father instead of devoting herself
wholly to the brilliant guest, she might have taken warning of some
mischief nigh at hand. The old man was nervous, fidgety, and very
pale. Purposing a smile of courtesy, he had deformed his face with a
sort of galvanic grin, which, when Feathertop's back was turned, he
exchanged for a scowl, at the same time shaking his fist and
stamping his gouty foot- an incivility which brought its retribution
along with it. The truth appears to have been that Mother Rigby's word
of introduction, whatever it might be, had operated far more on the
rich merchant's fears than on his good will. Moreover, being a man
of wonderfully acute observation, he had noticed that these painted
figures on the bowl of Feathertop's pipe were in motion. Looking
more closely, he became convinced that these figures were a party of
little demons, each duly provided with horns and a tail, and dancing
hand in hand, with gestures of diabolical merriment, round the
circumference of the pipe bowl. As if to confirm his suspicions, while
Master Gookin ushered his guest along a dusky passage from his private
room to the parlor, the star on Feathertop's breast had scintillated
actual flames, and threw a flickering gleam upon the wall, the
ceiling, and the floor.
With such sinister prognostics manifesting themselves on all hands,
it is not to be marvelled at that the merchant should have felt that
he was committing his daughter to a very questionable acquaintance. He
cursed, in his secret soul, the insinuating elegance of Feathertop's
manners, as this brilliant personage bowed, smiled, put his hand on
his heart, inhaled a long whiff from his pipe, and enriched the
atmosphere with the smoky vapor of a fragrant and visible sigh. Gladly
would poor Master Gookin have thrust his dangerous guest into the
street; but there was a constraint and terror within him. This
respectable old gentleman, we fear, at an earlier period of life,
had given some pledge or other to the evil principle, and perhaps
was now to redeem it by the sacrifice of his daughter.
It so happened that the parlor door was partly of glass, shaded
by a silken curtain, the folds of which hung a little awry. So
strong was the merchant's interest in witnessing what was to ensue
between the fair Polly and the gallant Feathertop that, after quitting
the room, he could by no means refrain from peeping through the
crevice of the curtain.
But there was nothing very miraculous to be seen; nothing- except
the trifles previously noticed- to confirm the idea of a
supernatural peril environing the pretty Polly. The stranger it is
true was evidently a thorough and practised man of the world,
systematic and self-possessed, and therefore the sort of a person to
whom a parent ought not to confide a simple, young girl without due
watchfulness for the result. The worthy magistrate, who had been
conversant with all degrees and qualities of mankind, could not but
perceive every motion and gesture of the distinguished Feathertop came
in its proper place; nothing had been left rude or native in him; a
well-digested conventionalism had incorporated itself thoroughly
with his substance and transformed him into a work of art. Perhaps
it was this peculiarity that invested him with a species of
ghastliness and awe. It is the effect of anything completely and
consummately artificial, in human shape, that the person impresses
us as an unreality and as having hardly pith enough to cast a shadow
upon the floor. As regarded Feathertop, all this resulted in a wild,
extravagant, and fantastical impression, as if his life and being were
akin to the smoke that curled upward from his pipe.
But pretty Polly Gookin felt not thus. The pair were now
promenading the room: Feathertop with his dainty stride and no less
dainty grimace; the girl with a native maidenly grace, just touched,
not spoiled, by a slightly affected manner, which seemed caught from
the perfect artifice of her companion. The longer the interview
continued, the more charmed was pretty Polly, until, within the
first quarter of an hour (as the old magistrate noted by his watch),
she was evidently beginning to be in love. Nor need it have been
witchcraft that subdued her in such a hurry; the poor child's heart,
it may be, was so very fervent that it melted her with its own
warmth as reflected from the hollow semblance of a lover. No matter
what Feathertop said, his words found depth and reverberation in her
ear; no matter what he did, his action was heroic to her eye. And by
this time it is to be supposed there was a blush on Polly's cheek, a
tender smile about her mouth, and a liquid softness in her glance;
while the star kept coruscating on Feathertop's breast, and the little
demons careered with more frantic merriment than ever about the
circumference of his pipe bowl. O pretty Polly Gookin, why should
these imps rejoice so madly that a silly maiden's heart was about to
be given to a shadow! Is it so unusual a misfortune, so rare a
triumph?
By and by Feathertop paused, and throwing himself into an
imposing attitude, seemed to summon the fair girl to survey his figure
and resist him longer if she could. His star, his embroidery, his
buckles glowed at that instant with unutterable splendor; the
picturesque hues of his attire took a richer depth of coloring;
there was a gleam and polish over his whole presence betokening the
perfect witchery of well-ordered manners. The maiden raised her eyes
and suffered them to linger upon her companion with a bashful and
admiring gaze. Then, as if desirous of judging what value her own
simple comeliness might have side by side with so much brilliancy, she
cast a glance towards the full-length looking-glass in front of
which they happened to be standing. It was one of the truest plates in
the world and incapable of flattery. No sooner did the images
therein reflected meet Polly's eye than she shrieked, shrank from
the stranger's side, gazed at him for a moment in the wildest
dismay, and sank insensible upon the floor. Feathertop likewise had
looked towards the mirror, and there beheld, not the glittering
mockery of his outside show, but a picture of the sordid patchwork
of his real composition, stripped of all witchcraft.
The wretched simulacrum! We almost pity him. He threw up his arms
with an expression of despair that went further than any of his
previous manifestations towards vindicating his claims to be
reckoned human; for, perchance the only time since this so often empty
and deceptive life of mortals began its course, an illusion had seen
and fully recognized itself.
Mother Rigby was seated by her kitchen hearth in the twilight of
this eventful day, and had just shaken the ashes out of a new pipe,
when she heard a hurried tramp along the road. Yet it did not seem
so much the tramp of human footsteps as the clatter of sticks or the
rattling of dry bones.
"Ha!" thought the old witch, "what step is that? Whose skeleton
is out of its grave now, I wonder?"
A figure burst headlong into the cottage door. It was Feathertop!
His pipe was still alight; the star still flamed upon his breast;
the embroidery still glowed upon his garments; nor had he lost, in any
degree or manner that could be estimated, the aspect that
assimilated him with our mortal brotherhood. But yet, in some
indescribable way (as is the case with all that has deluded us when
once found out), the poor reality was felt beneath the cunning
artifice.
"What has gone wrong?" demanded the witch. "Did yonder sniffling
hypocrite thrust my darling from his door? The villain! I'll set
twenty fiends to torment him till he offer thee his daughter on his
bended knees!"
"No, mother," said Feathertop despondingly; "it was not that."
"Did the girl scorn my precious one?" asked Mother Rigby, her
fierce eyes glowing like two coals of Tophet. "I'll cover her face
with pimples! Her nose shall be as red as the coal in thy pipe! Her
front teeth shall drop out! In a week hence she shall not be worth thy
having!"
"Let her alone, mother," answered poor Feathertop; "the girl was
half won; and methinks a kiss from her sweet lips might have made me
altogether human. But," he added, after a brief pause and then a
howl of self-contempt, "I've seen myself, mother! I've seen myself for
the wretched, ragged, empty thing I am! I'll exist no longer!"
Snatching the pipe from his mouth, he flung it with all his might
against the chimney, and at the same instant sank upon the floor, a
medley of straw and tattered garments, with some sticks protruding
from the heap, and a shrivelled pumpkin in the midst. The eyeholes
were now lustreless; but the rudely-carved gap, that just before had
been a mouth, still seemed to twist itself into a despairing grin, and
was so far human.
"Poor fellow!" quoth Mother Rigby, with a rueful glance at the
relics of her ill-fated contrivance. "My poor, dear, pretty
Feathertop! There are thousands upon thousands of coxcombs and
charlatans in the world, made up of just such a jumble of wornout,
forgotten, and good-for-nothing trash as he was! Yet they live in fair
repute, and never see themselves for what they are. And why should
my poor puppet be the only one to know himself and perish for it?"
While thus muttering, the witch had filled a fresh pipe of tobacco,
and held the stem between her fingers, as doubtful whether to thrust
it into her own mouth or Feathertop's.
"Poor Feathertop!" she continued. "I could easily give him
another chance and send him forth again tomorrow. But no; his feelings
are too tender, his sensibilities too deep. He seems to have too
much heart to bustle for his own advantage in such an empty and
heartless world. Well! well! I'll make a scarecrow of him after all.
'Tis an innocent and useful vocation, and will suit my darling well;
and, if each of his human brethren had as fit a one, 'twould be the
better for mankind; and as for this pipe of tobacco, I need it more
than he."
So saying, Mother Rigby put the stem between her lips. "Dickon!"
cried she, in her high, sharp tone, "another coal for my pipe!"


THE END

 

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