For the Love of Hawthorne
53 Charter Street, Salem, Massachusetts, 1837
Monday eve under a blur of stars, warm for mid-November
“O, Sophie!” My sister pounded on my bedroom door. My head throbbed with every strike of her fist. “Pull on a frock and come downstairs! Now!”
I squeezed my eyes shut. “Please, Lizzie, I have one of my headaches. Leave me be.”
Heedless of my request or of the fierce pain tearing my brain, she shoved the door open. Its rusty hinges screeched. “Oh, dear God.” I covered my ears.
She stomped up to my bed, nudging me. “Another headache? You poor dear.” Her tone indicated neither sympathy nor sincerity. “Take more hyoscyamus.”
“I have none left. I took an opium powder,” my muffled voice cracked.
“You need be mesmerized again. When is Dr. Fiske’s next visit?” She sat on the bed. The mattress sagged under her weight.
“Friday. But I know what brought this on. Mr. Allston lent me his edition of Flaxman’s ‘Greek Poets’ and I copied every outline drawing in it. That exhausted me and my head started to rage. Oh, what I won’t do for my art.” I drew my knees to my chest and burrowed under the covers.
“Then come downstairs. You’ll be cured in an instant. Guess who’s here! Nathaniel Hawthorne! That is, him and his two hooded sisters. At least he took his mantle off. It’s nice to see them out of their house.”
I lowered the blanket past my chin, opened one eye and peeked at Lizzie fussing with her cuffs. “What got the sisters out?”
“My visit to them on Herbert Street.” A smug grin accompanied her air of braggadocio. My ears perked.
“Nobody calls on them!” I raised my shoulders off the bed. “You went there? Why did you intrude? You know how reclusive they are.”
“I went to call on Ebe. I used to see her all the time but haven’t chanced upon her in a while. We always recited our lessons together. A brilliant little girl, so poetical with great sense and cultivated by reading. I used to think she looked as if she’d walked out of an old picture as she preserved the ancient costume. Now, now such a hermitess. Pity.” She paused, lips pursed. “I read stories in New England Magazine by a Mr. Hawthorne. Naturally I believed it was Ebe under a pen name. Wanting to help her publish in other magazines, I called at their house. But the other sister, Louisa, answered the door. ‘I believe Ebe a genius,’ I told her, and she corrected me presently—‘Oh, my brother, you mean.’ And you know who that is, of course.”
“Nathaniel.” I nodded. “They only have one brother.”
“None other. I made it clear that if her brother writes like that, he has no right to be idle. Not long after, he sent me his Twice-Told Tales. It delighted me, so I told him to write for the Democratic Chronicle. But he replied he has no interest in journalism. And now he sits on our chesterfield directly below you!” She grinned at her accomplishment, beaming in the dim gaslight from the hallway. “My newly discovered genius with both his sisters.”
“They have no interest in me,” I countered. “You, Mary, George, and Welly are the brilliant ones. I have nothing to offer the Hawthornes.”
She leaned over and swept wisps of hair off my forehead. “But, Sophie, you do. He wants to meet you. You were too young, but I remember him as a broad-shouldered little boy with clustering locks, springing about the yard. And now . . .” She fanned her face with her hand. “You never saw anything so splendid. He is handsomer than Lord Byron.”
Her gushing eased my pain. “Lord Byron? You don’t say.” I chuckled. “I think it rather ridiculous to get up. If he has come once, he will come again.”
Lizzie shook her head. “Nuh-uh-uh. He specially asked for you.” Her tone carried a hint of resentment.
I opened both eyes wide, intrigued, but not enough to dress up and drag myself downstairs. “Why me? Does he not know you want him all to yourself?”
She blinked, pressing her palm to Grandmother Palmer’s pearl necklace nestled above her bosom. “Of course not. I wouldn’t even hint at such a thing. I don’t want him all to myself. Not all the time.” She released a wistful sigh. “When I see him round town, we chat about his writing, news of the day, the latest with Mr. Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Susan Burley and the crew . . . idle chitchat. But he wants to talk with you about your Cuba journal. I gave it to him and he devoured it in two days.”
I sat up, shading my eyes from the gaslight, however weak. “That’s why he wants to meet me? I didn’t know you gave him that. Why didn’t you ask me first?” Always direct with Lizzie, I played up the annoyance in my tone.
She shrugged, tracing a pattern on my cover with her forefinger. “Everyone else read it.”
“Lizzie, will you stop trying to run my life?” I snapped. My muscles quivered as familiar outrage rose in me. “I know everybody read it. Without my consent. And you gave it to Nathaniel Hawthorne? Someone I’ve never met?”
“All your chiding was for naught then, and it is now. Everybody I gave it to devoured it, and now he’s fascinated with it.” Her voice lilted. “Says he feels he’s known you all his life and has become—” She cleared her throat. “intimately acquainted with your spirit and inner character.”
I narrowed my eyes, but not to block out light. “He read between the lines, then, if he thinks he knows me . . . intimately.” The word sent heat surging to my cheeks.
She flicked her wrist, her standard pooh-poohing gesture. “Well, it is sensual. He heard about it from others who’ve read it and begged me to see it.”
“Did he beg to see me?” Picturing the Byron lookalike perched on the sofa, eyes fixed on the staircase, awaiting my appearance, I almost forgot my head whirled like a top.
Lizzie raised her chins and shook her head. Her chestnut curls bobbed. “He doesn’t beg. But he did request your presence, and so politely. ‘Please fetch Miss Sophia for me, I most wish to make her acquaintance.’” She dropped her pitch to imitate his. “You’ll find endless topics to bandy about, when he’s finished raving about your journal.” Resentment crept back into her tone, confusing me.
“Why play messenger for Mr. Hawthorne, when you fancy him yourself? You never made a secret of that.” Mary and I teased her about it no end.
She let out a haughty whoosh. “Look, are you coming down or not?” She stood and stared me down, fists on hips.
I snuggled back under the covers. “Tell him thank you. I’ll come down next time, when I have no headache. But he needn’t know that. Give him my regrets. I’m bedridden for now.”
“He knows why you’re bedridden,” she retorted. “I told him of your invalidism—that is, your headaches.”
I opened an eye and glared. “Why did you feel the need to divulge that? Did you also share my toilette ritual with him?”
“Huffiness does not become you, Sophie.” That chiding quality of hers always gnawed at me and sent flames of irritation racing through my veins. “I qualified that by adding how your pain doesn’t embitter or even sadden the unspoiled imagination of your heart.”
“No, it just sends me abed when I’d rather be out walking, riding, flitting, flirting . . .” I mumbled into the pillow. Then inspiration struck. I lifted my head. “Lizzie, go to my center table there, take them the Greek Poets book so they can look through it.”
She fetched the book and backed out, her figure filling the doorway. “Very well, but I have him all to myself for now . . . who knows what can happen?” she taunted with a playful lilt.
“Oh, yeah, with the two hooded figures flanking him,” I harrumphed.
“I daresay next time he calls he will be alone,” Lizzie predicted from my doorway.
“Then next time he calls—alone—I’ll come down.” I bunched the pillow under my head.
“If you’re home and not out gallivanting. Feel better soon.” She shut the door with a click. As her footsteps receded, the room fell dead silent.
Curiosity gnawed at me. I craved a peek at him. Rubbing my hands together with mischief, I slipt from bed, opened the door and tiptoed out to the hall. I crept to the banister and peered over. There he sat, his imposing presence poised in profile. He chatted with Mary and Lizzie, his enshrouded sisters flanking him. They sat in shadow, but he glowed. His voice, most musical thunder, eased my pain, soothing me. “O’Sullivan asked me to write for his new magazine so I penned The Toll-Gatherer’s Day in a single night when I couldn’t sleep.”
Staring as if entranced, I placed my hand over my dancing heart. Oh, handsomer than Lord Byron, all right. But why did he want to meet poor, miserable, maimed, nerve-twisted, trembling me, with pasty face and ash gray eyes, disciplined and defined by chronic headache? He had free access to Lizzie’s company, flattery, and engaging discourse. Had my breezy Cuba journal sparked that much interest? As I focused on him, unblinking, my head ceased pounding. I drew a sigh, luxuriated in the absence of pain and mentally rehearsed our first meeting.