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Title: Chippings with a Chisel (From "Twice Told Tales")
Author: Hawthorne, Nathaniel
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Chippings with a Chisel (From "Twice Told Tales")" ***

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                        TWICE TOLD TALES

                     CHIPPINGS WITH A CHISEL

                     By Nathaniel Hawthorne



Passing a summer, several years since, at Edgartown, on the island of
Martha’s Vineyard, I became acquainted with a certain carver of
tombstones, who had travelled and voyaged thither from the interior of
Massachusetts, in search of professional employment.  The speculation
had turned out so successful, that my friend expected to transmute
slate and marble into silver and gold, to the amount of at least a
thousand dollars, during the few months of his sojourn at Nantucket
and the Vineyard.  The secluded life, and the simple and primitive
spirit which still characterizes the inhabitants of those islands,
especially of Martha’s Vineyard, insure their dead friends a longer
and dearer remembrance than the daily novelty and revolving bustle of
the world can elsewhere afford to beings of the past.  Yet while every
family is anxious to erect a memorial to its departed members, the
untainted breath of ocean bestows such health and length of days upon
the people of the isles, as would cause a melancholy dearth of
business to a resident artist in that line. His own monument,
recording his disease by starvation, would probably be an early
specimen of his skill.  Gravestones, therefore, have generally been an
article of imported merchandise.

In my walks through the burial-ground of Edgartown,--where the dead
have lain so long that the soil, once enriched by their decay, has
returned to its original barrenness,--in that ancient burial-ground I
noticed much variety of monumental sculpture. The elder stones, dated
a century back, or more, have borders elaborately carved with flowers,
and are adorned with a multiplicity of death’s-heads, cross-bones,
scythes, hour-glasses, and other lugubrious emblems of mortality, with
here and there a winged cherub to direct the mourner’s spirit upward.
These productions of Gothic taste must have been quite beyond the
colonial skill of the day, and were probably carved in London, and
brought across the ocean to commemorate the defunct worthies of this
lonely isle.  The more recent monuments are mere slabs of slate, in
the ordinary style, without any superfluous flourishes to set off the
bald inscriptions.  But others--and those far the most impressive,
both to my taste and feelings--were roughly hewn from the gray rocks
of the island, evidently by the unskilled hands of surviving friends
and relatives.  On some there were merely the initials of a name; some
were inscribed with misspelt prose or rhyme, in deep letters, which
the moss and wintry rain of many years had not been able to
obliterate.  These, these were graves where loved ones slept!  It is
an old theme of satire, the falsehood and vanity of monumental
eulogies; but when affection and sorrow grave the letters with their
own painful labor, then we may be sure that they copy from the record
on their hearts.

My acquaintance, the sculptor,--he may share that title with
Greenough, since the dauber of signs is a painter as well as
Raphael,--had found a ready market for all his blank slabs of marble, and
full occupation in lettering and ornamenting them. He was an elderly man,
a descendant of the old Puritan family of Wigglesworth, with a certain
simplicity and singleness, both of heart and mind, which, methinks, is
more rarely-found among us Yankees than in any other community of
people.  In spite of his gray head and wrinkled brow, he was quite
like a child in all matters save what had some reference to his own
business; he seemed, unless my fancy misled me, to view mankind in no
other relation than as people in want of tombstones; and his literary
attainments evidently comprehended very little, either of prose or
poetry, which had not, at one time or other, been inscribed on slate
or marble.  His sole task and office among the immortal pilgrims of
the tomb--the duty for which Providence had sent the old man into the
world, as it were with a chisel in his hand--was to label the dead
bodies, lest their names should be forgotten at the resurrection.  Yet
he had not failed, within a narrow scope, to gather a few sprigs of
earthly, and more than earthly, wisdom,--the harvest of many a grave.

And lugubrious as his calling might appear, he was as cheerful an old
soul as health, and integrity, and lack of care, could make him, and
used to set to work upon one sorrowful inscription or another with
that sort of spirit which impels a man to sing at his labor.  On the
whole, I found Mr. Wigglesworth an entertaining, and often
instructive, if not an interesting character; and partly for the charm
of his society, and still more because his work has an invariable
attraction for “man that is born of woman,” I was accustomed to spend
some hours a day at his workshop.  The quaintness of his remarks, and
their not infrequent truth,--a truth condensed and pointed by the
limited sphere of his view,--gave a raciness to his talk, which mere
worldliness and general cultivation would at once have destroyed.

Sometimes we would discuss the respective merits of the various
qualities of marble, numerous slabs of which were resting against the
walls of the shop; or sometimes an hour or two would pass quietly,
without a word on either side, while I watched how neatly his chisel
struck out letter after letter of the names of the Nortons, the
Mayhews, the Luces, the Daggets, and other immemorial families of the
Vineyard.  Often, with an artist’s pride, the good old sculptor would
speak of favorite productions of his skill, which were scattered
throughout the village graveyards of New England.  But my chief and
most instructive amusement was to witness his interviews with his
customers, who held interminable consultations about the form and
fashion of the desired monuments, the buried excellence to be
commemorated, the anguish to be expressed, and finally, the lowest
price in dollars and cents for which a marble transcript of their
feelings might be obtained.  Really, my mind received many fresh
ideas, which, perhaps, may remain in it even longer than Mr.
Wigglesworth’s hardest marble will retain the deepest strokes of his
chisel.

An elderly lady came to bespeak a monument for her first love, who had
been killed by a whale in the Pacific Ocean no less than forty years
before.  It was singular that so strong an impression of early feeling
should have survived through the changes of her subsequent life, in
the course of which she had been a wife and a mother, and, so far as I
could judge, a comfortable and happy woman.  Reflecting within myself,
it appeared to me that this lifelong sorrow--as, in all good faith,
she deemed it--was one of the most fortunate circumstances of her
history.  It had given an ideality to her mind; it had kept her purer
and less earthly than she would otherwise have been, by drawing a
portion of her sympathies apart from earth.  Amid the throng of
enjoyments, and the pressure of worldly care, and all the warm
materialism of this life, she had communed with a vision, and had been
the better for such intercourse.  Faithful to the husband of her
maturity, and loving him with a far more real affection than she ever
could have felt for this dream of her girlhood, there had still been
an imaginative faith to the ocean-buried, so that an ordinary
character had thus been elevated and refined.  Her sighs had been the
breath of Heaven to her soul.  The good lady earnestly desired that
the proposed monument should be ornamented with a carved border of
marine plants, intertwined with twisted sea-shells, such as were
probably waving over her lover’s skeleton, or strewn around it, in the
far depths of the Pacific. But Mr. Wigglesworth’s chisel being
inadequate to the task, she was forced to content herself with a rose,
hanging its head from a broken stem.  After her departure, I remarked
that the symbol was none of the most apt.

“And yet,” said my friend the sculptor, embodying in this image the
thoughts that had been passing through my own mind, “that broken rose
has shed its sweet smell through forty years of the good woman’s
life.”

It was seldom that I could find such pleasant food for contemplation
as in the above instance.  None off the applicants, I think, affected
me more disagreeably than an old man who came, with his fourth wife
hanging on his arm, to bespeak gravestones for the three former
occupants of his marriage-bed.  I watched with some anxiety to see
whether his remembrance of either were more affectionate than of the
other two, but could discover no symptom of the kind.  The three
monuments were all to be of the same material and form, and each
decorated, in bas-relief, with two weeping-willows, one of these
sympathetic trees bending over its fellow, which was to be broken in
the midst and rest upon a sepulchral urn.  This, indeed, was Mr.
Wigglesworth’s standing emblem of conjugal bereavement.  I shuddered
at the gray polygamist, who had so utterly lost the holy sense of
individuality in wedlock, that methought he was fain to reckon upon
his fingers how many women, who had once slept by his side, were now
sleeping in their graves.  There was even--if I wrong him it is no
great matter--a glance sidelong at his living spouse, as if he were
inclined to drive a thriftier bargain by bespeaking four gravestones
in a lot.  I was better pleased with a rough old whaling captain, who
gave directions for a broad marble slab, divided into two
compartments, one of which was to contain an epitaph on his deceased
wife, and the other to be left vacant, till death should engrave his
own name there.  As is frequently the case among the whalers of
Martha’s Vineyard, so much of this storm-beaten widower’s life had been
tossed away on distant seas, that out of twenty years of matrimony he
had spent scarce three, and those at scattered intervals, beneath his
own roof.  Thus the wife of his youth, though she died in his and her
declining age, retained the bridal dewdrops fresh around her memory.

My observations gave me the idea, and Mr. Wigglesworth confirmed it,
that husbands were more faithful in setting up memorials to their dead
wives than widows to their dead husbands.  I was not ill-natured
enough to fancy that women, less than men, feel so sure of their own
constancy as to be willing to give a pledge of it in marble.  It is
more probably the fact, that while men are able to reflect upon their
lost companions as remembrances apart from themselves, women, on the
other hand, are conscious that a portion of their being has gone with
the departed whithersoever he has gone.  Soul clings to soul; the
living dust has a sympathy with the dust of the grave; and, by the
very strength of that sympathy, the wife of the dead shrinks the more
sensitively from reminding the world of its existence.  The link is
already strong enough; it needs no visible symbol.  And, though a
shadow walks ever by her side, and the touch of a chill hand is on her
bosom, yet life, and perchance its natural yearnings, may still be
warm within her, and inspire her with new hopes of happiness.  Then
would she mark out the grave, the scent of which would be perceptible
on the pillow of the second bridal?  No--but rather level its green
mound with the surrounding earth, as if, when she dug up again her
buried heart, the spot had ceased to be a grave. Yet, in spite of
these sentimentalities, I was prodigiously amused by an incident, of
which I had not the good fortune to be a witness, but which Mr.
Wigglesworth related with considerable humor.  A gentlewoman of the
town, receiving news of her husband’s loss at sea, had bespoken a
handsome slab of marble, and came daily to watch the progress of my
friend’s chisel.  One afternoon, when the good lady and the sculptor
were in the very midst of the epitaph, which the departed spirit might
have been greatly comforted to read, who should walk into the workshop
but the deceased himself, in substance as well as spirit!  He had been
picked up at sea, and stood in no present need of tombstone or
epitaph.

“And how,” inquired I, “did his wife bear the shock of joyful
surprise?”

“Why,” said the old man, deepening the grin of a death’s-head, on
which his chisel was just then employed,  “I really felt for the poor
woman; it was one of my best pieces of marble,--and to be thrown away
on a living man!”

A comely woman, with a pretty rosebud of a daughter, came to select a
gravestone for a twin-daughter, who had died a month before.  I was
impressed with the different nature of their feelings for the dead;
the mother was calm and wofully resigned, fully conscious of her loss,
as of a treasure which she had not always possessed, and, therefore,
had been aware that it might be taken from her; but the daughter
evidently had no real knowledge of what death’s doings were.  Her
thoughts knew, but not her heart.  It seemed to me, that by the print
and pressure which the dead sister had left upon the survivor’s
spirit, her feelings were almost the same as if she still stood side
by side, and arm in arm, with the departed, looking at the slabs of
marble; and once or twice she glanced around with a sunny smile,
which, as its sister smile had faded forever, soon grew confusedly
overshadowed.  Perchance her consciousness was truer than her
reflection,--perchance her dead sister was a closer companion than in
life.  The mother and daughter talked a long while with Mr.
Wigglesworth about a suitable epitaph, and finally chose an ordinary
verse of ill-matched rhymes, which had already been inscribed upon
innumerable tombstones.  But, when we ridicule the triteness of
monumental verses, we forget that Sorrow reads far deeper in them than
we can, and finds a profound and individual purport in what seems so
vague and inexpressive, unless interpreted by her.  She makes the
epitaph anew, though the self-same words may have served for a
thousand graves.

“And yet,” said I afterwards to Mr. Wigglesworth, “they might have
made a better choice than this.  While you were discussing the
subject, I was struck by at least a dozen simple and natural
expressions from the lips of both mother and daughter.  One of these
would have formed an inscription equally original and appropriate.”

“No, no,” replied the sculptor, shaking his head, “there is a good deal
of comfort to be gathered from these little old scraps of poetry; and
so I always recommend them in preference to any new-fangled ones.  And
somehow, they seem to stretch to suit a great grief, and shrink to fit
a small one.”

It was not seldom that ludicrous images were excited by what took
place between Mr. Wigglesworth and his customers.  A shrewd
gentlewoman, who kept a tavern in the town, was anxious to obtain two
or three gravestones for the deceased members of her family, and to
pay for these solemn commodities by taking the sculptor to board.
Hereupon a fantasy arose in my mind, of good Mr. Wigglesworth sitting
down to dinner at a broad, flat tombstone, carving one of his own
plump little marble cherubs, gnawing a pair of cross-bones, and
drinking out of a hollow death’s-head, or perhaps a lachrymatory vase,
or sepulchral urn; while his hostess’s dead children waited on him at
the ghastly banquet.  On communicating this nonsensical picture to the
old man, he laughed heartily, and pronounced my humor to be of the
right sort.

“I have lived at such a table all my days,” said he, “and eaten no
small quantity of slate and marble.”

“Hard fare!” rejoined I, smiling; “but you seemed to have found it
excellent of digestion, too.”

A man of fifty, or thereabouts, with a harsh, unpleasant countenance,
ordered a stone for the grave of his bitter enemy with whom he had
waged warfare half a lifetime, to their mutual misery and ruin.  The
secret of this phenomenon was, that hatred had become the sustenance
and enjoyment of the poor wretch’s soul; it had supplied the place of
all kindly affections; it had been really a bond of sympathy between
himself and the man who shared the passion; and when its object died,
the unappeasable foe was the only mourner for the dead.  He expressed
a purpose of being buried side by side with his enemy.

“I doubt whether their dust will mingle,” remarked the old sculptor to
me; for often there was an earthliness in his conceptions.

“O yes,” replied I, who had mused long upon the incident; “and when
they rise again, these bitter foes may find themselves dear friends.
Methinks what they mistook for hatred was but love under a mask.”

A gentleman of antiquarian propensities provided a memorial for an
Indian of Chabbiquidick, one of the few of untainted blood remaining
in that region, and said to be an hereditary chieftain, descended from
the sachem who welcomed Governor Mayhew to the Vineyard.  Mr.
Wigglesworth exerted his best skill to carve a broken bow and
scattered sheaf of arrows, in memory of the hunters and warriors whose
race was ended here; but he likewise sculptured a cherub, to denote
that the poor Indian had shared the Christian’s hope of immortality.

“Why,” observed I, taking a perverse view of the winged boy and the
bow and arrows, “it looks more like Cupid’s tomb than an Indian
chief’s!”

“You talk nonsense,” said the sculptor, with the offended pride of
art; he then added, with his usual good-nature,  “How can Cupid die
when there are such pretty maidens in the Vineyard?”

“Very true,” answered I; and for the rest of the day I thought of
other matters than tombstones.

At our next meeting I found him chiselling an open book upon a marble
headstone, and concluded that it was meant to express the erudition of
some black-letter clergyman of the Cotton Mather school.  It turned
out, however, to be emblematical of the scriptural knowledge of an old
woman who had never read anything but her Bible; and the monument was
a tribute to her piety and good works, from the Orthodox church, of
which she had been a member.  In strange contrast with this Christian
woman’s memorial, was that of an infidel, whose gravestone, by his own
direction, bore an avowal of his belief that the spirt within him
would be extinguished like a flame, and that the nothingness whence he
sprang would receive him again.  Mr. Wigglesworth consulted me as to
the propriety of enabling a dead man’s dust to utter this dreadful
creed.

“If I thought,” said he, “that a single mortal would read the
inscription without a shudder, my chisel should never cut a letter of
it.  But when the grave speaks such falsehoods, the soul of man will
know the truth by its own horror.”

“So it will,” said I, struck by the idea; “the poor infidel may strive
to preach blasphemies from his grave; but it will be only another
method of impressing the soul with a consciousness of immortality.”

There was an old man by the name of Norton, noted throughout the
island for his great wealth, which he had accumulated by the exercise
of strong and shrewd faculties, combined with a most penurious
disposition.  This wretched miser, conscious that he had not a friend
to be mindful of him in his grave, had himself taken the needful
precautions for posthumous remembrance, by bespeaking an immense slab
of white marble, with a long epitaph in raised letters, the whole to
be as magnificent as Mr. Wigglesworth’s skill could make it.  There
was something very characteristic in this contrivance to have his
money’s worth even from his own tombstone, which, indeed, afforded him
more enjoyment in the few months that he lived thereafter, than it
probably will in a whole century, now that it is laid over his bones.
This incident reminds me of a young girl, a pale, slender, feeble
creature, most unlike the other rosy and healthful damsels of the
Vineyard, amid whose brightness she was fading away.  Day after day
did the poor maiden come to the sculptor’s shop, and pass from one
piece of marble to another, till at last she pencilled her name upon a
slender slab, which, I think, was of a more spotless white than all
the rest.  I saw her no more, but soon afterwards found Mr.
Wigglesworth cutting her virgin name into the stone which she had
chosen.

“She is dead,--poor girl,” said he, interrupting the tune which he was
whistling, “and she chose a good piece of stuff for her headstone.
Now which of these slabs would you like best to see your own name
upon?”

“Why, to tell you the truth, my good Mr. Wigglesworth,” replied I,
after a moment’s pause,--for the abruptness of the question had
somewhat startled me,--“to be quite sincere with you, I care little or
nothing about a stone for my own grave, and am somewhat inclined to
scepticism as to the propriety of erecting monuments at all, over the
dust that once was human.  The weight of these heavy marbles, though
unfelt by the dead corpse of the enfranchised soul, presses drearily
upon the spirit of the survivor, and causes him to connect the idea of
death with the dungeon-like imprisonment of the tomb, instead of with
the freedom of the skies.  Every gravestone that you ever made is the
visible symbol of a mistaken system.  Our thoughts should soar upward
with the butterfly,--not linger with the exuviae that confined him.
In truth and reason, neither those whom we call the living, and still
less the departed, have anything to do with the grave.”

“I never heard anything so heathenish!” said Mr. Wigglesworth,
perplexed and displeased at sentiments which controverted all his
notions and feelings, and implied the utter waste, and worse, of his
whole life’s labor; “would you forget your dead friends, the moment
they are under the sod?”

“They are not under the sod,” I rejoined; “then why should I mark the
spot where there is no treasure hidden!  Forget them?  No! But to
remember them aright, I would forget what they have cast off.  And, to
gain the truer conception of DEATH, I would forget them GRAVE!”

But still the good old sculptor murmured, and stumbled, as it were,
over the gravestones amid which he had walked through life. Whether he
were right or wrong, I had grown the wiser from our companionship and
from my observations of nature and character, as displayed by those
who came, with their old griefs or their new ones, to get them
recorded upon his slabs of marble.  And yet, with my gain of wisdom, I
had likewise gained perplexity; for there was a strange doubt in my
mind, whether the dark shadowing of this life, the sorrows and
regrets, have not as much real comfort in them--leaving religious
influences out of the question--as what we term life’s joys.





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