by Nathaniel Hawthorne
DAVID SWAN. A FANTASY.
We can be but partially acquainted even with the events which
actually influence our course through life, and our final destiny.
There are innumerable other events, if such they may be called, which
come close upon us, yet pass away without actual results, or even
betraying their near approach by the reflection of any light or shadow
across our minds. Could we know all the vicissitudes of our fortunes,
life would be too full of hope and fear, exultation or disappointment,
to afford us a single hour of true serenity. This idea may be
illustrated by a page from the secret history of David Swan.
We have nothing to do with David, until we find him, at the age of
twenty, on the high road from his native place to the city of Boston,
where his uncle, a small dealer in the grocery line, was to take him
behind the counter. Be it enough to say, that he was a native of New
Hampshire, born of respectable parents, and had received an ordinary
school education, with a classic finish by a year at Gilmanton
academy. After journeying on foot, from sunrise till nearly noon of a
summer's day, his weariness and the increasing heat determined him to
sit down in the first convenient shade, and await the coming up of the
stage-coach. As if planted on purpose for him, there soon appeared a
little tuft of maples, with a delightful recess in the midst, and such
a fresh, bubbling spring, that it seemed never to have sparkled for any
way-farer but David Swan. Virgin or not, he kissed it with his thirsty
lips, and then flung himself along the brink, pillowing his head upon
some shirts and a pair of pantaloons, tied up in a striped cotton
handkerchief. The sunbeams could not reach him; the dust did not yet
rise from the road, after the heavy rain of yesterday; and his grassy
lair suited the young man better than a bed of down. The spring
murmured drowsily beside him; the branches waved dreamily across the
blue sky, overhead; and a deep sleep, perchance hiding dreams within
its depth, fell upon David Swan. But we are to relate events which he
did not dream of.
While he lay sound asleep in the shade, other people were wide
awake, and passed to and fro, afoot, on horseback, and in all sorts of
vehicles, along the sunny road by his bed-chamber. Some looked neither
to the right hand nor to the left, and knew not that he was there; some
merely glanced that way, without admitting the slumberer among their
busy thoughts; some laughed to see how soundly he slept; and several,
whose hearts were brimming full of scorn, ejected their venomous
superfluity on David Swan. A middle-aged widow, when nobody else was
near, thrust her head a little way into the recess, and vowed that the
young fellow looked charming in his sleep. A temperance lecturer saw
him, and wrought poor David into the texture of his evening's
discourse, as an awful instance of dead drunkenness by the roadside.
But censure, praise, merriment, scorn, or indifference, were all one,
or rather all nothing to David Swan.
He had slept only a few moments, when a brown carriage, drawn by a
handsome pair of horses, bowled easily along, and was brought to a
stand-still nearly in front of David's resting-place. A linch-pin had
fallen out, and permitted one of the wheels to slide off. The damage
was slight, and occasioned merely a momentary alarm to an elderly
merchant and his wife, who were returning to Boston in the carriage.
While the coachman and a servant were replacing the wheel, the lady and
gentleman sheltered themselves beneath the maple trees, and there
espied the bubbling fountain, and David Swan asleep beside it.
Impressed with the awe which the humblest sleeper usually sheds around
him, the merchant trod as lightly as the gout would allow; and his
spouse took good heed not to rustle her silk gown, lest David should
start up, all of a sudden.
"How soundly he sleeps!" whispered the old gentleman. "From what a
depth he draws that easy breath! Such sleep as that, brought on without
an opiate, would be worth more to me than half my income; for it would
suppose health, and an untroubled mind."
"And youth, besides," said the lady. "Healthy and quiet age does not
sleep thus. Our slumber is no more like his, than our wakefulness."
The longer they looked, the more did this elderly couple feel
interested in the unknown youth, to whom the way-side and the maple
shade were as a secret chamber, with the rich gloom of damask curtains
brooding over him. Perceiving that a stray sunbeam glimmered down upon
his face, the lady contrived to twist a branch aside, so as to
intercept it. And having done this little act of kindness, she began to
feel like a mother to him.
"Providence seems to have laid him here," whispered she to her
husband, "and to have brought us hither to find him, after our
disappointment in our cousin's son. Methinks I can see a likeness to
our departed Henry. Shall we waken him?"
"To what purpose?" said the merchant, hesitating. "We know nothing
of the youth's character."
"That open countenance!" replied his wife, in the same hushed voice,
yet earnestly. "This innocent sleep!"
While these whispers were passing, the sleeper's heart did not
throb, nor his breath become agitated, nor his features betray the
least token of interest. Yet Fortune was bending over him, just ready
to let fall a burthen of gold. The old merchant had lost his only son,
and had no heir to his wealth, except a distant relative, with whose
conduct he was dissatisfied. In such cases, people sometimes do
stranger things than to act the magician, and awaken a young man to
splendor, who fell asleep in poverty.
"Shall we not waken him?" repeated the lady, persuasively.
"The coach is ready, sir," said the servant, behind.
The old couple started, reddened, and hurried away, mutually
wondering, that they should ever have dreamed of doing any thing so
very ridiculous. The merchant threw himself back in the carriage, and
occupied his mind with the plan of a magnificent asylum for unfortunate
men of business. Meanwhile, David Swan enjoyed his nap.
The carriage could not have gone above a mile or two, when a pretty
young girl came along, with a tripping pace, which showed precisely how
her little heart was dancing in her bosom. Perhaps it was this merry
kind of motion that caused—is there any harm in saying it?—her
garter to slip its knot. Conscious that the silken girth, if silk it
were, was relaxing its hold, she turned aside into the shelter of the
maple trees, and there found a young man asleep by the spring!
Blushing, as red as any rose, that she should have intruded into a
gentleman's bed-chamber, and for such a purpose too, she was about to
make her escape on tiptoe. But there was peril near the sleeper. A
monster of a bee had been wandering overhead—buzz, buzz, buzz—now
among the leaves, now flashing through the strips of sunshine, and now
lost in the dark shade, till finally he appeared to be settling on the
eyelid of David Swan. The sting of a bee is sometimes deadly. As
freehearted as she was innocent, the girl attacked the intruder with
her handkerchief, brushed him soundly, and drove him from beneath the
maple shade. How sweet a picture! This good deed accomplished, with
quickened breath, and a deeper blush, she stole a glance at the
youthful stranger, for whom she had been battling with a dragon in the
"He is handsome!" thought she, and blushed redder yet.
How could it be that no dream of bliss grew so strong within him,
that, shattered by its very strength, it should part asunder, and allow
him to perceive the girl among its phantoms? Why, at least, did no
smile of welcome brighten upon his face? She was come, the maid whose
soul, according to the old and beautiful idea, had been severed from
his own, and whom, in all his vague but passionate desires, he yearned
to meet. Her, only, could he love with a perfect love— him, only,
could she receive into the depths of her heart—and now her image was
faintly blushing in the fountain by his side; should it pass away, its
happy lustre would never gleam upon his life again.
"How sound he sleeps!" murmured the girl.
She departed, but did not trip along the road so lightly as when she
Now, this girl's father was a thriving country merchant in the
neighborhood, and happened, at that identical time, to be looking out
for just such a young man as David Swan. Had David formed a way-side
acquaintance with the daughter, he would have become the father's
clerk, and all else in natural succession. So here, again, had good
fortune—the best of fortunes—stolen so near, that her garments
brushed against him; and he knew nothing of the matter.
The girl was hardly out of sight, when two men turned aside beneath
the maple shade. Both had dark faces, set off by cloth caps, which were
drawn down aslant over their brows. Their dresses were shabby, yet had
a certain smartness. These were a couple of rascals, who got their
living by whatever the devil sent them, and now, in the interim of
other business, had staked the joint profits of their next piece of
villany on a game of cards, which was to have been decided here under
the trees. But, finding David asleep by the spring, one of the rogues
whispered to his fellow,
"Hist!—Do you see that bundle under his head?"
The other villain nodded, winked, and leered.
"I'll bet you a horn of brandy," said the first, "that the chap has
either a pocket-book, or a snug little hoard of small change, stowed
away amongst his shirts. And if not there, we shall find it in his
"But how if he wakes?" said the other.
His companion thrust aside his waistcoat, pointed to the handle of a
dirk, and nodded.
"So be it!" muttered the second villain.
They approached the unconscious David, and, while one pointed the
dagger towards his heart, the other began to search the bundle beneath
his head. Their two faces, grim, wrinkled, and ghastly with guilt and
fear, bent over their victim, looking horrible enough to be mistaken
for fiends, should he suddenly awake. Nay, had the villains glanced
aside into the spring, even they would hardly have known themselves, as
reflected there. But David Swan had never worn a more tranquil aspect,
even when asleep on his mother's breast.
"I must take away the bundle," whispered one.
"If he stirs, I'll strike," muttered the other.
But, at this moment, a dog, scenting along the ground, came in
beneath the maple trees, and gazed alternately at each of these wicked
men, and then at the quiet sleeper. He then lapped out of the fountain.
"Pshaw!" said one villain. "We can do nothing now. The dog's master
must be close behind."
"Let's take a drink, and be off," said the other.
The man with the dagger thrust back the weapon into his bosom, and
drew forth a pocket pistol, but not of that kind which kills by a
single discharge. It was a flask of liquor, with a block tin tumbler
screwed upon the mouth. Each drank a comfortable dram, and left the
spot, with so many jests, and such laughter at their unaccomplished
wickedness, that they might be said to have gone on their way
rejoicing. In a few hours, they had forgotten the whole affair, nor
once imagined that the recording angel had written down the crime of
murder against their souls, in letters as durable as eternity. As for
David Swan, he still slept quietly, neither conscious of the shadow of
death when it hung over him, nor of the glow of renewed life, when that
shadow was withdrawn.
He slept, but no longer so quietly as at first. An hour's repose had
snatched from his elastic frame the weariness with which many hours of
toil had burthened it. Now, he stirred—now, moved his lips, without a
sound—now, talked, in an inward tone, to the noonday spectres of his
dream. But a noise of wheels came rattling louder and louder along the
road, until it dashed through the dispersing mist of David's
slumber—and there was the stage-coach. He started up, with all his
ideas about him.
"Halloo, driver!—Take a passenger?" shouted he.
"Room on top," answered the driver.
Up mounted David, and bowled away merrily towards Boston, without so
much as a parting glance at that fountain of dreamlike vicissitude. He
knew not that a phantom of wealth had thrown a golden hue upon its
waters—nor that one of love had sighed softly to their murmur—nor
that one of death had threatened to crimson them with his blood—all
in the brief hour since he lay down to sleep. Sleeping or waking, we
hear not the airy footsteps of the strange things that almost happen.
Does it not argue a superintending Providence, that, while viewless and
unexpected events thrust themselves continually athwart our path, there
should still be regularity enough, in mortal life, to render foresight
even partially available?