Notes: Many of my conclusions about the relationship between the two men, as well as their characters, comes from Melville: A Biography by Laurie Robertson-Lorant, as well as a certain quote from Melville. Some of my assertions about Hawthorne's beliefs come from "Young Goodman Brown."
From the moment his eyes met the opaque grey-green orbs that would haunt him for the rest of his life, Herman knew that he was transfixed. The man had been older but strikingly more beautiful, with slightly wavy and graying dark locks, skin that seemed to be imbued with a shadowy glow, and just the beginnings of a smile that suggested something he hadn't understood at the time, and sometimes still felt as if he couldn't understand. Since the day that they had met at Stockbridge, he felt as if he had been trying to understand the other man, to ferret his way through the darkness he was so inherently imbued with and find what mysteries lay beneath. He also felt as if he most certainly had not succeeded.
The man was a dark mystery, Herman had known that since he had picked up his first book by the other man, and had been infused with the fiery desire to meet the man. And when the chance had been afforded him, he hadn't been disappointed in the slightest—two hours of conversation was all it took to convince Herman that the other man was perhaps the most amazing, the most beautiful, the most stunning—both intellectually and physically—man he had ever met.
Their conversation ebbed and flowed like a river, danced like a musical composition through overtures and intermezzos and cadences—changing from adagios to sonatas, minuets to capriccios—and it felt by the end as if both were talented virtuosos in whatever obscure form of music their voices played together. It felt so perfect—so right—as if they blended together like the most perfect of ingredients for the most perfect of dishes.
Yet the other man was so different than he; pensive where Herman was impulsive, controlled where he was free-form, reticent where Herman wanted to gush his entire soul to this man, include him in everything because it felt as if that was how it should be, how it had been somehow predestined.
The subsequent letters they exchanged were somewhat surprising in the capacity they had to stimulate Herman intellectually, to make him feel more alive than he ever had in his life. This older man made him think about things he had never even considered before, things he had never imagined and never could have fleshed out without an intellectual equal such as this.
It was not a surprise to Herman when he realized that he was in love with this man. The realization came upon him calmly, slowly, in the hours he spent composing sentence after delicate sentence of the whaling story that had come upon him with a vengeance, that didn't seem content to leave him alone until he committed it to paper, 'till it slowly morphed into, as he once shared in a letter, a narrative with apocalyptic overtones.
The knowledge that the other man had a wife was no letdown either. Sophia loved Herman for loving her husband, had once confided to him during a trip over to see his friend that Herman seemed the only who was able to touch that tiny part of him that even she hadn't been able to get near. "You and I—we make him a more complete person," she had once confided to Herman, in the shadowy dark of the night at the red cottage.
And indeed, Herman felt that he was one of the few who could touch this mysterious man, both physically and metaphorically. He was a man who disliked even the most innocent, most casual of touches; Herman often pretended not to notice the way something as simple as a hand on his shoulder made him flinch as if he'd been burned. Sophia had confirmed it to him, that her husband was not one for casual physical contact, claiming even that he hated to be touched by most.
But Herman was impulsive and determined, and he'd gently slunk closer to the other man, providing the simplest, gentlest of touches until his reactions had gotten less and less emphatic, until one day when Herman placed a simple hand on his friend's arm to guide him toward his barn, he had not flinched, not reacted at all. Herman knew that this was what Sophia must have done, that she must have found her way into his heart as well, found a way to touch him without a bristling recoil, had reached the level of intimacy such that he had fathered three children with her.
Yet it made him uncomfortable, the level of intimacy the two of them shared. Herman, himself, saw nothing wrong in it, acted on impulse and did what he felt and what he wanted, with few second thoughts and even fewer regrets. The other man was plagued so often by this unique "American conscience" he always spoke of.
"We will always be connected to our past," he had once told Herman, after they had together consumed a particularly good bottle of sherry. "Americans are Calvinists at the core. We'll never be free of our guilt. It will curl around us and embrace us until it suffocates us."
"Nathaniel…" he had been unable to stop himself from whispering breathily after that, and he had kissed the other man thoughtlessly—perhaps the product of far too much sherry and or of Herman's own fundamentally impulsive character. Herman believed the other man's words, believed them like nothing else he'd ever been told, but he himself was not plagued with guilt over this feeling for the older man, the darkly beautiful creature with piercing chameleon eyes who wrote even darker words, words that held secrets and truths that only he would know until he released them, and Herman supposed that he never would.
And the lips of the beautiful man—almost fifty, but who could say there was a thing wrong with his physical appearance, for the streaks of grey only made him more beautiful, more radiant and stunning—were soft and pliant beneath him. For he, like Herman, had ingested quite a bit of wine, and his brain, constantly thinking, had slowed for a time, had let his Dionysian impulses take over the controlled, analytical ones that so often comprised his whole being.
And his skin, too, was delectable and waiting to be devoured, and Herman's desire to touch him like this had only been outweighed by his simple desire to be in the other man's presence, to hear him speak and share such an intense intellectual connection with him. And those shared moments were beautiful—he was exquisite and magnificent, even more so than Herman had initially realized.
And his body, clearly the body of an aging man, still had that strange, almost heavenly quality of one young and supple and so decidedly innocent—something Herman, fifteen years his junior, had never imagined himself to be. The way that he writhed beneath Herman's touch was something that Herman knew he'd never forget, would haunt both his dreams and his waking hours with their delicious taunting, with the ephemeral wisps, the fog-like moments, that would later fade away when he realized that this time had long since passed.
Herman was sure, at first, that the other man remembered nothing of the night, for he had woken the next morning with little more than a splitting headache and the customary bad temper go to along with it. Things moved and dipped and swayed much as they always had, as if they were in some boat on the ocean that already knew its course, but still rocked with the movement of the waves—a feeling Herman remembered well. Yet Herman hadn't noticed when the tendrils of the angry sea had begun to creep up over the bow of the ship—that that one day had been almost destined to cause them to fail, their ship to sink, and them to drown.
He would have liked to have said it was a surprise when the other man began acting distant, began writing less, began to act less enthused about Herman's work. He would have also liked to have believed what the older man had said time and time again, when he cancelled one of their meetings that Herman so looked forward to. But there had always been, and more strongly since that day, that little niggling doubt in the back of Herman's mind—that spark of the American conscience, perhaps?—that told Herman that it had always been coming, that there was only so close he would be allowed to get to the other man's inherent darkness before his fear of intimacy dictated that they should pull apart.
It was no one's fault, Herman knew, and that was what made it all the more heart-wrenching. He'd never felt such an intense connection to any other person as he had felt with this man, had never been so intimately interested with the intellect, body, and soul of another individual. He'd never had another relationship so intense, despite its brevity, that it left him breathless and confused and feeling almost as if he didn't know himself anymore.
But Nathaniel Hawthorne had always been a man who had lived in the darkness, always been a man who had kept his secrets, and part of Herman was simply filled with an intense adulation for the man, a passionate glee at just having known such a man, at having been trusted to touch that darkness that had so transfixed him since the first time he had seen a word that Hawthorne had written.
And those veiled, green-grey eyes were to haunt him for the rest of his life, tease him with their secrets and the memories of what they had had, and what they had lost.
"To have known him, to have loved him
After loneness long;
And then to be estranged in life,
And neither in the wrong;
And now for death to set his seal-
Ease me, a little ease, my song!
By wintry hills his hermit-mound
The sheeted snow-drifts drape,
And houseless there the snow-bird flits
Beneath the fir-trees' crape:
Glazed now with ice the cloistral vine
That hid the shyest grape."
—"Monody" by Herman Melville