In Phoebe’s absence, things at the House of the Seven Gables are dreary: a storm sets in, and Clifford is joyless. Meanwhile, business in the shop declines, since customers have heard that Hepzibah is minding the store. Hepzibah’s best efforts to enliven the House fall short. By the fifth day of the storm, Clifford refuses to leave his bed.
Just as Holgrave predicted, Phoebe’s departure robs the House of the Seven Gables of its light. The storm (a common characteristic of Gothic literature) adds to this stark change of atmosphere.
Later that morning, however, Hepzibah hears brief music coming from Alice Pyncheon’s harpsichord—Clifford had practiced the instrument in his youth. The notes are cut short by the jingling of the shop bell, and a heavy footstep is heard—as well as a gurgling sound. Hepzibah, scowling, goes to the shop and finds Judge Pyncheon, as she’d expected.
Clifford struggles to stir himself, again returning to bits and pieces of his long-ago youth. The dissonance of the shop bell symbolizes Judge Pyncheon’s discordant presence, which prompts a genuine frown from Hepzibah.
Judge Pyncheon asks after Clifford while smiling brightly. He suggests that company would do Clifford good. Hepzibah defers him, explaining that Clifford is in bed and that the Judge’s presence can only do him harm. In a tearful soliloquy, the Judge asks how long Hepzibah’s “unchristian” bitterness against him will persist. Hepzibah is furious and speaks in anger for the first time, urging the Judge to give up the pretense of harboring anything but hatred for Clifford.
Judge Pyncheon’s smile conceals his true intentions. So do his manipulative tears, as he blames Hepzibah for the fruit of his own behavior. Hepzibah, in turn, shows that she is capable of boldly standing up to the Judge’s hypocrisy.
The Judge is an eminent figure in his community, as everybody acknowledges. In fact, even the Judge himself does not doubt that his reputation is just. Yet Hepzibah’s lone dislike should not be too quickly dismissed—evil might lurk too deeply in the Judge’s heart for he himself to recognize.
Strong-minded men of forceful character often fall into this trap. Such men usually see outward forms as the most important thing. They are preoccupied with things like wealth, property, and public regard. Because of this, such men are able to build up “a tall and stately edifice” (or house) which they see as equivalent to their own character. Thus, inevitably, such men picture their character as a palace. But beneath the marble floors of such a palace, there might lurk a decaying corpse which the palace’s occupant can no longer smell, but whose scent pervades the entire place. Only the rare, gifted person can discern such rot, because the occupant constantly scatters rich smells around him, and visitors bring incense to burn before him.
The narrator suggests that eminent public figures tend to become alienated from the reality of their own character because they focus on outward things that support their status. In other words, someone like the Judge focuses on his property and public role and begins to equate those things with his own inner character. He might even do this to such an extent that he suppresses and forgets something rotten in his own character. Other people, interested in what they can gain from him, also suppress the truth through their own praise and flattery of him. It takes somebody rare—like Hepzibah—to cut through the outward pretensions and perceive the truth.
There is enough “splendid rubbish” in the Judge’s life to deceive his own conscience. He is a good judge, public servant, and philanthropist, giving generously to various causes. He is morally pristine, casting off a dissolute son and denying him forgiveness until his deathbed. He is externally elegant and scrupulously polite to rich and poor alike. This “admirably arranged life” is what the Judge sees when he looks in the mirror.
The Judge has done so many outwardly good things that it’s easy for him to forget what lurks deep in his conscience. Everything he does is meant to uphold his impeccable reputation and status in the eyes of the world. As a result, the carefully-maintained externalities are all he can perceive when he looks at himself.
Even if, in his long-ago youth, the Judge had committed a single wrong act—or perhaps other ones here and there throughout his life—can these really outweigh all the good he’s done? The narrator observes that “this scale-and-balance system is a favorite” of those like Judge Pyncheon.
The Judge has become adept at justifying wrongdoing by setting it against the good and deciding that his good qualities outweigh the bad. The narrator suggests that the powerful often use this tactic to assure themselves that their reputation is deserved.
Hepzibah, meanwhile, is shocked at having said what she has been thinking for 30 years. Hearing it, Judge Pyncheon’s mild expression turns dark and stern, looking for all the world like Colonel Pyncheon. He tells Hepzibah that he was responsible for Clifford’s release from prison, and it is up to him to decide if Clifford should retain his freedom. He explains that he believes Clifford knows how the vast majority of Uncle Jaffrey’s fortune can be recovered. He must speak to Clifford in order to find out.
Now that Hepzibah has spoken openly what she’s been concealing, the Judge’s façade drops away, too. His claim about Clifford’s supposed knowledge echoes the earlier scene between Alice Pyncheon and Maule, implying that such an encounter would be ruinous for Clifford as Maule’s interrogation was for Alice.
Hepzibah mocks such an idea, but the Judge insists that before Jaffrey’s death, Clifford taunted him with the claim of secret knowledge of great wealth. He has also been watching Clifford’s behavior closely, he explains, ever since his release. In particular, he saw Clifford’s attempt to fling himself through the arched window. He can testify, therefore, that Clifford should not remain at large and ought to be committed to an asylum. If Clifford refuses to reveal the evidence of the fortune, then the Judge will take this as a final piece of evidence needed to commit Clifford.
The Judge has tremendous power over the more vulnerable Pyncheons. No matter whether Clifford cooperates with him or not, the Judge has the ability to manipulate and possibly ruin their lives. The claim about Clifford’s knowledge—on the basis of something vaguely remembered from youth—shows how desperate he is for additional wealth.
Hepzibah tries to reason with Judge Pyncheon. He is old and already possesses great wealth—what more could he need? With his “hard and grasping spirit,” he is just doing what Colonel Pyncheon did before him, perpetuating the curse. But she agrees to summon Clifford, fearing that this encounter will indeed drive her brother mad. While Judge Pyncheon waits, he throws himself wearily into the Colonel’s chair. On the threshold, Hepzibah thinks she hears him speak, but the Judge gruffly denies it, hurrying his cousin on her way. He holds his pocket watch in his hand.
Hepzibah shows her perceptive nature once again—she clearly sees the nature of the Pyncheon spirit and the damage it causes to everyone it touches. But she is powerless and has no choice but to do as the Judge asks. Meanwhile, the ghostly voice that’s heard signals something ominous.