Behold therefore, a palace! . . . Ah; but in some low and obscure nook . . . may lie a corpse, half-decayed, and still decaying, and diffusing its death-scent all through the palace! . . . Here, then, we are to seek the true emblem of the man’s character. . . .
The house of the seven gables becomes a dreary place after Phoebe leaves; it is made even more so by the arrival of a storm that lingers for several days. Clifford becomes more and more dour, eventually refusing to get out of bed. Hepzibah feels helpless and does not know how to help her brother. That same day, the shop bell rings. Judge Pyncheon has come to pay his two cousins another visit. Hepzibah responds to the Judge as before, with an anger that borders on hatred, and demands to know why the Judge continues to bother them. The Judge at first appeals to her emotional side, delivering a long and tearful speech about his own love for her and for Clifford, and informs Hepzibah that he only desires to help his cousins out of the sheer goodness of his heart. We are told that Judge is widely regarded as a wise and kindly man, and that he himself is so enamored of his station in life that he has come to believe he has no stains on his conscience. His one or two harsh deeds, the Judge thinks, are a necessary evil, balanced out by his various pious activities—among them his work with a Bible group and his leadership of a temperance movement dedicated to encouraging sobriety. Hepzibah is not fooled by the Judge’s kind words and continues to refuse to summon Clifford.
The Judge then becomes angry. The narrator embarks on a lengthy and descriptive exploration of the theory that the Judge nurses a terrible secret. The narrator suggests that despite the Judge’s wholesome and pleasant exterior, he may well have been corrupted by an awful, buried truth, which has come to infect every part of him, like a corpse rotting in the nook of a giant, beautiful palace. The irate Judge tells Hepzibah that he absolutely must speak with Clifford, because, shortly before Clifford was taken away and incarcerated, he had told the Judge about documentation that revealed the whereabouts of a good portion of their Uncle Jaffrey’s legacy. The Judge desperately wants this piece of evidence, and he will stop at nothing to get it. Hepzibah refuses to believe that her brother could really have such knowledge, but the Judge continues to insist that she fetch Clifford so the Judge can talk to him. Finally, the Judge threatens to have Clifford locked up in an asylum if he does not divulge the secret. Hepzibah believes that a conversation with the Judge will destroy Clifford, but this threat means she no longer has a choice. She walks upstairs to retrieve Clifford, while the Judge waits below.
Hepzibah very slowly mounts the stairs that lead to Clifford’s room, pausing on the way to look through the window at the busy street outside. She wonders if Clifford actually knows of any hidden gold, and she wonders what it would mean for them if he did. Hepzibah soon sees, however, that no one as feeble as Clifford could know such a secret, and she wonders at the horrible things the Judge will do to her frail brother in order to obtain this information that Clifford does not know. Hepzibah contemplates calling for help, but she knows the village would invariably take the Judge’s side. Hepzibah knocks on Clifford’s door, and there is no answer. When Hepzibah enters, the room is empty, and she has panicked visions of Clifford drowning himself to avoid persecution. She runs downstairs to ask the Judge for his help, but the Judge remains motionless in his chair in the parlor regardless of how loudly Hepzibah yells. Suddenly, Clifford springs out of the parlor, gleefully proclaiming they are “free” as he points grotesquely inside the room. Puzzled, Hepzibah rushes inside to see what the matter is, then recoils in horror. Clifford tells her they must flee, and after Hepzibah grabs her cloak and purse, they escape into the night, leaving the Judge’s body slumped in his chair like “a defunct nightmare.”
In Chapter 15, the Judge is further fleshed out as the novel’s villain, and though it is never questioned that his motives are cruel and self-serving, Hawthorne does add some depth to this discussion by suggesting that the Judge may not be aware of his own faults. The Judge sees himself as a man of many accomplishments and just a few misdeeds. He is a pious and active member of the community—a judge, a preacher, and a leader of the temperance movement (a widespread movement in the United States that viewed alcohol as the nation’s greatest problem). The Judge’s smile, since it reflects his sense of self-satisfaction, while misguided, can no longer honestly be called fake or a deception. The fact that the Judge remains the obvious antagonist of The House of the Seven Gables makes the novel both an indictment of the society which allows gestures to override true integrity and an even sterner view of human conduct than we might expect from the Judge himself. The Judge’s conscience is clear, but Hawthorne has little use for what some might call mitigating circumstances and condemns the Judge nonetheless.
These chapters both masterfully employ suspense to build up what will prove to be the climax of the book. Although Hepzibah greets the Judge apprehensively, he is kind at first and slow to anger. Given the urgency of his task and the fact that he has so often been rejected by Hepzibah, we might expect the Judge to immediately and explosively butt heads with his cousin, but he continues to bide his time. Even once his anger is aroused, the Judge speaks through clenched teeth instead of raising his voice, and we are left hungering for some kind of resolution. The suspense is carried over into the next chapter, and the tension rises with every step up the stairs the Hepzibah takes. When Hepzibah finally gets to Clifford’s room, the scene seems like an inspiration for countless horror movies—she knocks on the door and there is no answer, then she swings the door open slowly and steps into the empty room. As Hepzibah is suddenly struck by the thought of Clifford trying to end his own misery, the prose springs to life, as Hepzibah races down the halls, calls loudly to the Judge at the top of her lungs, and Clifford suddenly pops up in the parlor. Yet the novel continues to deny us any resolution. Even though the Judge is left slumped in his chair, exactly what has happened is left unclear and an aura of mystery hangs over the next few chapters.