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Oldport Days Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Madam Delia's Expectations

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Madam Delia sat at the door of her show-tent, which, as she discovered too late, had been pitched on the wrong side of the Parade. It was"Election day" in Oldport, and there must have been a thousand people in the public square; there were really more than the four policemen on duty could properly attend to, so that half of them had leisure to step into Madam Delia's tent, and see little Gerty and the rattlesnakes. It was past the appointed hour; but the exhibition had never yet been known to open for less than ten spectators, and even the addition of the policemen only made eight. So the mistress of the show sat in resolute expectation, a little defiant of the human race. It was her thirteenth annual tour, and she knew mankind.

Surely there were people enough; surely they had money enough; surely they were easily pleased. They gathered in crowds to hear crazy Mrs. Green denouncing the city government for sending her to the poorhouse in a wagon instead of a carriage. They thronged to inspect the load of hay that was drawn by the two horses whose harness had been cut to pieces, and then repaired by Denison's Eureka Cement. They all bought whips with that unfailing readiness which marks a rural crowd; they bought packages of lead-pencils with a dollar so skilfully distributed through every six parcels that the oldest purchaser had never found more than ten cents in his. They let the man who cured neuralgia rub his magic curative on their foreheads, and allowed the man who cleaned watch-chains to dip theirs in the purifying powder. They twirled the magic arrow, which never by any chance rested at the corner compartments where the gold watches and the heavy bracelets were piled, but perpetually recurred to the side stations, and indicated only a beggarly prize of india-rubber sleeve-buttons. They bought ten cents' worth of jewelry, obtaining a mingled treasure of two breast-pins, a plain gold ring, an enamelled ring, and "a piece of California gold." But still no added prizes in the human lottery fell to the show-tent of Madam Delia.

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As time went on and the day grew warmer, the crowd grew visibly less enterprising, and business flagged. The man with the lifting-machine pulled at the handles himself, a gratuitous exhibition before a circle of boys now penniless. The man with the metallic polish dipped and redipped his own watch-chain. The men at the booths sat down to lunch upon the least presentable of their own pies. The proprietor of the magic arrow, who had already two large breastpins on his dirty shirt, selected from his own board another to grace his coat-collar, as if thereby to summon back the waning fortunes of the day. But Madam Delia still sat at her post, undaunted. She kept her eye on two sauntering militia-men in uniform, but they only read her sign and seated themselves on the curbstone, to smoke. Then a stout black soldier came in sight; but he turned and sat down at a table to eat oysters, served by a vast and smiling matron of his own race. But even this, though perhaps the most wholly cheerful exhibition that the day yielded, had no charms for Madam Delia. Her own dinner was ordered at the tavern after the morning show; and where is the human being who does not resent the spectacle of another human being who dines earlier than himself?

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Oldport Days
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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