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Oldport Days Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Oldport In Winter

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The same spirit of repose pervades the streets. Nobody ever looks in a hurry, or as if an hour's delay would affect the thing in hand. The nearest approach to a mob is when some stranger, thinking himself late for the train (as if the thing were possible), is tempted to run a few steps along the sidewalk. On such an occasion I have seen doors open, and heads thrust out. But ordinarily even the physicians drive slowly, as if they wished to disguise their profession, or to soothe the nerves of some patient who may be gazing from a window.

Yet they are not to be censured, since Death, their antagonist, here drives slowly too. The number of the aged among us is surprising, and explains some phenomena otherwise strange. You will notice, for instance, that there are no posts before the houses in Oldport to which horses may be tied. Fashionable visitors might infer that every horse is supposed to be attended by a groom. Yet the tradition is, that there were once as many posts here as elsewhere, but that they were removed to get rid of the multitude of old men who leaned all day against them. It obstructed the passing. And these aged citizens, while permitted to linger at their posts, were gossiping about men still older, in earthly or heavenly habitations, and the sensation of longevity went on accumulating indefinitely in their talk. Their very disputes had a flavor of antiquity, and involved the reputation of female relatives to the third or fourth generation. An old fisherman testified in our Police Court, the other day, in narrating the progress of a street quarrel; "Then I called him 'Polly Garter,'--that's his grandmother; and he called me 'Susy Reynolds,'--that's my aunt that's dead and gone."

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In towns like this, from which the young men mostly migrate, the work of life devolves upon the venerable and the very young. When I first came to Oldport, it appeared to me that every institution was conducted by a boy and his grandfather. This seemed the case, for instance, with the bank that consented to assume the slender responsibility of my deposits. It was further to be observed, that, if the elder official was absent for a day, the boy carried on the proceedings unaided; while if the boy also wished to amuse himself elsewhere, a worthy neighbor from across the way came in to fill the places of both. Seeing this, I retained my small hold upon the concern with fresh tenacity; for who knew but some day, when the directors also had gone on a picnic, the senior depositor might take his turn at the helm? It may savor of self-confidence, but it has always seemed to me, that, with one day's control of a bank, even in these degenerate times, something might be done which would quite astonish the stockholders.

Longer acquaintance has, however, revealed the fact, that these Oldport institutions stand out as models of strict discipline beside their suburban compeers. A friend of mine declares that he went lately into a country bank, nearby, and found no one on duty. Being of opinion that there should always be someone behind the counter of a bank, he went there himself. Wishing to be informed as to the resources of his establishment, he explored desks and vaults, found a good deal of paper of different kinds, and some rich veins of copper, but no cashier. Going to the door again in some anxiety, he encountered a casual school-boy, who kindly told him that he did not know where the financial officer might be at the precise moment of inquiry, but that half an hour before he was on the wharf, fishing.

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Oldport Days
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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