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Oldport Days Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Oldport In Winter

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Death comes to the aged at last, however, even in Oldport. We have lately lost, for instance, that patient old postman, serenest among our human antiquities, whose deliberate tread might have imparted a tone of repose to Broadway, could any imagination have transferred him thither. Through him the correspondence of other days came softened of all immediate solicitude. Ere it reached you, friends had died or recovered, debtors had repented, creditors grown kind, or your children had paid your debts. Perils had passed, hopes were chastened, and the most eager expectant took calmly the missive from that tranquillizing hand. Meeting his friends and clients with a step so slow that it did not even stop rapidly, he, like Tennyson's Mariana, slowly

    "From his bosom drew
    Old letters."

But a summons came at last, not to be postponed even by him. One day he delivered his mail as usual, with no undue precipitation; on the next, the blameless soul was himself taken and forwarded on some celestial route.

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Irreparable would have seemed his loss, did there not still linger among us certain types of human antiquity that might seem to disprove the fabled youth of America. One veteran I daily meet, of uncertain age, perhaps, but with at least that air of brevet antiquity which long years of unruffled indolence can give. He looks as if he had spent at least half a lifetime on the sunny slope of some beach, and the other half in leaning upon his elbows at the window of some sailor boarding-house. He is hale and broad, with a head sunk between two strong shoulders; his beard falls like snow upon his breast, longer and longer each year, while his slumberous thoughts seem to move slowly enough to watch it as it grows. I always fancy that these meditations have drifted far astern of the times, but are following after, in patient hopelessness, as a dog swims behind a boat. What knows he of the President's Message? He has just overtaken some remarkable catch of mackerel in the year thirty-eight. His hands lie buried fathom-deep in his pockets, as if part of his brain lay there to be rummaged; and he sucks at his old pipe as if his head, like other venerable hulks, must be smoked out at intervals. His walk is that of a sloth, one foot dragging heavily behind the other. I meet him as I go to the post-office, and on returning, twenty minutes later, I pass him again, a little farther advanced. All the children accost him, and I have seen him stop--no great retardation indeed--to fondle in his arms a puppy or a kitten. Yet he is liable to excitement, in his way; for once, in some high debate, wherein he assisted as listener, when one old man on a wharf was doubting the assertion of another old man about a certain equinoctial gale, I saw my friend draw his right hand slowly and painfully from his pocket, and let it fall by his side. It was really one of the most emphatic gesticulations I ever saw, and tended obviously to quell the rising discord. It was as if the herald at a tournament had dropped his truncheon, and the fray must end.

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Oldport Days
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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