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Oldport Days Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Oldport In Winter

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Women's faces are apt to take from old age a finer touch than those of men, and poverty does not interfere with this, where there is no actual exposure to the elements. From the windows of these old houses there often look forth delicate, faded countenances, to which belongs an air of unmistakable refinement. Nowhere in America, I fancy, does one see such counterparts of the reduced gentlewoman of England,--as described, for instance, in "Cranford,"-- quiet maiden ladies of seventy, with perhaps a tradition of beauty and bellehood, and still wearing always a bit of blue ribbon on their once golden curls,--this headdress being still carefully arranged, each day, by some handmaiden of sixty, so long a house-mate as to seem a sister, though some faint suggestion of wages and subordination may be still preserved. Among these ladies, as in "Cranford," there is a dignified reticence in respect to money-matters, and a courteous blindness to the small economies practised by each other. It is not held good breeding, when they meet in a shop of a morning, for one to seem to notice what another buys.

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These ancient ladies have coats of arms upon their walls, hereditary damasks among their scanty wardrobes, store of domestic traditions in their brains, and a whole Court Guide of high-sounding names at their fingers' ends. They can tell you of the supposed sister of an English queen, who married an American officer and dwelt in Oldport; of the Scotch Lady Janet, who eloped with her tutor, and here lived in poverty, paying her washerwoman with costly lace from her trunks; of the Oldport dame who escaped from France at the opening of the Revolution, was captured by pirates on her voyage to America, then retaken by a privateer and carried into Boston, where she took refuge in John Hancock's house. They can describe to you the Malbone Gardens, and, as the night wanes and the embers fade, can give the tale of the Phantom of Rough Point. Gliding farther and farther into the past, they revert to the brilliant historic period of Oldport, the successive English and French occupations during our Revolution,and show you gallant inscriptions in honor of their grandmothers, written on the window-panes by the diamond rings of the foreign officers.

The newer strata of Oldport society are formed chiefly by importation, and have the one advantage of a variety of origin which puts provincialism out of the question. The mild winter climate and the supposed cheapness of living draw scattered families from the various Atlantic cities; and, coming from such different sources, these visitors leave some exclusiveness behind. The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power, are doubtless good things to have in one's house, but are cumbrous to travel with. Meeting here on central ground, partial aristocracies tend to neutralize each other. A Boston family comes, bristling with genealogies, and making the most of its little all of two centuries. Another arrives from Philadelphia, equally fortified in local heraldries unknown in Boston.

A third from New York brings a briefer pedigree, but more gilded. Their claims are incompatible; but there is no common standard, and so neither can have precedence. Since no human memory can retain the great-grandmothers of three cities, we are practically as well off as if we had no great-grandmothers at all.

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Oldport Days
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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