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The Old Apple Dealer

From "Mosses from an Old Manse"


The lover of the moral picturesque may sometimes find what he, seeks
in a character which is nevertheless of too negative a description
to be seized upon and represented to the imaginative vision by word-
painting. As an instance, I remember an old man who carries on a
little trade of gingerbread and apples at the depot of one of our
railroads. While awaiting the departure of the cars, my
observation, flitting to and fro among the livelier characteristics
of the scene, has often settled insensibly upon this almost hueless
object. Thus, unconsciously to myself and unsuspected by him, I
have studied the old apple-dealer until he has become a naturalized
citizen of my inner world. How little would he imagine--poor,
neglected, friendless, unappreciated, and with little that demands
appreciation--that the mental eye of an utter stranger has so often
reverted to his figure! Many a noble form, many a beautiful face,
has flitted before me and vanished like a shadow. It is a strange
witchcraft whereby this faded and featureless old apple-dealer has
gained a settlement in my memory.

He is a small man, with gray hair and gray stubble beard, and is
invariably clad in a shabby surtout of snuff-color, closely
buttoned, and half concealing a pair of gray pantaloons; the whole
dress, though clean and entire, being evidently flimsy with much
wear. His face, thin, withered, furrowed, and with features which
even age has failed to render impressive, has a frost-bitten aspect.
It is a moral frost which no physical warmth or comfortableness
could counteract. The summer sunshine may fling its white heat upon
him or the good fire of the depot room may slake him the focus of
its blaze on a winter's day; but all in vain; for still the old roan
looks as if he were in a frosty atmosphere, with scarcely warmth
enough to keep life in the region about his heart. It is a patient,
long-suffering, quiet, hopeless, shivering aspect. He is not
desperate,--that, though its etymology implies no more, would be too
positive an expression,--but merely devoid of hope. As all his past
life, probably, offers no spots of brightness to his memory, so he
takes his present poverty and discomfort as entirely a matter of
course! he thinks it the definition of existence, so far as himself
is concerned, to be poor, cold, and uncomfortable. It may be added,
that time has not thrown dignity as a mantle over the old man's
figure: there is nothing venerable about him: you pity him without a
scruple.

He sits on a bench in the depot room; and before him, on the floor,
are deposited two baskets of a capacity to contain his whole stock
in trade. Across from one basket to the other extends a board, on
which is displayed a plate of cakes and gingerbread, some russet and
red-cheeked apples, and a box containing variegated sticks of candy,
together with that delectable condiment known by children as
Gibraltar rock, neatly done up in white paper. There is likewise a
half-peck measure of cracked walnuts and two or three tin half-pints
or gills filled with the nut-kernels, ready for purchasers.

Such are the small commodities with which our old friend comes daily
before the world, ministering to its petty needs and little freaks
of appetite, and seeking thence the solid subsistence--so far as he
may subsist of his life.

A slight observer would speak of the old man's quietude; but, on
closer scrutiny, you discover that there is a continual unrest
within him, which somewhat resembles the fluttering action of the
nerves in a corpse from which life has recently departed. Though he
never exhibits any violent action, and, indeed, might appear to be
sitting quite still, yet you perceive, when his minuter
peculiarities begin to be detected, that he is always making some
little movement or other. He looks anxiously at his plate of cakes
or pyramid of apples and slightly alters their arrangement, with an
evident idea that a great deal depends on their being disposed
exactly thus and so. Then for a moment he gazes out of the window;
then he shivers quietly and folds his arms across his breast, as if
to draw himself closer within himself, and thus keep a flicker of
warmth in his lonesome heart. Now he turns again to his merchandise
of cakes, apples, and candy, and discovers that this cake or that
apple, or yonder stick of red and white candy, has somehow got out
of its proper position. And is there not a walnut-kernel too many
or too few in one of those small tin measures? Again the whole
arrangement appears to be settled to his mind; but, in the course of
a minute or two, there will assuredly be something to set right. At
times, by an indescribable shadow upon his features, too quiet,
however, to be noticed until you are familiar with his ordinary
aspect, the expression of frostbitten, patient despondency becomes
very touching. It seems as if just at that instant the suspicion
occurred to him that, in his chill decline of life, earning scanty
bread by selling cakes, apples, and candy, he is a very miserable
old fellow.

But, if he thinks so, it is a mistake. He can never suffer the
extreme of misery, because the tone of his whole being is too much
subdued for him to feel anything acutely.

Occasionally one of the passengers, to while away a tedious
interval, approaches the old man, inspects the articles upon his
board, and even peeps curiously into the two baskets. Another,
striding to and fro along the room, throws a look at the apples and
gingerbread at every turn. A third, it may be of a more sensitive
and delicate texture of being, glances shyly thitherward, cautious
not to excite expectations of a purchaser while yet undetermined
whether to buy. But there appears to be no need of such a
scrupulous regard to our old friend's feelings. True, he is
conscious of the remote possibility to sell a cake or an apple; but
innumerable disappointments have rendered him so far a philosopher,
that, even if the purchased article should be returned, he will
consider it altogether in the ordinary train of events. He speaks
to none, and makes no sign of offering his wares to the public: not
that he is deterred by pride, but by the certain conviction that
such demonstrations would not increase his custom. Besides, this
activity in business would require an energy that never could have
been a characteristic of his almost passive disposition even in
youth. Whenever an actual customer customer appears the old man
looks up with a patient eye: if the price and the article are
approved, he is ready to make change; otherwise his eyelids droop
again sadly enough, but with no heavier despondency than before. He
shivers, perhaps folds his lean arms around his lean body, and
resumes the life-long, frozen patience in which consists his
strength.

Once in a while a school-boy comes hastily up, places cent or two
upon the board, and takes up a cake, or stick of candy, or a measure
of walnuts, or an apple as red-checked as himself. There are no
words as to price, that being as well known to the buyer as to the
seller. The old apple-dealer never speaks an unnecessary word not
that he is sullen and morose; but there is none of the cheeriness
and briskness in him that stirs up people to talk.

Not seldom he is greeted by some old neighbor, a man well to do in
the world, who makes a civil, patronizing observation about the
weather; and then, by way of performing a charitable deed, begins to
chaffer for an apple. Our friend presumes not on any past
acquaintance; he makes the briefest possible response to all general
remarks, and shrinks quietly into himself again. After every
diminution of his stock he takes care to produce from the basket
another cake, another stick of candy, another apple, or another
measure of walnuts, to supply the place of the article sold. Two or
three attempts--or, perchance, half a dozen--are requisite before
the board can be rearranged to his satisfaction. If he have received
a silver coin, he waits till the purchaser is out of sight, then
examines it closely, and tries to bend it with his finger and thumb:
finally he puts it into his waistcoat-pocket with seemingly a gentle
sigh. This sigh, so faint as to be hardly perceptible, and not
expressive of any definite emotion, is the accompaniment and
conclusion of all his actions. It is the symbol of the chillness and
torpid melancholy of his old age, which only make themselves felt
sensibly when his repose is slightly disturbed.

Our man of gingerbread and apples is not a specimen of the "needy
man who has seen better days." Doubtless there have been better and
brighter days in the faroff time of his youth; but none with so much
sunshine of prosperity in them that the chill, the depression, the
narrowness of means, in his declining years, can have come upon him
by surprise. His life has all been of a piece. His subdued and
nerveless boyhood prefigured his abortive prime, which likewise
contained within itself the prophecy and image of his lean and
torpid age. He was perhaps a mechanic, who never came to be a
master in his craft, or a petty tradesman, rubbing onward between
passably to do and poverty. Possibly he may look back to some
brilliant epoch of his career when there were a hundred or two of
dollars to his credit in the Savings Bank. Such must have been the
extent of his better fortune,--his little measure of this world's
triumphs,--all that he has known of success. A meek, downcast,
humble, uncomplaining creature, he probably has never felt himself
entitled to more than so much of the gifts of Providence. Is it not
still something that he has never held out his hand for charity, nor
has yet been driven to that sad home and household of Earth's
forlorn and broken-spirited children, the almshouse? He cherishes
no quarrel, therefore, with his destiny, nor with the Author of it.
All is as it should be.

If, indeed, he have been bereaved of a son, a bold, energetic,
vigorous young man, on whom the father's feeble nature leaned as on
a staff of strength, in that case he may have felt a bitterness that
could not otherwise have been generated in his heart. But methinks
the joy of possessing such a son and the agony of losing him would
have developed the old man's moral and intellectual nature to a much
greater degree than we now find it. Intense grief appears to be as
much out of keeping with his life as fervid happiness.

To confess the truth, it is not the easiest matter in the world to
define and individualize a character like this which we are now
handling. The portrait must be so generally negative that the most
delicate pencil is likely to spoil it by introducing some too
positive tint. Every touch must be kept down, or else you destroy
the subdued tone which is absolutely essential to the whole effect.
Perhaps more may be done by contrast than by direct description.
For this purpose I make use of another cake and candy merchant, who,
likewise infests the railroad depot. This latter worthy is a very
smart and well-dressed boy of ten years old or thereabouts, who
skips briskly hither and thither, addressing the passengers in a
pert voice, yet with somewhat of good breeding in his tone and
pronunciation. Now he has caught my eye, and skips across the room
with a pretty pertness, which I should like to correct with a box on
the ear. "Any cake, sir? any candy?"

No, none for me, my lad. I did but glance at your brisk figure in
order to catch a reflected light and throw it upon your old rival
yonder.

Again, in order to invest my conception of the old man with a more
decided sense of reality, I look at him in the very moment of
intensest bustle, on the arrival of the cars. The shriek of the
engine as it rushes into the car-house is the utterance of the steam
fiend, whom man has subdued by magic spells and compels to serve as
a beast of burden. He has skimmed rivers in his headlong rush,
dashed through forests, plunged into the hearts of mountains, and
glanced from the city to the desert-place, and again to a far-off
city, with a meteoric progress, seen and out of sight, while his
reverberating roar still fills the ear. The travellers swarm forth
from the cars. All are full of the momentum which they have caught
from their mode of conveyance. It seems as if the whole world, both
morally and physically, were detached from its old standfasts and
set in rapid motion. And, in the midst of this terrible activity,
there sits the old man of gingerbread, so subdued, so hopeless, so
without a stake in life, and yet not positively miserable,--there
he sits, the forlorn old creature, one chill and sombre day after
another, gathering scanty coppers for his cakes, apples, and.
candy,--there sits the old apple-dealer, in his threadbare suit of
snuff-color and gray and his grizzly stubble heard. See! he folds
his lean arms around his lean figure with that quiet sigh and that
scarcely perceptible shiver which are the tokens of his inward
state. I have him now. He and the steam fiend are each other's
antipodes; the latter is the type of all that go ahead, and the old
man the representative of that melancholy class who by some sad
witchcraft are doomed never to share in the world's exulting
progress. Thus the contrast between mankind and this desolate
brother becomes picturesque, and even sublime.

And now farewell, old friend! Little do you suspect that a student
of human life has made your character the theme of more than one
solitary and thoughtful hour. Many would say that you have hardly
individuality enough to be the object of your own self-love. How,
then, can a stranger's eye detect anything in your mind and heart to
study and to wonder at? Yet, could I read but a tithe of what is
written there, it would be a volume of deeper and more comprehensive
import than all that the wisest mortals have given to the world; for
the soundless depths of the human soul and of eternity have an
opening through your breast. God be praised, were it only for your
sake, that the present shapes of human existence are not cast in
iron nor hewn in everlasting adamant, but moulded of the vapors that
vanish away while the essence flits upward to the infinite. There
is a spiritual essence in this gray and lean old shape that shall
flit upward too. Yes; doubtless there is a region where the life-
long shiver will pass away from his being, and that quiet sigh,
which it has taken him so many years to breathe, will be brought to
a close for good and all.

Nathaniel Hawthorne


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