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The Sister Years

From Twice Told Tales

Last night, between eleven and twelve o'clock, when the Old Year was
leaving her final foot prints on the borders of Time's empire, she
found herself in possession of a few spare moments, and sat down--of
all places in the world--on the steps of our new City Hall. The
wintry moonlight showed that she looked weary of body, and sad of
heart, like many another wayfarer of earth. Her garments, having been
exposed to much foul weather, and rough usage, were in very ill
condition; and as the hurry of her journey had never before allowed
her to take an instant's rest, her shoes were so worn as to be
scarcely worth the mending. But, after trudging only a little
distance farther, this poor Old Year was destined to enjoy a long,
long sleep. I forgot to mention, that when she seated herself on the
steps, she deposited by her side a very capacious bandbox, in which,
as is the custom among travellers of her sex, she carried a great deal
of valuable property. Besides this luggage, there was a folio book
under her arm, very much resembling the annual volume of a newspaper.
Placing this volume across her knees, and resting her elbows upon it,
with her forehead in her hands, the weary, bedraggled, world-worn Old
Year heaved a heavy sigh, and appeared to be taking no very pleasant
retrospect of her past existence.

While she thus awaited the midnight knell, that was to summon her to
the innumerable sisterhood of departed Years, there came a young
maiden treading lightsomely on tiptoe along the street, from the
direction of the Railroad Depot. She was evidently a stranger, and
perhaps had come to town by the evening train of cars. There was a
smiling cheerfulness in this fair maiden's face, which bespoke her
fully confident of a kind reception from the multitude of people, with
whom she was soon to form acquaintance. Her dress was rather too airy
for the season, and was bedizened with fluttering ribbons and other
vanities, which were likely soon to be rent away by the fierce storms,
or to fade in the hot sunshine, amid which she was to pursue her
changeful course. But still she was a wonderfully pleasant looking
figure, and had so much promise and such an indescribable hopefulness
in her aspect, that hardly anybody could meet her without anticipating
some very desirable thing--the consummation of some long-sought good-
from her kind offices. A few dismal characters there may be, here and
there about the world, who have so often been trifled with by young
maidens as promising as she, that they have now ceased to pin any
faith upon the skirts of the New Year. But, for my own part, I have
great faith in her; and should I live to see fifty more such, still,
from each of those successive sisters, I shall reckon upon receiving
something that will be worth living for.

The New Year--for this young maiden was no less a personage--carried
all her goods and chattels in a basket of no great size or weight,
which hung upon her arm. She greeted the disconsolate Old Year with
great affection, and sat down beside her on the steps of the City
Hall, waiting for the signal to begin her rambles through the world.
The two were own sisters, being both granddaughters of Time; and
though one looked so much older than the other, it was rather owing to
hardships and trouble than to age, since there was but a twelvemonth's
difference between them.

"Well, my dear sister," said the New Year, after the first
salutations, "you look almost tired to death. What have you been
about during your sojourn in this part of Infinite Space?"

"O, I have it all recorded here in my Book of Chronicles," answered
the Old Year, in a heavy tone. "There is nothing that would amuse
you; and you will soon get sufficient knowledge of such matters from
your own personal experience. It is but tiresome reading."

Nevertheless, she turned over the leaves of the folio, and glanced at
them by the light of the moon, feeling an irresistible spell of
interest in her own biography, although its incidents were remembered
without pleasure. The volume, though she termed it her Book of
Chronicles, seemed to be neither more nor less than the Salem Gazette
for 1838; in the accuracy of which journal this sagacious Old Year
had so much confidence, that she deemed it needless to record her
history with her own pen.

"What have you been doing in the political way?" asked the New Year.

"Why, my course here in the United States," said the Old Year,--
"though perhaps I ought to blush at the confession,--my political
course, I must acknowledge, has been rather vacillatory, sometimes
inclining towards the Whigs,--then causing the Administration party to
shout for triumph,--and now again uplifting what seemed the almost
prostrate banner of the Opposition; so that historians will hardly
know what to make of me, in this respect. But the Loco Focos--"

"I do not like these party nicknames," interrupted her sister, who
seemed remarkably touchy about some points. "Perhaps we shall part in
better humor, if we avoid any political discussion."

"With all my heart," replied the Old Year, who had already been
tormented half to death with squabbles of this kind. "I care not if
the navies of Whig or Tory, with their interminable brawls about Banks
and the SubTreasury, Abolition, Texas, the Florida War, and a million
of other topics,--which you will learn soon enough for your own
comfort,--I care not, I say, if no whisper of these matters ever
reaches my ears again. Yet they have occupied so large a share of my
attention, that I scarcely know what else to tell you. There has
indeed been a curious sort of war on the Canada border, where blood
has streamed in the names of Liberty and Patriotism; but it must
remain for some future, perhaps far distant Year, to tell whether or
no those holy names have been rightfully invoked. Nothing so much
depresses me, in my view of mortal affairs, as to see high energies
wasted, and human life and happiness thrown away, for ends that appear
oftentimes unwise, and still oftener remain unaccomplished. But the
wisest people and the best keep a steadfast faith that the progress of
Mankind is onward and upward, and that the toil and anguish of the
path serve to wear away the imperfections of the Immortal Pilgrim, and
will be felt no more, when they have done their office."

"Perhaps," cried the hopeful New Year,--"perhaps I shall see that
happy day!"

"I doubt whether it be so close at hand," answered the Old Year,
gravely smiling. "You will soon grow weary of looking for that
blessed consummation, and will turn for amusement (as has frequently
been my own practice) to the affairs of some sober little city, like
this of Salem. Here we sit on the steps of the new City Hall, which
has been completed under my administration; and it would make you
laugh to see how the game of politics, of which the Capitol at
Washington is the great chess-board, is here played in miniature.
Burning Ambition finds its fuel here; here Patriotism speaks boldly in
the people's behalf, and virtuous Economy demands retrenchment in the
emoluments of a lamplighter; here the Aldermen range their senatorial
dignity around the Mayor's chair of state, and the Common Council feel
that they have liberty in charge. In short, human weakness and
strength, passion and policy, Man's tendencies, his aims and modes of
pursuing them, his individual character, and his character in the
mass, may be studied almost as well here as on the theatre of nations;
and with this great advantage, that, be the lesson ever so disastrous,
its Liliputian scope still makes the beholder smile."

"Have you done much for the improvement of the City?" asked the New
Year. "Judging from what little I have seen, it appears to be ancient
and timeworn."

"I have opened the Railroad," said the elder Year, "and half a dozen
times a day, you will hear the bell (which once summoned the Monks of
a Spanish Convent to their devotions) announcing the arrival or
departure of the cars. Old Salem now wears a much livelier expression
than when I first beheld her. Strangers rumble down from Boston by
hundreds at a time. New faces throng in Essex Street. Railroad-hacks
and omnibuses rattle over the pavements. There is a perceptible
increase of oyster-shops, and other establishments for the
accommodation of a transitory diurnal multitude. But a more important
change awaits the venerable town. An immense accumulation of musty
prejudices will be carried off by the free circulation of society. A
peculiarity of character, of which the inhabitants themselves are
hardly sensible, will be rubbed down and worn away by the attrition of
foreign substances. Much of the result will be good; there will
likewise be a few things not so good. Whether for better or worse,
there will be a probable diminution of the moral influence of wealth,
and the sway of an aristocratic class, which, from an era far beyond
my memory, has held firmer dominion here than in any other New England

The Old Year having talked away nearly all of her little remaining
breath, now closed her Book of Chronicles, and was about to take her
departure. But her sister detained her awhile longer, by inquiring
the contents of the huge bandbox, which she was so painfully lugging
along with her.

"These are merely a few trifles," replied the Old Year, "which I have
picked up in my rambles, and am going to deposit, in the receptacle of
things past and forgotten. We sisterhood of Years never carry
anything really valuable out of the world with us. Here are patterns
of most of the fashions which I brought into vogue, and which have
already lived out their allotted term. You will supply their place,
with others equally ephemeral. Here, put up in little China pots,
like rouge, is a considerable lot of beautiful women's bloom, which
the disconsolate fair ones owe me a bitter grudge for stealing. I
have likewise a quantity of men's dark hair, instead of which, I have
left gray locks, or none at all. The tears of widows and other
afflicted mortals, who have received comfort during the last twelve
months, are preserved in some dozens of essence-bottles, well corked
and sealed. I have several bundles of love-letters, eloquently
breathing an eternity of burning passion, which grew cold and
perished, almost before the ink was dry. Moreover, here is an
assortment of many thousand broken promises, and other broken ware,
all very light and packed into little space. The heaviest articles in
my possession are a large parcel of disappointed hopes, which, a
little while ago, were buoyant enough to have inflated Mr. Lauriat's

"I have a fine lot of hopes here in my basket," remarked the New Year.
"They are a sweet-smelling flower,--a species of rose."

"They soon lose their perfume," replied the sombre Old Year. "What
else have you brought to insure a welcome from the discontented race
of mortals?"

"Why, to say the truth, little or nothing else," said her sister, with
a smile,--"save a few new Annuals and Almanacs, and some New Year's
gifts for the children. But I heartily wish well to poor mortals, and
mean to do all I can for their improvement and happiness."

"It is a good resolution," rejoined the Old Year; and, by the way, I
have a plentiful assortment of good resolutions, which have now grown
so stale and musty, that I am ashamed to carry them any farther. Only
for fear that the City authorities would send Constable Mansfield,
with a warrant after me, I should toss them into the street at once.
Many other matters go to make up the contents of my handbox; but the
whole lot would not fetch a single bid, even at an auction of worn-out
furniture; and as they are worth nothing either to you or anybody
else, I need not trouble you with a longer catalogue."

"And must I also pickup such worthless luggage in my travels?" asked
the New Year.

"Most certainly; and well, if you have no heavier load to bear,"
replied the other. "And now, my dear sister, I must bid you farewell,
earnestly advising and exhorting you to expect no gratitude 'nor good-
will from this peevish, unreasonable, inconsiderate, ill-intending,
and worse-behaving world. However warmly its inhabitants may seen to
welcome you, yet, do what you may, and lavish on them what means of
happiness you please, they will still be complaining, still craving
what it is not in your power to give, still looking forward to some
other Year for the accomplishment of projects which ought never to
have been formed, and which, if successful, would only provide new
occasions of discontent. If these ridiculous people ever see anything
tolerable in you, it will be after you are gone forever."

"But I," cried the fresh-hearted New Year,--"I shall try to leave men
wiser than I find them. I will offer them freely whatever good gifts
Providence permits me to distribute, and will tell them to be thankful
for what they have, and humbly hopeful for more; and surely, if they
are not absolute fools, they will condescend to be happy, and will
allow me to be a happy Year. For my happiness must depend on them."

"Alas for you, then, my poor sister!" said the Old fear, sighing, as
she uplifted her burden. "We grand-children of Time are born to
trouble. Happiness, they say, dwells in the mansions of Eternity; but
we can only lead mortals thither, step by step, with reluctant
murmurings, and ourselves must perish on the threshold. But hark! my
task is done."

The clock in the tall steeple of Dr. Emerson's church struck twelve;
there was a response from Dr. Flint's, in the opposite quarter of the
city; and while the strokes were yet dropping into the air, the Old
Year either flitted or faded away; and not the wisdom and might of
Angels, to say nothing of the remorseful yearnings of the millions who
had used her ill, could have prevailed with that departed Year to
return one step. But she, in the company of Time and all her kindred,
must hereafter hold a reckoning with Mankind. So shall it be,
likewise, with the maidenly New Year, who, as the clock ceased to
strike, arose from the steps of the City Hall, and set out rather
timorously on her earthly course.

"A happy New Year!" cried a watchman, eying her figure very
questionably, but without the least suspicion that he was addressing
the New Year in person.

"Thank you kindly!" said the New Year; and she gave the watchman one
of the roses of hope from tier basket. "May this flower keep a sweet
smell, long after I have bidden you good by."

Then she stepped on more briskly through the silent streets; and such
as were awake at the moment, heard her footfall, and said, "The New
Year is come!" Wherever there was a knot of midnight roisterers, they
quaffed her health. She sighed, however, to perceive that the air was
tainted--as the atmosphere of this world must continually be--with the
dying breaths of mortals who had lingered just long enough for her to
bury them. But there were millions left alive, to rejoice at her
coming; and so she pursued her way with confidence, strewing
emblematic flowers on the doorstep of almost every dwelling, which
some persons will gather up and wear in their bosoms, and others will
trample under foot. The Carrier Boy can only say further, that, early
this morning, she filled his basket with New Year's Addresses,
assuring him that the whole City, with our new Mayor, and the Aldermen
and Common Council at its head, would make a general rush to secure
copies. Kind Patrons, will not you redeem the pledge of the NEW YEAR?

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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