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The Toll Gatherer's Day

A Sketch of Transitory Life.

Methinks, for a person whose instinct bids him rather to pore over the
current of life, than to plunge into its tumultuous waves, no
undesirable retreat were a toll-house beside some thronged thoroughfare
of the land. In youth, perhaps, it is good for the observer to run
about the earth, to leave the track of his footsteps far and wide,--
to mingle himself with the action of numberless vicissitudes,--and,
finally, in some calm solitude, to feed a musing spirit on all that lie
has seen and felt. But there are natures too indolent, or too
sensitive, to endure the dust, the sunshine, or the rain, the turmoil of
moral and physical elements, to which all the wayfarers of the world
expose themselves. For such a mail, how pleasant a miracle, could life
be made to roll its variegated length by the threshold of his own
hermitage, and the great globe, as it were, perform its revolutions and
shift its thousand scenes before his eyes without whirling him onward in
its course. If any mortal be favored with a lot analogous to this, it is
the toll-gatherer. So, at least, have I often fancied, while lounging
on a bench at the door of a small square edifice, which stands between
shore and shore in the midst of a long bridge. Beneath the timbers ebbs
and flows an arm of the sea; while above, like the life-blood through a
great artery, the travel of the north and east is continually throbbing.
Sitting on the aforesaid bench, I amuse myself with a conception,
illustrated by numerous pencil-sketches in the air, of the toll-
gatherer's day.

In the morning--dim, gray, dewy summer's morn the distant roll of
ponderous wheels begins to mingle with my old friend's slumbers, creaking
more and more harshly through the midst of his dream, and gradually
replacing it with realities. Hardly conscious of the change from sleep
to wakefulness, he finds himself partly clad and throwing wide the toll-
gates for the passage of a fragrant load of hay. The timbers groan
beneath the slow-revolving wheels; one sturdy yeoman stalks beside the
oxen, and, peering from the summit of the hay, by the glimmer of the
half-extinguished lantern over the toll-house, is seen the drowsy visage
of his comrade, who has enjoyed a nap some ten miles long. The toll is
paid,--creak, creak, again go the wheels, and the huge haymow vanishes
into the morning mist. As yet, nature is but half awake, and familiar
objects appear visionary. But yonder, dashing from the shore with a
rattling thunder of the wheels and a confused clatter of hoofs, comes the
never-tiring mail, which has hurried onward at the same headlong,
restless rate, all through the quiet night. The bridge resounds in one
continued peal as the coach rolls on without a pause, merely affording
the toll-gatherer a glimpse at the sleepy passengers, who now bestir
their torpid limbs, and snuff a cordial in the briny air. The morn
breathes upon them and blushes, and they forget how wearily the darkness
toiled away. And behold now the fervid day, in his bright chariot,
glittering aslant over the waves, nor scorning to throw a tribute of his
golden beams on the toll-gatherer's little hermitage. The old man looks
eastward, and (for he is a moralizer) frames a simile of the stage coach
and the sun. While the world is rousing itself, we may glance slightly at
the scene of our sketch. It sits above the bosom of the broad flood, a
spot not of earth, but in the midst of waters, which rush with a
murmuring sound among the massive beams beneath. Over the door is a
weather-beaten board, inscribed with the rates of toll, in letters so
nearly effaced that the gilding of the sunshine can hardly make them
legible. Beneath the window is a wooden bench, on which a long
succession of weary wayfarers have reposed themselves. Peeping within
doors, we perceive the whitewashed walls bedecked with sundry
lithographic prints and advertisements of various import, and the immense
showbill of a wandering caravan. And there sits our good old toll-
gatherer, glorified by the early sunbeams. He is a man, as his aspect
may announce, of quiet soul, and thoughtful, shrewd, yet simple mind,
who, of the wisdom which the passing world scatters along the wayside,
has gathered a reasonable store.

Now the sun smiles upon the landscape, and earth smiles back again upon
the sky. Frequent, now, are the travellers. The toll-gatherer's
practised ear can distinguish the weight of every vehicle, the number of
its wheels, and how many horses beat the resounding timbers with their
iron tramp. Here, in a substantial family chaise, setting forth betimes
to take advantage of the dewy road, come a gentleman and his wife, with
their rosy-cheeked little girl sitting gladsomely between them. The
bottom of the chaise is heaped with multifarious bandboxes and carpet-
bags, and beneath the axle swings a leathern trunk dusty with yesterday's
journey. Next appears a four-wheeled carryall, peopled with a round
half-dozen of pretty girls, all drawn by a single horse, and driven by a
single gentleman. Luckless wight, doomed, through a whole summer day,
to be the butt of mirth and mischief among the frolicsome maidens! Bolt
upright in a sulky rides a thin, sour-visaged man, who, as he pays his
toll, hands the toll-gatherer a printed card to stick upon the wall. The
vinegar-faced traveller proves to be a manufacturer of pickles. Now
paces slowly from timber to timber a horseman clad in black, with a
meditative brow, as of one who, whithersoever his steed might bear him,
would still journey through a mist of brooding thought. He is a country
preacher, going to labor at a protracted meeting. The next object
passing townward is a butcher's cart, canopied with its arch of snow-
white cotton. Behind comes a "sauceman," driving a wagon full of new
potatoes, green ears of corn, beets, carrots, turnips, and summer-
squashes; and next, two wrinkled, withered, witch-looking old gossips, in
an antediluvian chaise, drawn by a horse of former generations, and going
to peddle out a lot of huckleberries. See there, a man trundling a
wheelbarrow-load of lobsters. And now a milk-cart rattles briskly
onward, covered with green canvas, and conveying the contributions of a
whole herd of cows, in large tin canisters. But let all these pay their
toll and pass. Here comes a spectacle that causes the old toll-gatherer
to smile benignantly, as if the travellers brought sunshine with them and
lavished its gladsome influence all along the road.

It is a harouche of the newest style, the varnished panels of which
reflect the whole moving panorama of the landscape, and show a picture,
likewise, of our friend, with his visage broadened, so that his
meditative smile is transformed to grotesque merriment. Within, sits a
youth, fresh as the summer morn, and beside him a young lady in white,
with white gloves upon her slender bands, and a white veil flowing down
over her face. But methinks her blushing cheek burns through the snowy
veil. Another white-robed virgin sits in front. And who are these, on
whom, and on all that appertains to them, the dust of earth seems never
to have settled? Two lovers, whom the priest has blessed, this blessed
morn, and sent them forth, with one of the bridemaids, on the matrimonial
tour. Take my blessing too, ye happy ones! May the sky not frown upon
you, nor clouds bedew you with their chill and sullen rain! May the hot
sun kindle no fever in your hearts! May your whole life's pilgrimage be
as blissful as this first day's journey, and its close be gladdened with
even brighter anticipations than those which hallow your bridal night!

They pass; and ere the reflection of their joy has faded from his face,
another spectacle throws a melancholy shadow over the spirit of the
observing man. In a close carriage sits a fragile figure, muffled
carefully, and shrinking even from the mild breath of summer. She leans
against a manly form, and his arm infolds her, as if to guard his
treasure from some enemy. Let but a few weeks pass, and when he shall
strive to embrace that loved one, he will press only desolation to his
heart!

And now has morning gathered up her dewy pearls, and fled away. The sun
rolls blazing through the sky, and cannot find a cloud to cool his face
with. The horses toil sluggishly along the bridge, and heave their
glistening sides in short quick pantings, when the reins are tightened at
the toll-house. Glisten, too, the faces of the travellers. Their
garments are thickly bestrewn with dust; their whiskers and hair look
hoary; their throats are choked with the dusty atmosphere which they have
left behind them. No air is stirring on the road. Nature dares draw no
breath, lest she should inhale a stifling cloud of dust. "A hot, and
dusty day!" cry the poor pilgrims, as they wipe their begrimed foreheads,
and woo the doubtful breeze which the river bears along with it. "Awful
hot! Dreadful dusty!" answers the sympathetic toll-gatherer. They start
again, to pass through the fiery furnace, while he re-enters his cool
hermitage, and besprinkles it with a pail of briny water from the stream
beneath. He thinks within himself, that the sun is not so fierce here as
elsewhere, and that the gentle air does not forget him in these sultry
days. Yes, old friend; and a quiet heart will make a dog-day temperate.
He hears a weary footstep, and perceives a traveller with pack and staff,
who sits down upon the hospitable bench, and removes the hat from his wet
brow. The toll-gatherer administers a cup of cold water, and discovering
his guest to be a man of homely sense, be engages him in profitable talk,
uttering the maxims of a philosophy which he has found in his own soul,
but knows not how it came there. And as the wayfarer makes ready to
resume his journey, he tells him a sovereign remedy for blistered feet.
Now comes the noontide hour,--of all the hours nearest akin to midnight;
for each has its own calmness and repose. Soon, however, the world
begins to turn again upon its axis, and it seems the busiest epoch of the
day; when an accident impedes the march of sublunary things. The draw
being lifted to permit the passage of a schooner, laden with wood from
the Eastern forests, she sticks immovably, right athwart the bridge!
Meanwhile, on both sides of the chasm, a throng of impatient travellers
fret and fume. Here are two sailors in a gig, with the top thrown back,
both puffing cigars, and swearing all sorts of forecastle oaths; there,
in a smart chaise, a dashingly dressed gentleman and lady, he from a
tailor's shop-board; and she from a milliner's hack room,--the
aristocrats of a summer afternoon. And what are the haughtiest of us,
but the ephemeral aristocrats of a summer's day? Here is a tin-pedler,
whose glittering ware bedazzles all beholders, like a travelling meteor,
or opposition sun; and on the other side a seller of spruce-beer, which
brisk liquor is confined in several dozen of stone bottles. Here comes a
party of ladies on horseback, in green riding-habits, and gentlemen
attendant; and there a flock of sheep for the market, pattering over the
bridge with a multitudinous clatter of their little hoofs. Here a
Frenchman, with a hand-organ on his shoulder; and there an itinerant
Swiss jeweller. On this side, heralded by a blast of clarions and
bugles, appears a train of wagons, conveying all the wild beasts of a
caravan; and on that, a company of summer soldiers, marching from village
to village on a festival campaign, attended by the "brass band." Now
look at the scene, and it presents an emblem of the mysterious confusion,
the apparently insolvable riddle, in which individuals, or the great
world itself, seem often to be involved. What miracle shall set all
things right again?

But see! the schooner has thrust her bulky carcass through the chasm; the
draw descends; horse and foot pass onward, and leave the bridge vacant
from end to end. "And thus," muses the toll-gatherer, "have I found it
with all stoppages, even though the universe seemed to be at a stand."
The sage old man!

Far westward now, the reddening sun throws a broad sheet of splendor
across the flood, and to the eyes of distant boatmen gleams brightly
among the timbers of the bridge. Strollers come from the town to quaff
the freshening breeze. One or two let down long lines, and haul up
flapping flounders? or cunners, or small cod, or perhaps an eel.
Others, and fair girls among them, with the flush of the hot day still on
their cheeks, bend over the railing and watch the heaps of sea-weed
floating upward with the flowing tide. The horses now tramp heavily
along the bridge, and wistfully bethink them of their stables. Rest,
rest, thou weary world! for tomorrow's round of toil and pleasure will
be as wearisome as to-day's has been; yet both shall bear thee onward a
day's march of eternity. Now the old toll-gatherer looks seaward, and
discerns the lighthouse kindling on a far island, and the stars, too,
kindling in the sky, as if but a little way beyond; and mingling reveries
of Heaven with remembrances of Earth, the whole procession of mortal
travellers, all the dusty pilgrimage which he has witnessed, seems like a
flitting show of phantoms for his thoughtful soul to muse upon.

Nathaniel Hawthorne


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