Read “The Sister Years,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Allegorical New Year’s Tale

“The Sister Years” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Last night, between eleven and twelve o’clock, when the Old Year was leaving her final footprints 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 tip-toe along the street from the direction of the railroad dépôt. 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?”

“Oh, 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 toward 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 name of Whig or Tory, with their interminable brawls about banks and the sub-treasury, 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 time-worn.”

“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 town.”

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 a while 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 balloon.”

“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 bandbox, 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 pick up 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 seem 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 for ever.”

“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 Year, sighing, as she uplifted her burden. “We grandchildren 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 her basket. “May this flower keep a sweet smell long after I have bidden you good-bye!”

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?

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  1. Pingback: The Sister Years | Wonderful teeth

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