Night Sketches by Nathaniel Hawthorne


Pleasant is a rainy winter’s day within-doors. The best study for such a day—or the best amusement: call it what you will—is a book of travels describing scenes the most unlike that sombre one which is mistily presented through the windows. I have experienced that Fancy is then most successful in imparting distinct shapes and vivid colors to the objects which the author has spread upon his page, and that his words become magic spells to summon up a thousand varied pictures. Strange landscapes glimmer through the familiar walls of the room, and outlandish figures thrust themselves almost within the sacred precincts of the hearth. Small as my chamber is, it has space enough to contain the ocean-like circumference of an Arabian desert, its parched sands tracked by the long line of a caravan with the camels patiently journeying through the heavy sunshine. Though my ceiling be not lofty, yet I can pile up the mountains of Central Asia beneath it till their summits shine far above the clouds of the middle atmosphere. And with my humble means—a wealth that is not taxable—I can transport hither the magnificent merchandise of an Oriental bazaar, and call a crowd of purchasers from distant countries to pay a fair profit for the precious articles which are displayed on all sides. True it is, however, that amid the bustle of traffic, or whatever else may seem to be going on around me, the raindrops will occasionally be heard to patter against my window-panes, which look forth upon one of the quietest streets in a New England town. After a time, too, the visions vanish, and will not appear again at my bidding. Then, it being nightfall, a gloomy sense of unreality depresses my spirits, and impels me to venture out before the clock shall strike bedtime to satisfy myself that the world is not entirely made up of such shadowy materials as have busied me throughout the day. A dreamer may dwell so long among fantasies that the things without him will seem as unreal as those within.

When eve has fairly set in, therefore, I sally forth, tightly buttoning my shaggy overcoat and hoisting my umbrella, the silken dome of which immediately resounds with the heavy drumming of the invisible raindrops. Pausing on the lowest doorstep, I contrast the warmth and cheerfulness of my deserted fireside with the drear obscurity and chill discomfort into which I am about to plunge. Now come fearful auguries innumerable as the drops of rain. Did not my manhood cry shame upon me, I should turn back within-doors, resume my elbow-chair, my slippers and my book, pass such an evening of sluggish enjoyment as the day has been, and go to bed inglorious. The same shivering reluctance, no doubt, has quelled for a moment the adventurous spirit of many a traveller when his feet, which were destined to measure the earth around, were leaving their last tracks in the home-paths.

In my own case poor human nature may be allowed a few misgivings. I look upward and discern no sky, not even an unfathomable void, but only a black, impenetrable nothingness, as though heaven and all its lights were blotted from the system of the universe. It is as if Nature were dead and the world had put on black and the clouds were weeping for her. With their tears upon my cheek I turn my eyes earthward, but find little consolation here below. A lamp is burning dimly at the distant corner, and throws just enough of light along the street to show, and exaggerate by so faintly showing, the perils and difficulties which beset my path. Yonder dingily-white remnant of a huge snowbank, which will yet cumber the sidewalk till the latter days of March, over or through that wintry waste must I stride onward. Beyond lies a certain Slough of Despond, a concoction of mud and liquid filth, ankle-deep, leg-deep, neck-deep—in a word, of unknown bottom—on which the lamplight does not even glimmer, but which I have occasionally watched in the gradual growth of its horrors from morn till nightfall. Should I flounder into its depths, farewell to upper earth! And hark! how roughly resounds the roaring of a stream the turbulent career of which is partially reddened by the gleam of the lamp, but elsewhere brawls noisily through the densest gloom! Oh, should I be swept away in fording that impetuous and unclean torrent, the coroner will have a job with an unfortunate gentleman who would fain end his troubles anywhere but in a mud-puddle.

Pshaw! I will linger not another instant at arm’s-length from these dim terrors, which grow more obscurely formidable the longer I delay to grapple with them. Now for the onset, and, lo! with little damage save a dash of rain in the face and breast, a splash of mud high up the pantaloons and the left boot full of ice-cold water, behold me at the corner of the street. The lamp throws down a circle of red light around me, and twinkling onward from corner to corner I discern other beacons, marshalling my way to a brighter scene. But this is a lonesome and dreary spot. The tall edifices bid gloomy defiance to the storm with their blinds all closed, even as a man winks when he faces a spattering gust. How loudly tinkles the collected rain down the tin spouts! The puffs of wind are boisterous, and seem to assail me from various quarters at once. I have often observed that this corner is a haunt and loitering-place for those winds which have no work to do upon the deep dashing ships against our iron-bound shores, nor in the forest tearing up the sylvan giants with half a rood of soil at their vast roots. Here they amuse themselves with lesser freaks of mischief. See, at this moment, how they assail yonder poor woman who is passing just within the verge of the lamplight! One blast struggles for her umbrella and turns it wrong side outward, another whisks the cape of her cloak across her eyes, while a third takes most unwarrantable liberties with the lower part of her attire. Happily, the good dame is no gossamer, but a figure of rotundity and fleshly substance; else would these aerial tormentors whirl her aloft like a witch upon a broomstick, and set her down, doubtless, in the filthiest kennel hereabout.

From hence I tread upon firm pavements into the centre of the town. Here there is almost as brilliant an illumination as when some great victory has been won either on the battlefield or at the polls. Two rows of shops with windows down nearly to the ground cast a glow from side to side, while the black night hangs overhead like a canopy, and thus keeps the splendor from diffusing itself away. The wet sidewalks gleam with a broad sheet of red light. The raindrops glitter as if the sky were pouring down rubies. The spouts gush with fire. Methinks the scene is an emblem of the deceptive glare which mortals throw around their footsteps in the moral world, thus bedazzling themselves till they forget the impenetrable obscurity that hems them in, and that can be dispelled only by radiance from above.

And, after all, it is a cheerless scene, and cheerless are the wanderers in it. Here comes one who has so long been familiar with tempestuous weather that he takes the bluster of the storm for a friendly greeting, as if it should say, “How fare ye, brother?” He is a retired sea-captain wrapped in some nameless garment of the pea-jacket order, and is now laying his course toward the marine-insurance office, there to spin yarns of gale and shipwreck with a crew of old seadogs like himself. The blast will put in its word among their hoarse voices, and be understood by all of them. Next I meet an unhappy slipshod gentleman with a cloak flung hastily over his shoulders, running a race with boisterous winds and striving to glide between the drops of rain. Some domestic emergency or other has blown this miserable man from his warm fireside in quest of a doctor. See that little vagabond! How carelessly he has taken his stand right underneath a spout while staring at some object of curiosity in a shop-window! Surely the rain is his native element; he must have fallen with it from the clouds, as frogs are supposed to do.

Here is a picture, and a pretty one—a young man and a girl, both enveloped in cloaks and huddled beneath the scanty protection of a cotton umbrella. She wears rubber overshoes, but he is in his dancing-pumps, and they are on their way no doubt, to some cotillon-party or subscription-ball at a dollar a head, refreshments included. Thus they struggle against the gloomy tempest, lured onward by a vision of festal splendor. But ah! a most lamentable disaster! Bewildered by the red, blue and yellow meteors in an apothecary’s window, they have stepped upon a slippery remnant of ice, and are precipitated into a confluence of swollen floods at the corner of two streets. Luckless lovers! Were it my nature to be other than a looker-on in life, I would attempt your rescue. Since that may not be, I vow, should you be drowned, to weave such a pathetic story of your fate as shall call forth tears enough to drown you both anew. Do ye touch bottom, my young friends? Yes; they emerge like a water-nymph and a river-deity, and paddle hand in hand out of the depths of the dark pool. They hurry homeward, dripping, disconsolate, abashed, but with love too warm to be chilled by the cold water. They have stood a test which proves too strong for many. Faithful though over head and ears in trouble!

Onward I go, deriving a sympathetic joy or sorrow from the varied aspect of mortal affairs even as my figure catches a gleam from the lighted windows or is blackened by an interval of darkness. Not that mine is altogether a chameleon spirit with no hue of its own. Now I pass into a more retired street where the dwellings of wealth and poverty are intermingled, presenting a range of strongly-contrasted pictures. Here, too, may be found the golden mean. Through yonder casement I discern a family circle—the grandmother, the parents and the children—all flickering, shadow-like, in the glow of a wood-fire.—Bluster, fierce blast, and beat, thou wintry rain, against the window-panes! Ye cannot damp the enjoyment of that fireside.—Surely my fate is hard that I should be wandering homeless here, taking to my bosom night and storm and solitude instead of wife and children. Peace, murmurer! Doubt not that darker guests are sitting round the hearth, though the warm blaze hides all but blissful images.

Well, here is still a brighter scene—a stately mansion illuminated for a ball, with cut-glass chandeliers and alabaster lamps in every room, and sunny landscapes hanging round the walls. See! a coach has stopped, whence emerges a slender beauty who, canopied by two umbrellas, glides within the portal and vanishes amid lightsome thrills of music. Will she ever feel the night-wind and the rain? Perhaps—perhaps! And will Death and Sorrow ever enter that proud mansion? As surely as the dancers will be gay within its halls to-night. Such thoughts sadden yet satisfy my heart, for they teach me that the poor man in this mean, weatherbeaten hovel, without a fire to cheer him, may call the rich his brother—brethren by Sorrow, who must be an inmate of both their households; brethren by Death, who will lead them both to other homes.

Onward, still onward, I plunge into the night. Now have I reached the utmost limits of the town, where the last lamp struggles feebly with the darkness like the farthest star that stands sentinel on the borders of uncreated space. It is strange what sensations of sublimity may spring from a very humble source. Such are suggested by this hollow roar of a subterranean cataract where the mighty stream of a kennel precipitates itself beneath an iron grate and is seen no more on earth. Listen a while to its voice of mystery, and Fancy will magnify it till you start and smile at the illusion. And now another sound—the rumbling of wheels as the mail-coach, outward bound, rolls heavily off the pavements and splashes through the mud and water of the road. All night long the poor passengers will be tossed to and fro between drowsy watch and troubled sleep, and will dream of their own quiet beds and awake to find themselves still jolting onward. Happier my lot, who will straightway hie me to my familiar room and toast myself comfortably before the fire, musing and fitfully dozing and fancying a strangeness in such sights as all may see. But first let me gaze at this solitary figure who comes hitherward with a tin lantern which throws the circular pattern of its punched holes on the ground about him. He passes fearlessly into the unknown gloom, whither I will not follow him.

This figure shall supply me with a moral wherewith, for lack of a more appropriate one, I may wind up my sketch. He fears not to tread the dreary path before him, because his lantern, which was kindled at the fireside of his home, will light him back to that same fireside again. And thus we, night-wanderers through a stormy and dismal world, if we bear the lamp of Faith enkindled at a celestial fire, it will surely lead us home to that heaven whence its radiance was borrowed.

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