Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Toll-Gatherer's Day

Short Story by Nathaniel Hawthorne


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 he 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 man 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 hay-mow 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 weatherbeaten 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 show-bill 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 barouche 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 hands 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 bride-maids, 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 enfolds 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 doth 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, he 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 back 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 conic a party of ladies on horseback, in green ridings habits, and gentlemen attendant, and there a flock of sheep for the market, pattering over the bridge with a multitude nous 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 carcase 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 seaweed 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 to-morrow'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.