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The Cold Snap 1898

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In the extremes of winter and summer, when the weather is either extraordinarily cold or hot, I confess to experiencing a peculiar sense of helplessness and vague uneasiness. I have a feeling that a trifling additional rise or fall of temperature, such as might be caused by any slight hitch in the machinery of the universe, would quite crowd mankind out of existence. To be sure, the hitch never has occurred, but what if it should? Conscious that I have about reached the limit of my own endurance, the thought of the bare contingency is unpleasant enough to cause a feeling of relief, not altogether physical, when the rising or falling mercury begins to turn. The consciousness how wholly by sufferance it is that man exists at all on the earth is rather forcibly borne in upon the mind at such times. The spaces above and below zero are indefinite.

I have to take my vacations as the fluctuations of a rather exacting business permit, and so it happened that I was, with my wife, passing a fortnight in the coldest part of winter at the family homestead in New England. The ten previous days had been very cold, and the cold had "got into the house," which means that it had so penetrated and chilled the very walls and timbers that a cold day now took hold of us as it had not earlier in the season. Finally there came a day that was colder than any before it. The credit of discovering and first asserting that it was the coldest day of the season is due to myself,—no slight distinction in the country, where the weather is always a more prominent topic than in the city, and the weather-wise are accordingly esteemed. Every one hastened to corroborate this verdict with some piece of evidence. Mother said that the frost had not gone off the kitchen window nearest the stove in all the day, and that was a sign. The sleighs and sledges as they went by in the road creaked on the snow, so that we heard them through the double windows, and that was a sign; while the teamsters swung their benumbed arms like the sails of a windmill to keep up the circulation, and the frozen vapor puffed out from the horses' nostrils in a manner reminding one of the snorting coursers in sensational pictures. The schoolboys on their way from school did not stop to play, and that was a sign. No women had been seen on the street since noon. Young men, as they hurried past on the peculiar high-stepping trot of persons who have their hands over their ears, looked strangely antiquated with their mustaches and beards all grizzled with the frost.

Toward dusk I took a short run to the post-office. I was well wrapped up, but that did not prevent me from having very singular sensations before I got home. The air, as I stepped out from cover, did not seem like air at all, but like some almost solid medium, whose impact was like a blow. It went right through my overcoat at the first assault, and nosed about hungrily for my little spark of vital heat. A strong wind with the flavor of glaciers was blowing straight from the pole. How inexpressibly bleak was the aspect of the leaden clouds that were banked up around the horizon! I shivered as I looked at the sullen masses. The houses seemed little citadels against the sky. I had not taken fifty steps before my face stiffened into a sort of mask, so that it hurt me to move the facial muscles. I came home on an undignified run, experiencing a lively sense of the inadequacy of two hands to protect two ears and a nose. Did the Creator intend man to inhabit high latitudes?

At nightfall father, Bill, and Jim, the two latter being my younger brothers, arrived from their offices, each in succession declaring, with many "whews" and "ughs," that it was by all odds the coldest night yet. Undeniably we all felt proud of it, too. A spirited man rather welcomes ten or fifteen degrees extra, if so be they make the temperature superlatively low; while he would very likely grumble at a much less positive chilliness coupled with the disheartening feeling that he was enduring nothing extraordinary....