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An Old Town by the Sea 6

PORTSMOUTH NH CHARACTERS by TB Aldrich (continued)

When a man cuts himself absolutely adrift from custom, what an astonishingly light spar floats him! How few his wants are, after all! Lear was of a cheerful disposition, and seems to have been wholly inoffensive -- at a distance. He fabricated his own clothes, and subsisted chiefly on milk and potatoes, the product of his realm. He needed nothing but an island to be a Robinson Crusoe. At rare intervals he flitted like a frost-bitten apparition through the main street of Portsmouth, which he always designated as "the Bank," a name that had become obsolete fifty or a hundred years before. Thus, for nearly a quarter of a century, Benjamin Lear stood aloof from human intercourse. In his old age some of the neighbors offered him shelter during the tempestuous winter months; but he would have none of it -- he defied wind and weather. There he lay in his dilapidated hovel in his last illness, refusing to allow any one to remain with him overnight -- and the mercury four degrees below zero.

Lear was born in 1720, and vegetated eighty-two years. I take it that Timothy Winn, of whom we have only a glimpse, and would like to have more, was a person better worth knowing. His name reads like the title of some old-fashioned novel -- "Timothy Winn, or the Memoirs of a Bashful Gentleman." He came to Portsmouth from Woburn at the close of the last century, and set up in the old museum-building on Mulberry Street what was called "a piece goods store." He was the third Timothy in his monotonous family, and in order to differentiate himself he inscribed on the sign over his shop door, "Timothy Winn, 3d," and was ever after called "Three-Penny Winn." That he enjoyed the pleasantry, and clung to his sign, goes to show that he was a person who would ripen on further acquaintance, were further acquaintance now practicable. His next-door neighbor, Mr. Leonard Serat, who kept a modest tailoring establishment, also tantalizes us a little with a dim intimation of originality. He plainly was without literary prejudices, for on one face of his swinging sign was painted the word Taylor, and on the other Tailor. This may have been a delicate concession to that part of the community -- the greater part, probably -- which would have spelled it with a y.

The building in which Messrs. Winn and Serat had their shops was the property of Nicholas Rousselet, a French gentleman of Demerara, the story of whose unconventional courtship of Miss Catherine Moffatt is pretty enough to bear retelling, and entitles him to a place in our limited collection of etchings. M. Rousselet had doubtless already made excursions into the pays de tendre, and given Miss Catherine previous notice of the state of his heart, but it was not until one day during the hour of service at the Episcopal church that he brought matters to a crisis by handing to Miss Moffatt a small Bible, on the fly-leaf of which he had penciled the fifth verse of the Second Epistle of John--

"And now I beseech thee, lady, not as though I wrote a new commandment unto thee, but that which we had from the beginning, that we love one another."

This was not to be resisted, at least not by Miss Catherine, who demurely handed the volume back to him with a page turned down at the sixteenth verse in the first chapter of Ruth --

"Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me."

Aside from this quaint touch of romance, what attaches me to the happy pair -- for the marriage was a fortunate one -- is the fact that the Rousselets made their home in the old Atkinson mansion, which stood directly opposite my grandfather's house on Court Street and was torn down in my childhood, to my great consternation. The building had been unoccupied for a quarter of a century, and was fast falling into decay with all its rich wood-carvings at cornice and lintel; but was it not full of ghosts, and if the old barracks were demolished, would not these ghosts, or some of them at least, take refuge in my grandfather's house just across the way? Where else could they bestow themselves so conveniently? While the ancient mansion was in process of destruction, I used to peep round the corner of our barn at the workmen, and watch the indignant phantoms go soaring upward in spiral clouds of colonial dust.


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Tuesday, February 20, 2018 
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