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An Old Town by the Sea 6

PORTSMOUTH NH CHARACTERS by TB Aldrich (continued)

A lady differing in many ways from Catherine Moffatt was the Mary Atkinson (once an inmate of this same manor house) who fell to the lot of the Rev. William Shurtleff, pastor of the South Church between 1733 and 1747. From the worldly standpoint, it was a fine match for the Newcastle clergyman -- beauty, of the eagle beaked kind; wealth, her share of the family plate; high birth, a sister to the Hon. Theodore Atkinson. But if the exemplary man had cast his eyes lower, peradventure he had found more happiness, though ill-bred persons without family plate are not necessarily amiable. Like Socrates, this long-suffering divine had always with him an object on which to cultivate heavenly patience, and patience, says the Eastern proverb, is the key of content. The spirit of Xantippe seems to have taken possession of Mrs. Shurtleff immediately after her marriage. The freakish disrespect with which she used her meek consort was a heavy cross to bear at a period in New England when clerical dignity was at its highest sensitive point. Her devices for torturing the poor gentleman were inexhaustible. Now she lets his Sabbath ruffs go unstarched; now she scandalizes him by some unseemly and frivolous color in her attire; now she leaves him to cook his own dinner at the kitchen coals; and now she locks him in his study, whither he has retired for a moment or two of prayer, previous to setting forth to perform the morning service.

The congregation has assembled; the sexton has tolled the bell twice as long as is the custom, and is beginning a third carillon, full of wonder that his reverence does not appear; and there sits Mistress Shurtleff in the family pew with a face as complacent as that of the cat that has eaten the canary. Presently the deacons appeal to her for information touching the good doctor. Mistress Shurtleff sweetly tells them that the good doctor was in his study when she left home. There he is found, indeed, and released from durance, begging the deacons to keep his mortification secret, to "give it an understanding, but no tongue." Such was the discipline undergone by the worthy Dr. Shurtleff on his earthly pilgrimage. A portrait of this patient man -- now a saint somewhere -- hangs in the rooms of the New England Historic and Genealogical Society in Boston. There he can be seen in surplice and bands, with his lamblike, apostolic face looking down upon the heavy antiquarian labors of his busy descendants.

Whether or not a man is to be classed as eccentric who vanishes without rhyme or reason on his wedding-night is a query left to the reader's decision. We seem to have struck a matrimonial vein, and must work it out. In 1768, Mr. James McDonough was one of the wealthiest men in Portsmouth, and the fortunate suitor for the hand of a daughter of Jacob Sheafe, a town magnate. The home of the bride was decked and lighted for the nuptials, the banquet-table was spread, and the guests were gathered. The minister in his robe stood by the carven mantelpiece, book in hand, and waited. Then followed an awkward interval -- there was a hitch somewhere. A strange silence fell upon the laughing groups; the air grew tense with expectation; in the pantry, Amos Boggs, the butler, in his agitation spilt a bottle of port over his new cinnamon-colored small-clothes. Then a whisper -- a whisper suppressed these twenty minutes -- ran through the apartments, --" The bridegroom has not come! "He never came.

The mystery of that night remains a mystery after the lapse of a century and a quarter. What had become of James McDonough? The assassination of so notable a person in a community where every strange face was challenged, where every man's antecedents were known, could not have been accomplished without leaving some slight traces. Not a shadow of foul play was discovered. That McDonough had been murdered or had committed suicide were theories accepted at first by a few, and then by no one. On the other hand, he was in love with his fiancee, he had wealth, power, position -- why had he fled? He was seen a moment on the public street, and then never seen again. It was as if he had turned into air. Meanwhile the bewilderment of the bride was dramatically painful. If McDonough had been waylaid and killed, she could mourn for him. If he had deserted her, she could wrap herself in her pride. But neither course lay open to her, then or afterward. In one of the Twice Told Tales Hawthorne deals with a man named Wakefield, who disappears with like suddenness, and lives unrecognized for twenty years in a street not far from his abandoned hearthside. Such expunging of one's self was not possible in Portsmouth; but I never think of McDonough without recalling Wakefield. I have an inexplicable conviction that for many a year James McDonough, in some snug ambush, studied and analyzed the effect of his own startling disappearance.

Some time in the year 1758, there dawned upon Portsmouth a personage bearing the ponderous title of King's Attorney, and carrying much gold lace about him. This gilded gentleman was Mr. Wyseman Clagett, of Bristol, England, where his father dwelt on the manor of Broad Oaks, in a mansion with twelve chimneys, and kept a coach and eight or ten servants. Up to the moment of his advent in the colonies, Mr. Wyseman Clagett had evidently not been able to keep anything but himself. His wealth consisted of his personal decorations, the golden frogs on his lapels, and the tinsel at his throat; other charms he had none. Yet with these he contrived to dazzle the eyes of Lettice Mitchel, one of the young beauties of the province, and to cause her to forget that she had plighted troth with a Mr. Warner, then in Europe, and destined to return home with a disturbed heart. Mr. Clagett was a man of violent temper and ingenious vindictiveness, and proved more than a sufficient punishment for Lettice's infidelity. The trifling fact that Warner was dead -- he died shortly after his return -- did not interfere with the course of Mr. Clagett's jealousy; he was haunted by the suspicion that Lettice regretted her first love, having left nothing undone to make her do so. "This is to pay Warner's debts," remarked Mr. Clagett, as he twitched off the table-cloth and wrecked the tea-things.


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