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An Old Town by the Sea 6


PORTSMOUTH NH CHARACTERS by TB Aldrich (continued)I

n his official capacity he was a relentless prosecutor. The noun Clagett speedily turned itself into a verb; "to Clagett " meant "to prosecute;" they were convertible terms.

In spite of his industrious severity, and his royal emoluments, if such existed, the exchequer of the King's Attorney showed a perpetual deficit. The stratagems to which he resorted from time to time in order to raise unimportant sums remind one of certain scenes in Moliere's comedies.

Mr. Clagett had for his ame damnee a constable of the town. They were made for each other; they were two flowers with but a single stem, and this was their method of procedure: Mr. Clagett dispatched one of his servants to pick a quarrel with some countryman on the street, or some sailor drinking at an inn: the constable arrested the sailor or the countryman, as the case might be, and hauled the culprit before Mr. Clagett; Mr; Clagett read the culprit a moral lesson, and fined him five dollars and costs. The plunder was then divided between the conspirators -- two hearts that beat as one -- Clagett, of course, getting the lion's share. Justice was never administered in a simpler manner in any country. This eminent legal light was extinguished in 1784, and the wick laid away in the little churchyard at Litchfield, New Hampshire. It is a satisfaction, even after such a lapse of time, to know that Lettice survived the King's Attorney sufficiently long to be very happy with somebody else. Lettice Mitchel was scarcely eighteen when she married Wyseman Clagett.

About eighty years ago, a witless fellow named Tilton seems to have been a familiar figure on the streets of the old town. Mr. Brewster speaks of him as "the well-known idiot, Johnny Tilton," as if one should say, "the well-known statesman, Daniel Webster." It is curious to observe how any sort of individuality gets magnified in this parochial atmosphere, where everything lacks perspective, and nothing is trivial. Johnny Tilton does not appear to have had much individuality to start with; it was only after his head was cracked that he showed any shrewdness whatever. That happened early in his unobtrusive boyhood. He had frequently watched the hens flying out of the loft window in his father's stable, which stood in the rear of the Old Bell Tavern. It occurred to Johnny, one day, that though he might not be as bright as other lads, he certainly was in no respect inferior to a hen. So he placed himself on the sill of the window in the loft, flapped his arms, and took flight. The New England Icarus alighted head downward, lay insensible for a while, and was henceforth looked upon as a mortal who had lost his wits. Yet at odd moments his cloudiness was illumined by a gleam of intelligence such as had not been detected in him previous to his mischance. As Polonius said of Hamlet -- another unstrung mortal -- Tilton's replies had "a happiness that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity could not so prosperously be delivered of." One morning, he appeared at the flour-mill with a sack of corn to be ground for the almshouse, and was asked what he knew. "Some things I know," replied poor Tilton, " and some things I don't know. I know the miller's hogs grow fat, but I don't know whose corn they fat on." To borrow another word from Polonius, though this be madness, yet there was method in it. Tilton finally brought up in the almshouse, where he was allowed the liberty of roaming at will through the town. He loved the water-side as if he had had all his senses. Often he was seen to stand for hours with a sunny, torpid smile on his lips, gazing out upon the river where its azure ruffles itself into silver against the islands. He always wore stuck in his hat a few hen's feathers, perhaps with some vague idea of still associating himself with the birds of the air, if hens can come into that category.

George Jaffrey, third of the name, was a character of another complexion, a gentle man born, a graduate of Harvard in 1730, and one of His Majesty's Council in 1766 -- a man with the blood of the lion and the unicorn in every vein. He remained to the bitter end, and beyond, a devout royalist, prizing his shoe-buckles, not because they were of chased silver, but because they bore the tower mark and crown stamp. He stoutly objected to oral prayer, on the ground that it gave rogues and hypocrites an opportunity to impose on honest folk. He was punctilious in his attendance at church, and unfailing in his responses, though not of a particularly devotional temperament. On one occasion, at least, his sincerity is not to be questioned. He had been deeply irritated by some encroachments on the boundaries of certain estates, and had gone to church that forenoon with his mind full of the matter. When the minister in the course of reading the service came to the apostrophe, "Cursed be he who removeth his neighbor's land mark," Mr. Jaffrey's feelings were too many for him, and he cried out "Amen! " in a tone of voice that brought smiles to the adjoining pews.

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