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An Old Town by the Sea 7


PORTSMOUTH NH CHARACTERS by TB Aldrich (continued)

Nicholas Newman -- Nicholas was a sobriquet, his real name being Edward -- was a most estimable person, very short, cross eyed, somewhat bow-legged, and with a bell out of all proportion to his stature. I have never since seen a bell of that size disconnected with a church steeple. The only thing about him that matched the instrument of his office was his voice. His "Hear All!" still deafens memory's ear. I remember that he had a queer way of sidling up to one, as if nature in shaping him had originally intended a crab, but thought better of it, and made a town-crier. Of the crustacean intention only a moist thumb remained, which served Mr. Newman in good stead in the delivery of the Boston evening papers, for he was incidentally newsdealer. His authentic duties were to cry auctions, funerals, mislaid children, traveling theatricals, public meetings, and articles lost or found. He was especially strong in announcing the loss of reticules, usually the property of elderly maiden ladies. The unction with which he detailed the several contents, when fully confided to him, would have seemed satirical in another person, but on his part was pure conscientiousness. He would not let so much as a thimble, or a piece of wax, or a portable tooth, or any amiable vanity in the way of tonsorial device, escape him. I have heard Mr. Newman spoken of as " that horrid man."

He was a picturesque figure. Possibly it is because of his bell that I connect the town crier with those dolorous sounds which I used to hear rolling out of the steeple of the Old North every night at nine o'clock-the vocal remains of the colonial curfew. Nicholas Newman has passed on, perhaps crying his losses elsewhere, but this nightly tolling is still a custom. I can more satisfactorily explain why I associate with it a vastly different personality, that of Sol Holmes, the barber, for every night at nine o'clock his little shop on Congress Street was in full blast. Many a time at that hour I have flattened my nose on his window-glass. It was a gay little shop (he called it "an Emporium"), as barber shops generally are, decorated with circus bills, tinted prints, and gaudy fly-catchers of tissue and gold paper. Sol Holmes -- whose antecedents to us boys were wrapped in thrilling mystery, we imagined him to have been a prince in his native land -- was a colored man, not too dark "for human nature's daily food," and enjoyed marked distinction as one of the few exotics in town. At this juncture the foreign element was at its minimum; every official, from selectman down to the Dogberry of the watch, bore a name that had been familiar to the town for a hundred years or so. The situation is greatly changed. I expect to live to see a Chinese policeman, with a sandal-wood club and a rice-paper pocket handkerchief, patrolling Congress Street.

Holmes was a handsome man, six feet or more in height, and as straight as a pine. He possessed his race's sweet temper, simplicity, and vanity. His martial bearing was a positive factor in the effectiveness of the Portsmouth Greys, whenever those bloodless warriors paraded. As he brought up the rear of the last platoon, with his infantry cap stuck jauntily on the left side of his head and a bright silver cup slung on a belt at his hip, he seemed to youthful eyes one of the most imposing things in the display. To himself he was pretty much "all the company." He used to say, with a drollness which did not strike me until years afterwards, "Boys, I and Cap'n Towle is goin 'to trot out' the Greys' to-morroh." Though strictly honest in all business dealings, his tropical imagination, whenever he strayed into the fenceless fields of autobiography, left much to be desired in the way of accuracy. Compared with Sol Holmes on such occasions, Ananias was a person of morbid integrity. Sol Holmes's tragic end was in singular contrast with his sunny temperament. One night, long ago, he threw himself from the deck of a Sound steamer, somewhere between Stonington and New York. What led or drove him to the act never transpired.

There are few men who were boys in Portsmouth at the period of which I write but will remember Wibird Penhallow and his sky-blue wheelbarrow. I find it difficult to describe him other than vaguely, possibly because Wibird had no expression whatever in his countenance. With his vacant white face lifted to the clouds, seemingly oblivious of everything, yet going with a sort of heaven-given instinct straight to his destination, he trundled that rattling wheelbarrow for many a year over Portsmouth cobblestones. He was so unconscious of his environment that sometimes a small boy would pop into the empty wheelbarrow and secure a ride without Wibird arriving at any very clear knowledge of the fact. His employment in life was to deliver groceries and other merchandise to purchasers. This he did in a dreamy, impersonal kind of way. It was as if a spirit had somehow got hold of an earthly wheelbarrow and was trundling it quite unconsciously, with no sense of responsibility. One day he appeared at a kitchen door with a two-gallon molasses jug, the top part of which was wanting. It was no longer a jug, but a tureen. When the recipient of the damaged article remonstrated with "Goodness gracious, Wibird! you have broken the jug," his features lighted up, and he seemed immensely relieved. "I thought," he remarked, "I heerd somethink crack!"

Wibird Penhallow's heaviest patron was the keeper of a variety store, and the first specimen of a pessimist I ever encountered. He was an excellent specimen. He took exception to everything. He objected to the telegraph, to the railway, to steam in all its applications. Some of his arguments, I recollect, made a deep impression on my mind. "Nowadays," he once observed to me, "if your son or your grandfather drops dead at the other end of creation, you know of it in ten minutes. What 's the use? Unless you are anxious to know he's dead, you've got just two or three weeks more to be miserable in." He scorned the whole business, and was faithful to his scorn. When he received a telegram, which was rarely, he made a point of keeping it awhile unopened. Through the exercise of this whim he once missed an opportunity of buying certain goods to great advantage. "There!" he exclaimed, "if the telegraph hadn't been invented the idiot would have written to me, and I'd have sent a letter by return coach, and got the goods before he found out prices had gone up in Chicago. If that boy brings me another of those tape worm telegraphs, I'll throw an axe-handle at him."

Continue OLD TOWN BY THE SEA

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