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An Old Town by the Sea 7

PORTSMOUTH NH CHARACTERS by TB Aldrich (continued)

His pessimism extended up, or down, to generally recognized canons of orthography. They were all iniquitous. If k-n-i-f-e spelled knife, then, he contended, k-n-i-f-e-s was the plural. Diverting tags, written by his own hand in conformity with this theory, were always attached to articles in his shop window. He is long since ded, as he himself would have put it, but his phonetic theory appears to have survived him in crankish brains here and there. As my discouraging old friend was not exactly a public character, like the town crier or Wibird Penhallow, I have intentionally thrown a veil over his identity. I have, so to speak, dropped into his pouch a grain or two of that magical fern-seed which was supposed by our english ancestors, in Elizabeth's reign, to possess the quality of rendering a man invisible.

Another person who singularly interested me at this epoch was a person with whom I had never exchanged a word, whose voice I had never heard, but whose face was as familiar to me as every day could make it. For each morning as I went to school, and each afternoon as I returned, I saw this face peering out of a window in the second story of a shambling yellow house situated in Washington Street, not far from the corner of State. Whether some malign disease had fixed him to the chair he sat on, or whether he had lost the use of his legs, or, possibly, had none (the upper part of him was that of a man in admirable health), presented a problem which, with that curious insouciance of youth, I made no attempt to solve. It was an established fact, however, that he never went out of that house. I cannot vouch so confidently for the cob webby legend which wove itself about him. It was to this effect: He had formerly been the master of a large merchantman running between New York and Calcutta; while still in his prime he had abruptly retired from the quarter-deck, and seated himself at that window-where the outlook must have been the reverse of exhilarating, for not ten persons passed in the course of the day, and the hurried jingle of the bells on Parry's bakery-cart was the only sound that ever shattered the silence. Whether it was an amatory or a financial disappointment that turned him into a hermit was left to ingenious conjecture. But there he sat, year in and year out, with his cheek so close to the window that the nearest pane became permanently blurred with his breath; for after his demise the blurr remained.

In this Arcadian era it was possible, in provincial places, for an undertaker to assume the dimensions of a personage. There was a sexton in Portsmouth -- his name escapes me, but his attributes do not -- whose impressiveness made him own brother to the massive architecture of the Stone Church. On every solemn occasion he was the striking figure, even to the eclipsing of the involuntary object of the ceremony. His occasions, happily, were not exclusively solemn; he added to his other public services that of furnishing ice-cream for evening parties. I always thought-perhaps it was the working of an unchastened imagination -- that he managed to throw into his ice creams a peculiar chill not attained by either Dunyon or Peduzzi-arcades ambo -- the rival confectioners.

Perhaps I should not say rival, for Mr. Dunyon kept a species of restaurant, while Mr. Peduzzi restricted himself to preparing confections to be discussed elsewhere than on his premises. Both gentlemen achieved great popularity in their respective lines, but neither offered to the juvenile population quite the charm of those prim, white-capped old ladies who presided over certain snuffy little shops, occurring unexpectedly in silent side streets where the footfall of commerce seemed an incongruous thing. These shops were never intended in nature. They had an impromptu and abnormal air about them. I do not recall one that was not located in a private residence, and was not evidently the despairing expedient of some pathetic financial crisis, similar to that which overtook Miss Hepzibah Pyncheon in The House of the Seven Gables. The horizontally divided street door -- the upper section left open in summer -- ushered you, with a sudden jangle of bell that turned your heart over, into a strictly private hall, haunted by the delayed aroma of thousands of family dinners. Thence, through another door, you passed into what had formerly been the front parlor, but was now a shop, with a narrow, brown, wooden counter, and several rows of little drawers built up against the picture-papered wall behind it. Through much use the paint on these drawers was worn off in circles round the polished brass knobs. Here was stored almost every small article required by humanity, from an inflamed emery cushion to a peppermint Gibraltar -- the latter a kind of adamantine confectionery which, when I reflect upon it, raises in me the wonder that any Portsmouth boy or girl ever reached the age of fifteen with a single tooth left unbroken. The proprietors of these little knick knack establishments were the nicest creatures, somehow suggesting venerable doves.

They were always aged ladies, sometimes spinsters, sometimes relicts of daring mariners, beached long before. They always wore crisp muslin caps and steelrimmed spectacles; they were not always amiable, and no wonder, for even doves may have their rheumatism; but such as they were, they were cherished in young hearts, and are, I take it, impossible to-day.

When I look back to Portsmouth as I knew it, it occurs to me that it must have been in some respects unique among New England towns. There were, for instance, no really poor persons in the place; every one had some sufficient calling or an income to render it unnecessary; vagrants and paupers were instantly snapped up and provided for at "the Farm." There was, however, in a gambrel-roofed house here and there, a decayed old gentlewoman, occupying a scrupulously neat room with just a suspicion of maccaboy snuff in the air, who had her meals sent in to her by the neighborhood -- as a matter of course, and involving no sense of dependency on her side. It is wonderful what an extension of vitality is given to an old gentlewoman in this condition!

I would like to write about several of those ancient Dames, as they were affectionately called, and to materialize others of the shadows that stir in my recollection; but this would be to go outside the lines of my purpose, which is simply to indicate one of the various sorts of changes that have come over the vie intime of formerly secluded places like Portsmouth -- the obliteration of odd personalities, or, if not the obliteration, the general disregard of them. Everywhere in New England the impress of the past is fading out. The few old-fashioned men and women -- quaint, shrewd, and racy of the soil -- who linger in little, silvery-gray old homesteads strung along the New England roads and by-ways will shortly cease to exist as a class, save in the record of some such charming chronicler as Sarah Jewett, or Mary Wilkins, on whose sympathetic page they have already taken to themselves a remote air, an atmosphere of long-kept lavender and pennyroyal.

Peculiarity in any kind requires encouragement in order to reach flower. The increased facilities of communication between points once isolated, the interchange of customs and modes of thought, make this encouragement more and more difficult each decade. The naturally inclined eccentric finds his sharp outlines rubbed off by unavoidable attrition with a larger world than owns him. Insensibly he lends himself to the shaping hand of new ideas. He gets his reversible cuffs and paper collars from Cambridge, Massachusetts, the scarabaeus in his scarf pin from Mexico, and his ulster from everywhere. He has passed out of the chrysalis state of Odd Stick; he has ceased to be parochial; he is no longer distinct; he is simply the Average Man.


Transcribed for the Internet by / 1998

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