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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1836–1907)

Portsmouth Originals and the Railroad

From “An Old Town by the Sea”

THE RUNNING of the first train over the Eastern Road from Boston to Portsmouth—it took place somewhat more than forty years ago—was attended by a serious accident. The accident occurred in the crowded station at the Portsmouth terminus, and was unobserved at the time. The catastrophe was followed, though not immediately, by death, and that also, curiously enough, was unobserved. Nevertheless, this initial train, freighted with so many hopes and the directors of the road, ran over and killed—LOCAL CHARACTER.

Up to that day Portsmouth had been a very secluded little community, and had had the courage of its seclusion. From time to time it had calmly produced an individual built on plans and specifications of its own, without regard to the prejudices and conventionalities of outlying districts. This individual was purely indigenous. He was born in the town, he lived to a good old age in the town, and never went out of the place, until he was finally laid under it. To him, Boston, though only fifty-six miles away, was virtually an unknown quantity—only fifty-six miles by brutal geographical measurement, but thousands of miles distant in effect. In those days, in order to reach Boston you were obliged to take a great yellow, clumsy stage-coach, resembling a three-story mud-turtle—if the zoologist will, for the sake of the simile, tolerate so daring an invention; you were obliged to take it very early in the morning, you dined at noon at Ipswich, and clattered into the great city with the golden dome just as the twilight was falling, provided always the coach had not shed a wheel by the roadside or one of the leaders had not gone lame. To many worthy and well-to-do persons in Portsmouth, this journey was an event which occurred only twice or thrice during life. To the typical individual with whom I am for the moment dealing, it never occurred at all. The town was his entire world; he was as parochial as a Parisian; Market Street was his Boulevard des Italiens, and the North End his Bois de Boulogne.

Of course there were varieties of local characters without his limitations: venerable merchants retired from the East India trade; elderly gentlewomen, with family jewels and personal peculiarities; one or two scholarly recluses in bygone cut of coat, haunting the Athenæum reading-room; ex-sea-captains, with rings on their fingers, like Simon Danz’s visitors in Longfellow’s poem—men who had played busy parts in the bustling world, and had drifted back to Old Strawberry Bank in the tranquil sunset of their careers. I may say, in passing, that these ancient mariners, after battling with terrific hurricanes and typhoons on every known sea, not infrequently drowned themselves in pleasant weather in small sail-boats on the Piscataqua River. Old sea-dogs who had commanded ships of four or five hundred tons had naturally slight respect for the potentialities of sail-boats twelve feet long. But there was to be no further increase of these odd sticks—if I may call them so, in no irreverent mood—after those innocent-looking parallel bars indissolubly linked Portsmouth with the capital of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. All the conditions were to be changed, the old angles to be pared off, new horizons to be regarded. The individual, as an eccentric individual, was to undergo great modifications. If he were not to become extinct—a thing little likely—he was at least to lose his prominence.

However, as I have said, local character, in the sense in which the term is here used, was not instantly killed; it died a lingering death, and passed away so peacefully and silently as not to attract general, or perhaps any notice. This period of gradual dissolution fell during my boyhood. The last of the cocked hats had gone out, and the railway had come in, long before my time; but certain bits of color, certain half-obsolete customs and scraps of the past, were still left over. I was not too late, for example, to catch the last town crier—one Nicholas Newman, whom I used to contemplate with awe, and now recall with a sort of affection.

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, patroling 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 afterward, “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 tapeworm telegraphs, I’ll throw an ax-handle at him.” 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 cobwebby 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 blur 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 steel-rimmed 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 byways 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, Mass., the scarabæus 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.