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IN OLD NEWBURYPORT
The Dignity, Quiet, and Beauty of the One-Time Busy Seaport
Salt marshes surround Newburyport with their level beauty and through them you must come to it. Through them, too, the sea comes to it, stretching long arms lovingly as if to clasp it and bear it away. Thus fondly but placidly the tides twice a day give the gentle old city a hug and then go about their business. It is no wonder that this corner of old Newbury knew it belonged to the ocean rather than to the land and was set off as a seaport long ago. In the hey-dey of their affection the town sent forth its splendid ships in great numbers to all seas, and the seas in return sent tribute of all distant climes to Newburyport. For more than a century shipmasters and sailors born on the long ridge south of the Merrimac knew Guadeloupe and Surinam, Port au Prince and St. Mar-tins as well as they knew the streets of their own towns, for the trade with the West Indies was very large. Ships launched at Newburyport and manned by her men brought back wine from Madeira, carpeting, silks and glassware from Bilbao, salt from Cadiz and from Turk's Island, linen from Ireland, earthenware from Dunkirk. They brought back, too, knowledge of the wide spaces of the earth and distant cities, and it is no wonder the town grew in dignity as well as wealth, for it had a broad outlook upon the world. In the year 1810, more than a century ago, twenty-one full-rigged ships, thirteen brigs and a schooner were built and set sail on maiden voyages from. Newburyport. On the first day of May, ten years later, forty vessels that had been held in port by contrary winds put to sea. The thought of such fleets makes the harbor lonely to-day when the only masts in sight are those of a coal barge or two, waiting for the surf on the bar to go down and let them out.
It is only a little over half a century since Newburyport saw the launching of a ship that was famous on all seas, her exploits woven into sea chanteys and ringing in hoarse chorus round the capstan in many a distant port while the men bent to the capstan bars, the pawl clicked, and ponderous anchors strained upward out of the ooze. That was the clipper-built Liverpool packet Dreadnaught. She was known as "The Wild Boat of the Atlantic" and "The Flying Dutchman." Twice she carried the latest American news to Europe, slipping in between steamers. Once in 1860 she crossed the wind-swept western ocean in nine days and thirteen hours, from Sandy Hook to Queenstown, a pace which many an ocean-going steamship does not better to-day. She was conspicuous on all seas for the red cross painted on her foretopsail. "The Port" was proud indeed of this vessel, and as I stood on the top deck of the gray old custom house, looking down on the empty harbor on the one hand and up the ridge at the great square houses of the old sea captains and ship-builders on the other, I thought the wind crooned a snatch or two of deep sea chantey in memory of it round the gray stone cornices at my feet:
Such was the building of Newburyport. and such is the romance of memory that comes in to her on every wind of the sea to-day, though the ships have sailed away never to return and even the foundations of the old ship yards are hard to find. The wealth and dignity of the old sea-faring days remain. The custom house bravely hoists its flag each morning and waits in gray silence for the cargoes that rarely come. Old age comes to it, though, and to climb the worn stairs to its top is to walk with the men of other years, hearing their footfalls in the echo of your own and seeing them vanish, phantoms of gray dust, through dark doorways into the forgotten past. Piled in the corners as they pass you see the outworn flags of other years, as if draping huddled heaps of the achievements of these phantom shipmasters. Perhaps in some dark corner lies another story like that of the Scarlet Letter.
Along the street on which the custom house faces passed the sea-faring traffic of the day, and the buildings suggest Wapping Old Stairs or some such quaint corner of old London near the Thames. The smell of the sea lingers round all corners, and in the little shop windows are crowded for sale pictures of ships and fragments of ship chandlery and curios from ports once a half-year's sail away; wares that one fancies have waited a century for customers. The street itself loves the sea so well that it is always trying to reach it, swerving toward the water line often and making detours when blocked, and always sending down little messenger side streets to bring it news from the very shore, thus winding its way always eastward till it gets an unobstructed view of the harbor entrance across Joppa flats and is no doubt content, strolling there along the very margin with a blear eye turned seaward for the ships that come no more.
In the debris the centuries have dropped along this once busy street the quaint and curious mingling of useless utilities and unvalued treasures, one is reminded of the quaint and curious characters such surroundings seem to evolve. Among such Dickens finds an Old Curiosity Shop and its keeper and makes them immortal. Yet it is not often that the queer character himself goes into print and leaves his name and pokes his personality into the dusty corners of literary fame, to be picked out and wondered at centuries after. Newburyport had one such, the story of whose amazing eccentricities still lasts, linked with the dignified reputation of the old seaport. These stories in time may be forgotten, though they have lasted more than a century, but his astounding book, "Pickles for the Knowing Ones," bids fair to last far longer, as long in fact as libraries collect and hold absurdities of print as well as literature. It is one of the ironies of fame that Newburyport, which can rightfully boast of being the town in which William Lloyd Garrison established his Free Press and wrote his anti-slavery broadsides. the town where Whittier's first poem was published, where Whitefield preached and John Pierpont wrote the best of his patriotic verse, where Richard Hildreth began his work as a historian, where many another author of good repute was born, or lived, or died, where Harriet Prescott Spofford still lives and adds to her literary fame, should recall to the minds of many of us only the name of the preposterous "Lord" Timothy Dexter. After all, perhaps it is style alone which survives. Dexter's style was like nothing which ever went before or has yet come after, in print. It takes an inventive mind to find any meaning at all in what he wrote, sense being as scarce as punctuation, of which there was none. Yet the trail of Lord Timothy Dexter is still eagerly followed through Newburyport annals by people who forget that John Pierpont ever lived, and we all gloat over the punctuation marks added in a solid page at the end of his second edition, to be used as the reader's fancy dictates.
Lord Dexter lived in the solid, dignified upper portion of the town. His mind and character belonged in the queer junk in the little shop windows down near the water front. I can fancy John Pierpont drawing the clear, denunciatory fire of his verses from the keen sea winds that blow on the top of the ridge where High Street is lined with the noble, square, stately old houses of the one-time magnates of the place. It is not a far cry from the shacks of Joppa and the clutter shops of the lower regions to this atmosphere of worth and dignity along the higher levels of Newburyport. I have an idea that more than one youth who climbed first to reef topsails later climbed to a master's berth and an owner's financial security, his abode climbing with him from the jumbled, characterless houses of the lower regions to one of these mansions in the skies. It may be that there is equal opportunity now, but it is not so easy to see. Seafaring and shipbuilding could not make men, but it did train them to wide outlooks and large experience in self-control and self-reliance; larger, I believe, than do the shoe factories and other industries that have taken their places in this town that the sea once made its own.
Newburyport does not grow in population, but it holds its own with a peaceful dignity and a quiet beauty that seem to belong to it as much as do its surrounding marshes. Leisure, peace, and an assured prosperity seem to mark the one as well as the other, whether ships come or go. There is little bustle, even at its busiest points, and you have but to go a little way from these to find as sweet a country as any part of New England has to offer. Passing up the river bank where the marsh grasses grow over the rotting stocks of the old shipyards, you find the hills coming down to meet the marshes and mingling with them in friendly converse. The town drops behind you, and gentle hillocks offer kindly asylum on the placid levels of the river bank, beauty spots full of half-wild life.
Here and there on these is an apple tree that has strolled down from suburban orchards as if to view the beauty of the river, and liked the place so well that it stayed, glad to escape the humdrum of ordered life, sending out wild shoots at will and producing fruit that has a half-wild vigor of flavor that puts the orchard apples to shame for their insipidity. They riot in lawless growth, these runaway trees, and welcome their boon companions, crows and jays, spreading an autumnal feast for their delectation and holding the fragments far into the winter that none may go away' from a visit hungry. The pasture cedars, that love the river air, but may not live on the marsh, have built seaside colonies on these hillocks and spread a feast of blue cedar berries for all passing flocks. Here the robins, now gathering for their winter flight south, flock and feed, holding their ground at the approach of man, crying "Tut, tut!" to his intrusion. With them are the cedar wax-wings, also very fond of the cedar berries, the soft gray-browns of the bird's plumage blending most pleasantly with the olive greens of the cedars. There is a dainty, sleek beauty about this bird that harmonizes wonderfully well with the cedar trees which it frequents, and the little red sealing-wax tips on its wing feathers make one think that the flock is bringing Christmas decorations of holly berries to each tree to deck it for the holiday season. In wild apple trees the robins seem less than half-wild and in the cedars the waxwings more than half-tame. The two give a friendly spirit to the spot and at once make you feel that you are welcome. To sit quietly in such a place for five minutes is to make it your own home, and you go away with regret and a certain homesickness. Huckleberry bushes, maples, beach plums and birches stand admiringly round, and wild grasses and pasture flowers crowd in and add to the cosiness.
Of these wild flowers the seaside goldenrod is most profuse. Pasture-born like the cedars, it too loves the sea and crowds to its very edge like the people at Revere and Nantasket, so close indeed that at high tides the smelt and young herring, swimming in silver shoals, nibble at the bare toes the plants dabble in the water. You may know this even if you do not see the nibblers, for the plants quiver and shake with suppressed laughter at being thus tickled. The seaside goldenrod is prettier now in the cool winds and under the pale October sun's slant rays than it was in the heyday of August, when it burgeoned with yellow racemes of rather coarse bloom. Its head-gear is in the full autumn style, and it bows beneath the weight of ostrich-plume pappus and softens all the foreground of the view with gray fluff.
From these sea margins where tide and river mingle and meet the borders of Newburyport one gets glimpses of higher hills up-river, dark with pines and gorgeous with autumn scarlet and gold, and among them the picturesque towers and cadenced sweep of the old chain bridge that takes you across the river to Amesbury. Down river to the old chain bridge the rough rocks of the New Hampshire hills, wandering far, come to get a taste of salt, and put their lips to the water at the island home of Harriet Prescott Spofford, whose sparkling verse and piquant prose has made the name of Newburyport known in literary annals for more than half a century. Hills and sea meet there, and all the beauty of marsh, pasture and woodland surround the spot. It is no wonder that romance, vivid life and rich atmosphere inform her work.
The herring gulls which go up and down with the tides no longer follow the Newburyport sails to sea and escort them back again to port, pensioners on the bounty which ships always scatter in their wake. Instead they have reverted to their original, more noble trade of fishing. Every time the smelt or the young herring come in to make game of the seaside goldenrod by tickling their toes they risk their lives. The gulls soar and wheel over the shallows and tide rips, their wing, and bodies set and quiet like soaring monoplanes, their heads hanging loosely on supple necks and turning this way and that as they peer with farsighted eyes at all beneath the surface. Suddenly the stays of the monoplane seem to break, the wings crumple, and the bird falls to water as if shot, going often beneath the surface. In a second he emerges with lifted bill and you see the silvery flash of some unlucky fish disappearing down the capacious gullet. Often this is a polite morsel, but not always. The gull is not over particular in his mouthfuls, and I have seen one take a herring as long as his own body, head first, swallowing the fish as far as circumstances would permit, then sitting placidly on the. water with several inches of shiny tail protruding, waiting, like continuous performance table d'hote diners, for the first course to be digested so that there should be room to swallow the last one. Birds of the sea meet birds of the land here, and birds of the marsh join them. Over the river the fish hawk soars as well as the gulls, and the marsh hawk crosses from one mouse-hunting ground to another. Out of the sky a Wilson's snipe fell like a gray aerolite, white I was there, a lightning-like plunge ended by an alighting as soft as the fall of a thistledown on the marsh grass. This was proof that the drought has been long, for the Wilson's snipe likes the fresh water meadows best and rarely comes to the salt marsh grass unless his familiar stabbing ground is too dry to be thrust with comfort. He came like a visitor from another sphere. In the second of his lighting I caught a flash of his mottle gray and brown, then he vanished as if his plunge had after all taken him far into the ground and all you need expect to find was the hole by which he entered. Yet neither bird nor hole could I find by diligent search in the marsh grass. Never a top waved with his progress among the culms, and only by scent could he have been followed.
On the other side of Newburyport you come to the marshes again, great level stretches of them, silvered with winding threads of the sea that seek far through the slender creeks, marshes dotted at this time of year as far as eye can see with the rounded domes of many-footed haystacks, a place where the full sky is yours for the seeing, where all winds blow free, and blowing bring to your lungs the rich, life-giving scent of the deep sea tides, caught and concentrated in the tangled grasses and touched with a faint essence of their own perfume. Beyond again lies Plum Island. Here the sea beats in savage vigor, and I seem to get in its voice an echo of the sonorous poems in which John Pierpont denounced slavery. Pierpont was one of the great writers of his day, and his work lasts. He may well have got the culture, depth and dignity of his multitudinous sermons from the atmosphere he found among the great square houses built by the old-time shipmasters and shipbuilders on the ridge which is the backbone of the city. In the laughing beauty of the up-river scenery I can fancy him finding light-winged fancies such as the couplet he wrote in Miss Octavia's album:
"Octavia; what, the eighth! If bounteous heaven
Only in the deep sea thunder of the waves on Plum Island beach could he have heard such notes as echoed in "The Tocsin".
It is easy to see him striding home from a session with the Plum Island waves and pausing to see the snow settle on and blot out the outlines of the peaceful marshes, drawing from the sight his best-remembered, most-quoted verse:
I do not know if he wrote these lines here or later when he had become one of Boston's famous preachers, but I do know that he saw these things in the years that he lived in the fine old town and carried the memory of them long with him, just as all of us who visit the place carry away lasting impressions of its quaintness, dignity and wholesome quiet, and the beauty of its surrounding country.
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