THE GREAT IPSWICH FRIGHT.
“The Frere into the dark gazed forth;
The sounds went onward towards the north
The murmur of tongues, the tramp and tread
Of a mighty army to battle led.”
BALLAD OF THE CID.
Life’s tragedy and comedy are never far apart. The ludicrous and the sublime, the grotesque and the pathetic, jostle each other on the stage; the jester, with his cap and bells, struts alongside of the hero; the lord mayor’s pageant loses itself in the mob around Punch and Judy; the pomp and circumstance of war become mirth-provoking in a militia muster; and the majesty of the law is ridiculous in the mock dignity of a justice’s court. The laughing philosopher of old looked on one side of life and his weeping contemporary on the other; but he who has an eye to both must often experience that contrariety of feeling which Sterne compares to “the contest in the moist eyelids of an April morning, whether to laugh or cry.”
The circumstance we are about to relate, may serve as an illustration of the way in which the woof of comedy interweaves with the warp of tragedy. It occurred in the early stages of the American Revolution, and is part and parcel of its history in the northeastern section of Massachusetts.
About midway between Salem and the ancient town of Newburyport, the traveller on the Eastern Railroad sees on the right, between him and the sea, a tall church-spire, rising above a semicircle of brown roofs and venerable elms; to which a long scalloping range of hills, sweeping off to the seaside, forms a green background. This is Ipswich, the ancient Agawam; one of those steady, conservative villages, of which a few are still left in New England, wherein a contemporary of Cotton Mather and Governor Endicott, were he permitted to revisit the scenes of his painful probation, would scarcely feel himself a stranger. Law and Gospel, embodied in an orthodox steeple and a court-house, occupy the steep, rocky eminence in its midst; below runs the small river under its picturesque stone bridge; and beyond is the famous female seminary, where Andover theological students are wont to take unto themselves wives of the daughters of the Puritans. An air of comfort and quiet broods over the whole town. Yellow moss clings to the seaward sides of the roofs; one’s eyes are not endangered by the intense glare of painted shingles and clapboards. The smoke of hospitable kitchens curls up through the overshadowing elms from huge-throated chimneys, whose hearth-stones have been worn by the feet of many generations. The tavern was once renowned throughout New England, and it is still a creditable hostelry. During court time it is crowded with jocose lawyers, anxious clients, sleepy jurors, and miscellaneous hangers on; disinterested gentlemen, who have no particular business of their own in court, but who regularly attend its sessions, weighing evidence, deciding upon the merits of a lawyer’s plea or a judge’s charge, getting up extempore trials upon the piazza or in the bar-room of cases still involved in the glorious uncertainty of the law in the court-house, proffering gratuitous legal advice to irascible plaintiffs and desponding defendants, and in various other ways seeing that the Commonwealth receives no detriment. In the autumn old sportsmen make the tavern their headquarters while scouring the marshes for sea-birds; and slim young gentlemen from the city return thither with empty game-bags, as guiltless in respect to the snipes and wagtails as Winkle was in the matter of the rooks, after his shooting excursion at Dingle Dell. Twice, nay, three times, a year, since third parties have been in fashion, the delegates of the political churches assemble in Ipswich to pass patriotic resolutions, and designate the candidates whom the good people of Essex County, with implicit faith in the wisdom of the selection, are expected to vote for. For the rest there are pleasant walks and drives around the picturesque village. The people are noted for their hospitality; in summer the sea-wind blows cool over its healthy hills, and, take it for all in all, there is not a better preserved or pleasanter specimen of a Puritan town remaining in the ancient Commonwealth.