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The Other Lady Wentworth

Frances Wentworth
SEACOAST POETRY

Longfellow made one Lady Wentworth famous. She was the very young housekeeper of the very old governor of New Hampshire before the Revolution. But there was a second lovely governor's lady. Her name was Frances, and her poor husband was barely cold before she married her powerful cousin John.

 

 

 

READ: The Frances of Francestown  
READ: How the Governor Lost Three Mansions

New Hampshire’s last two colonial governors had scandalous marriages. Perhaps you know Longfellow’s poem about Martha Hilton Wentworth . She was 21 when she married 63-year old Benning Wentworth in 1760. Benning was the wealthy British governor of New Hampshire and she was his maid. The May-December marriage rocked Portsmouth. A century later, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow turned the story into a best-selling ballad called "Lady Wentworth". It appeared in 1863 in his famous collection "Tales of Wayside Inn" with the equally romanticized ballad about Paul Revere’s famous ride.

Lady WentworthBut there’s a second "Lady Wentworth". This 232-line poem by Nora Perry is about Frances Deering Atkinson Wentworth. She married John Wentworth of Portsmouth who succeeded Benning in 1767. John was the antipodes of his uncle; he was young, handsome, accessible and wise. He was as well liked in New Hampshire as Benning was disliked, but John was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The American Revolution was kicking into high gear during his reign and he symbolized the tyrannical rule of old King George.

He also was involved in a juicy scandal. John was in love with his kissing cousin Frances. People back then married first cousins all the time, but here’s the twist. Young John went from Portsmouth to England and was gone for years. While he was out of the country Frances married the wealthy Thomas Atkinson, but Thomas grew sickly. He was at death’s door when John returned to Portsmouth and, legend says, rekindled his relationship with Frances.

Gov John WentworthIn Perry’s epic poem, even as Thomas lay dying, the lovers met secretly. Then Thomas died. Just 10 days later, Frances married John Wentworth who became the most powerful man in the colony of New Hampshire. She swapped her mourning dress for a wedding dress and the gossip began.

But just a few years later in 1775, a Portsmouth mob drove the Wentworths out of town. The couple ended up in Halifax where their opulent home is still used by the British governor. Frances was involved in a further scandal there that forms the plot of the historical novel "The Governor’s Lady".

Following is the entire poem. It’s not a great poem, but it’s particularly fascinating in comparison with Longfellow’s ballad about the first Lady Wentworth. -- JDR

Portrait photos from "Glimpses of an Old Social Capital" (1923)

 

LADY WENTWORTH
By Nora Perry (1875)

"She shall marry me yet," he smiling said —
Smiling, and under his breath — but red
As flame his dark cheek glowed, and bale-fire burned
In his passionate eyes, as he swiftly turned

Out of the sunshine into the shade —
Out of the sunshine she had made
But a moment before — this girl with a face
Whose very frown had a winsome grace,

They used to swear, in that old, old time,
When her beauty was in its wonderful prime,
When her laughing eyes of golden brown
Were the toast and rage of Portsmouth town,

Of Hampshire’s Portsmouth, there by the sea,
Where the Wentworths ruled and held in fee
Half the country side of rock and shore,
For a hundred and fifty years or more.

"She shall marry me yet." And down he strode
Across the pathway, across the road,
With a firm quick step and a firm quick heart,
To work his will and to play his part.

And a difficult part it was to play,
For the Wentworth blood ran either way —
His mother’s blood that held him tied
By kinsman bonds on either side.

But as mother’s blood leaves stronger trace
Than father’s blood in a turbulent race,
It may have been that his willful way
Had the stronger current to move and sway.

At all events, as the months wore on
And no tidings came from her Cousin John
To the beautiful toast of Portsmouth town,
The Wentworth temper rose up to drown

The passionate Wentworth love in her breast,
And the Wentworth pride helped on the rest:
And six months after her laughing scorn
Of her dark-eyed suitor, suing forlorn,

She stood by his side one autumn day
A beautiful bride: he had won his way;
But the gossips said that a bride never wore
In Portsmouth town such a look before.

Seven years after John Wentworth came
Back to his home with a foreign fame:
Back he came to rule and to reign,
As the Wentworths had ruled and ruled again,

From father to son, in Hampshire State.
Seven years after— why he tarried so late —
So late and so long in a foreign land,
Was a riddle not easy to understand.

Yet late as he came, a welcome burned
In a hundred hearth fires. Wherever he turned
A hand stretched out and a smile awaited
This kinsman of theirs so long belated.

But amid this lavish neighborly cheer
He missed a face he had once held dear.
"My cousin Frances: where doth she hide?"
He questioned at last. "She watches beside

A sock man’s bed — a good nurse, I should say,
To keep the blue devil bailiffs away."
That night John Wentworth knocked at the door
Of his cousin’s house. A foot on the floor,

A whisper of silk, and there she stood.
In that moment John Wentworth’s cousinly mood
Melted away like frost at the fire.
He thought he had killed the old desire;

He thought that love and hate both lay
Slain by the past at that long late day;
He thought — but what matters it now
The thought that had been, when on cheek and brow

Flames the signal torch from his wakened heart?
What matters it now the cousinly part
He had fancied was his, when on his pulses beat,
With that swift, wild throb, as their glances meet?

But he curbed the Wentworth temper awhile,
As he bent in greeting, and hoped, with a smile,
That he found her well. Hearing the state
Of her good man’s health, he could not wait

His cousinly sympathy to convey.
A tedious illness he had heard them say;
But the town was eloquent of her care,
Which had certainly left her no less fair

Than he remembered her seven years since —
He turned a moment as he saw her wince —
Turned, and with a purpose fell,
In a sneering, passionate tone, "Ah, well,

Women, we know, have a potent charm
To ward themselves from trouble and harm —"
She caught the sneer, and stayed him there,
With a passionate cry: how did he dare

Who had played so falsely these seven long years,
To fling at her feet his idle sneers?
"I false!" He laughed. "Madam, where went
Those fine love letters I foolishly sent

Across the seas in those old, old days?
I waited long — ‘tis a pretty amaze
You feign, my cousin — I waited long
For a word or a sign, for my faith was strong

In that old, sweet time; but the months went by,
And never a line came back, and I
Still clung to my faith, till a morning in May
There came to me news of a wedding day

Here in Portsmouth town, and the bride
Was the girl who had stood at my side
And sworn to be mine six months before —
You shiver, my cousin: the wind from the shores

Blows harshly to-night." A gesture here
Checked his bitter reproach, his menacing sneer,
And a hoarse voice cried. "John Wentworth, wait
Ere you dower me with the dower of hate.

No letter of yours from over the sea
In that old, old time came ever to me;
Day after day the months went by —
Day after day, and what was I

But a maiden scorned? Day after day
The months went by; when I heard them say
That John Wentworth staid
To woo and to win an English maid.

My spirit rose like our swift shore tide —
"Twas the Wentworth temper, the Wentworth pride —
and — your cousin and mine had wooed me long:
His love was sure and my hate was strong —

Quick, passionate hate for the suitor fine,
The false, false gallant who over his wine
Could pledge new loves while the old love waited,
Faithful and fond, this lover belated."

"Sweetheart!" Back she started in swift afright
At this fond, bold cry, and the red turned white
In her oval cheek. A moment more,
And swiftly striding across the floor,

This lover belated, who missed his bride
Seven years ago, is at her side;
And the fond, bold voice on her listening ear,
On her listening heart, over every fear,

Like a rising river, gains and gains,
While unreckoned, unheeded, the swift night wanes,
‘Till the clock strikes twelve on the landing stair;
Then John Wentworth turns with a gallant air,

And embraces his cousin as a kinsman may,
Though all the gossips be looking that way.
Yet his parting words, whispered low in her ear,
Were never meant for a gossip to hear.

But long before the spring had come
To Portsmouth shores, in many a home
The gossips’ tongues were making bold
With the Wentworth name; and the story told,

Which ran through the town like a breath of flame,
Was this — that John Wentworth never came
To his cousin’s house but by signal or sign,
A silken scarf or a kerchief fine

Flung out of the casement, or at night
In the western window a candle’s light.
And the gossips, observant, would smile, and say,
"So! The sick man sleeps at this hour of the day!"

Or at evening, when the candle flares
In the western window, "Dame Frances’ care
Are over early, it seems, to-night."
If Dame Frances caught this bale and blight

Of the gossip’s tongues, little she recked:
No Wentworth yet was ever checked
By a gossip’s tongue, however bold.
But there comes a day when the kerchief’s fold

Is missed at the casement, and that night
No candle flares its signal light.
When another morning dawns again
The tolling Portsmouth bells explain

The missing candle, the kerchief fine.
Dame Frances now of signal or sign
Has little need; in the chamber there,
Where a sick man yesterday claimed her care,

A dead man lies in solemn state;
And peering at the linen and plate
Down the stairs, the neighbors, under their breath,
Talk of the sick man, and his death;

Of the widow’s prospects and one more bold
Hints that ere the year’s grown old
The Wentworth mansion across the way
Will have a mistress fine and gay.

Bet ere a month had passed of the year,
All the seamstresses far and near,
In and out of Portsmouth town,
Were sewing fast at a wedding gown

Of brocaded satin, foreign and rare,
For dame Frances Atkinson to wear.
"Shame!" cried the gossips, far and wide,
And "Shame!" cried the Wentworths in their pride —

All the Wentworth kin in Hampshire State.
This haste was unseemly; she’d only to wait
In her widow’s weeds a year and a day,
And not a gossip could say her nay.

Then up she spoke, this wilfull dame —
Scornfully spoke, with a tongue of flame:
"Seven years I have served the Wentworth pride;
Seven years with a Wentworth courage lied

To the world with my smiling face,
To find at the end — no sovreign grace
To save my soul, but a curse alone,
The curse of a lie that shamed my own!

Cheated and tricked seven weary years,
Won by a lie — no lying tears
Have I to waste, no time to wait
On the man who dies seven years too late!"

Scared and shocked the Wentworth stared
At this reckless dame, whose passion dared
To cast at the dead man, scarcely cold
In his fresh-turned grave, these accusals bold.

Scared and shocked, but never a word
Of ban or blame was ever heard
From their lips again, and come the day
When my Lady Wentworth, fine and gay,

Reigned in the Wentworth mansion there,
Not a gossip in Portsmouth but spoke her fair.
But under their breaths, when twilight fell,
Under their breaths, they would sometimes tell

The old, old story of signal and sign,
The candle flame, and the kerchief fine;
And under their breaths would croak a fear
That my lady had lent but too willing an ear

To the evil whispered against the dead,
The doubtful tale so suddenly sped
From mouth to mouth, while for yea or nay,
Helpless and dumb the dead man lay.

But never upon my lady’s face,
Never a doubt showed sign or trace,
As she looked the curious gossips down
In the little world of Portsmouth town—

Never a doubt from year to year,
Never a doubt, and never a fear;
For whatever the truth of the troubled past,
My lady had come to her own at last!

 



First published in GALAXY: A amagazine of Entertaining Reading, Vol. XIX, January 1875 - June 1875. Special thanks to historian Richard Winslow for tipping us off to this poem. It was transcribed by Maryellen Burke.

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