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An Old Town by the Sea 4

A STROLL ABOUT TOWN by TB Aldrich (continued)

Colonial Revival interior of Benning Wentworth Mansion/ SeacoastNH.com

A record of the scenes, tragic and humorous, that have been enacted within this old yellow house on the corner would fill a volume. A vivid picture of the social and public life of the old time might be painted by a skillful hand, using the two Earl of Halifax inns for a background. The painter would find gay and sombre pigments ready mixed for his palette, and a hundred romantic incidents waiting for his canvas. One of these romantic episodes has been turned to very pretty account by Longfellow in the last series of The Tales of a Wayside Inn -- the marriage of Governor Benning, Wentworth with Martha Hilton, a sort of second edition of King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid.

Martha Hilton was a poor girl, whose bare feet and ankles and scant drapery when she was a child, and even after she was well in the bloom of her teens, used to scandalize good Dame Stavers, the innkeeper's wife. Standing one afternoon in the doorway of the Earl of Halifax,1 Dame Stavers took occasion to remonstrate with the sleek-limbed and lightly draped Martha, who chanced to be passing the tavern, carrying a pail of water, in which, as the poet neatly says, "the shifting sunbeam danced."

Note: The first of the two hotels bearing that title. Mr. Brewster commits a slight anachronism in locating the scene of this incident in Jaffrey Street, now Court. The Stavers House was not built until the year of Governor Benning Wentworth's death. Mr. Longfellow, in the poem, does not fall into the same error. One hundred years ago, and something more, In Queen Street, Portsmouth, at her tavern door, Neat as a pin, and blooming aa a rose, Stood Mistress Stavers in her furbelows."

"You Pat! you Pat!" cried Mrs. Stavers severely; "why do you go looking so? You should be ashamed to be seen in the street."

"Never mind how I look," says Miss Martha, with a merry laugh, letting slip a saucy brown shoulder out of her dress; "I shall ride in my chariot yet, ma'am."

Fortunate prophecy! Martha went to live as servant with Governor Wentworth at his mansion at Little Harbor, looking out to sea. Seven years passed, and the "thin slip of a girl," who promised to he no great beauty, had flowered into the loveliest of women, with a lip like a cherry and a cheek like a tea-rose -- a lady by instinct, one of Nature's own ladies. The governor, a lonely widower, and not too young, fell in love with his fair handmaid. Without stating his purpose to any one, Governor Wentworth invited a number of friends (among others the Rev. Arthur Brown) to dine with him at Little Harbor on his birthday. After the dinner, which was a very elaborate one, was at an end, and the guests were discussing their tobacco-pipes, Martha Hilton glided into the room, and stood blushing in front of the chimney-place. She was exquisitely dressed, as you may conceive, and wore her hair three stories high. The guests stared at each other, and particularly at her, and wondered. Then the governor, rising from his seat,

"Played slightly with his ruffles, then looked down, And said unto the Reverend Arthur Brown: 'This is my birthday; it shall likewise be My wedding-day; and you shall marry me!'"

The rector was dumfounded, knowing the humble footing Martha had held in the house, and could think of nothing cleverer to say than, "To whom, your excellency? "which was not clever at all.

"To this lady," replied the governor, taking Martha Hilton by the hand. The Rev. Arthur Brown hesitated. "As the Chief Magistrate of New Hampshire I command you to marry me! "cried the choleric old governor.

And so it was done; and the pretty kitchen-maid became Lady Wentworth, and did ride in her own chariot. She would not have been a woman if she had not taken an early opportunity to drive by Stavers's hotel!

Lady Wentworth had a keen appreciation of the dignity of her new station, and became a grand lady at once. A few days after her marriage, dropping her ring on the floor, she languidly ordered her servant to pick it up. The servant, who appears to have had a fair sense of humor, grew suddenly near-sighted, and was unable to find the ring until Lady Wentworth stooped and placed her ladyship's finger upon it. She turned out a faultless wife, however; and Governor Wentworth at his death, which occurred in 1770, signified his approval of her by leaving her his entire estate. She married again without changing name, accepting the hand, and what there was of the heart, of Michael Wentworth, a retired colonel of the British army, who came to this country in 1767. Colonel Wentworth (not connected, I think, with the Portsmouth branch of Wentworths) seems to have been of a convivial turn of mind. He shortly dissipated his wife's fortune in high living, and died abruptly in New York -- it was supposed by his own hand. His last words -- a quite unique contribution to the literature of last words -- were, "I have had ny cake, and ate it," which show that the colonel within his own modest limitations was a philosopher.

The seat of Governor Wentworth at Little Harbor -- a pleasant walk from Market Square -- is well worth a visit. Time and change have laid their hands more lightly on this rambling old pile than on any other of the old homes in Portsmouth. When you cross the threshold of the door you step into the colonial period. Here the Past seems to have halted courteously, waiting for you to catch up with it. Inside and outside the Wentworth mansion remains nearly as the old governor left it; and thought it is no longer in the possession of the family, the present owners, in their willingness to gratify the decent curiosity of strangers, show a hospitality which has always characterized the place.

Continue OLD TOWN BY THE SEA

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