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LADY WENTWORTH OF THE HALL
ON one of those pleasant long evenings, when the group of friends that Longfellow represents in his "Tales of the Wayside Inn" had gathered in the twilight about the cheery open fire of the house at Sudbury to tell each other tales of long ago, we hear best the story of Martha Hilton. We seem to catch the poet's voice as he says after the legend from the Baltic has been alluringly related by the Musician:
" These tales you tell are, one and all,
Of the Old World,
Flowers gathered from a crumbling wall,
Dead leaves that rustle as they fall;
Let me present you in their stead
Something of our New England earth;
A tale which, though of no great worth,
Has still this merit, that it yields
A certain freshness of the fields,
A sweetness as of home-made bread."
And then, as the others leaned back to listen, there followed the beautiful ballad which celebrates the fashion in which Martha Hilton, a kitchen maid, became Lady Wentworth of the Hall."
The old Wentworth mansion, where, as a beautiful girl, Martha came, served, and conquered all who knew her, and even once received as her guest the Father of his Country, is still in an admirably preserved state, and the Wayside Inn, rechristened the Red Horse Tavern, still entertains glad guests.
This inn was built about 1686 and for almost a century and a half from 1714 it was kept as a public house by generation after generation of Hawes, the last of the name at the inn being Lyman Howe, who served guests of the house from 1831 to about 1860, and was the good friend and comrade of the brilliant group of men Longfellow has poetically immortalised in the "Tales." The modern successor of Staver's Inn, or the "Earl of Halifax," in the doorway of which Longfellow's worthy dame once said, "as plain as day:"
"Oh, Martha Hilton! Fie! how dare you go
About the town half dressed and looking so!"
is also standing, and has recently been decorated by a memorial tablet.
In Portsmouth Martha Hilton is well remembered, thanks to Longfellow and tradition, as a slender girl who, barefooted, ragged, with neglected hair, bore from the well
"A pail of water dripping through the street,
And bathing as she went her naked feet."
Nor do the worthy people of Portsmouth fail to recall the other actor in this memorable drama, upon which the Earl of Halifax once benignly smiled:
"A portly person, with three-cornered hat,
A crimson velvet coat, head high in air,
Gold-headed cane and nicely powdered hair,
And diamond buckles sparkling at his knees,
Dignified, stately, florid, much at ease.
For this was Governor Wentworth, driving down
To Little Harbour, just beyond the town,
Where his Great House stood, looking out to sea,
A goodly place, where it was good to be."
There are even those who can perfectly recollect when the house was very venerable in appearance, and when in its rooms were to be seen the old spinet, the Strafford portrait, and many other things delightful to the antiquary. Longfellow's description of this ancient domicile is particularly beautiful:
" It was a pleasant mansion, an abode
Near and yet hidden from the great highroad,
Sequestered among trees, a noble pile,
Baronial and Colonial in its style;
Gables and dormer windows everywhere –
Pandalan pipes, on which all winds that blew
Made mournful music the whole winter through.
Within, unwonted splendours met the eye,
Panels, and floors of oak, and tapestry;
Carved chimneypieces, where, on brazen dogs,
Revelled and roared the Christmas fire of logs.
Doors opening into darkness unawares,
Mysterious passages and flights of stairs;
And on the walls, in heavy-gilded frames,
The ancestral Wentworths, with old Scripture names.
Such was the mansion where the great man dwelt."
The place thus prettily pictured is at the mouth of Sagamore Creek, not more than two miles from the town of Portsmouth. The exterior of the mansion as it looks to-day does not of itself live up to one's preconceived idea of colonial magnificence. A rambling collection of buildings, seemingly the result of various "L" expansions, form an inharmonious whole which would have made Ruskin quite mad. The site is, however, charming, for the place commands a view up and down Little Harbour, though concealed by an eminence from the road. The house is said to have originally contained as many as fifty-two rooms. If so, it has shrunk in recent years. But there is still plenty of elbow space, and the cellar is even to-day large enough to accommodate a fair-sized troop of soldiery.
GOVERNOR WENTWORTH HOUSE, PORTSMOUTH, N. H.
As one enters, one notices first the rack in which were wont to be deposited the muskets of the governor's guard. And it requires only a little imagination to picture the big rooms as they were in the old days, with the portrait of Strafford dictating to his secretary just before his execution, the rare Copley, the green damask-covered furniture, and the sedan-chair, all exhaling an atmosphere of old-time splendour and luxury. Something of impressiveness, has recently been introduced into the interior by the artistic arrangement of old furniture which the house's present owner, Mr. Templeton Coolidge, has brought about. But the exterior is "spick-span" in modern yellow and white paint!
Yet it was in this very house that Martha for seven years served her future lord. There, busy with mop and pail –
"A maid of all work, whether coarse or fine,
A servant who made service seem divine!"
she grew from childhood into the lovely woman whom Governor Wentworth wooed and won.
In the March of 1760 it was that the host at Little Harbour exclaimed abruptly to the good rector of St. John's, who had been dining sumptuously at the manor-house:
"This is my birthday; it shall likewise be my wedding-day, and you shall marry me!" No wonder the listening guests were greatly mystified, as Martha and the portly governor were joined "across the walnuts and the wine" by the Reverend Arthur Brown, of the Established Church. And now, of course, Martha had her chariot, from which she could look down as disdainfully as did the Earl of Halifax on the humble folk who needs must walk. The sudden elevation seems, indeed, to have gone to my lady's head. For tradition says that very shortly after her marriage Martha dropped her ring and summoned one of her late kitchen colleagues to rescue it from the floor. But the colleague had quickly become shortsighted, and Martha, dismissing her. hastily, picked up the circlet herself.
Before the Reverend Arthur Brown was gathered to his fathers, he had another opportunity to marry the fascinating Martha to another Wentworth, a man of real soldierly distinction. Her second husband was redcoated Michael, of England, who had been in the battle of Culloden.
This Colonel Michael Wentworth was the "great buck" of his day, and was wont to fiddle at Stoodley's far into the morning for sheer love of fiddling and revelry. Stoodley's has now fallen indeed! It is the brick building marked "custom-house," and it stands at the corner of Daniel and Penhallow Streets.
To this Lord and Lady Wentworth it was that washington, in 1789, came as a guest, "rowed by white-jacketed sailors straight to their vine-hung, hospitable door." At this time there was a younger Martha in the house, one who had grown up to play the spinet by the long, low windows, and who later joined her fate to that of still another wentworth, with whom she passed to France.
A few years later, in 1795, the "great buck" of his time took to a bankrupt's grave in New York, forgetting, so the story goes, the eternal canon fixed against selfslaughter.
But for all we tell as a legend this story of Martha Hilton, and for all her "capture" of the governor has come down to us almost as a myth, it is less than fifty years ago that the daughter of the man who fiddled at Stoodley's and of the girl who went barefooted and ragged through the streets of Portsmouth, passed in her turn to the Great Beyond. Verily, we in America have, after all, only a short historical perspective.
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