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Authors: Robert J. Begiebing

Rebecca Wentworth's Distraction

BOOK: Rebecca Wentworth's Distraction
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A Novel

Robert J. Begiebing

University Press of New England


Published by University Press of New England, 37 Lafayette St., Lebanon, NH 03766

© 2003 by Robert J. Begiebing

All rights reserved


Begiebing, Robert J., 1946–

Rebecca Wentworth's distraction : a novel / Robert J. Begiebing.

p. cm. —(Hardscrabble books)

978-1-58465-284-5 (cloth : alk. paper)


1. New Hampshire–History–Colonial period, ca. 1600–1775–Fiction.

2. Portsmouth (N.H.)—Fiction. I. Title. II. Series.

PS3552.E372R43 2003



I want to thank several kind friends and colleagues whose wise advice has saved me from myself during the revisions of this novel and whose support keeps me scribbling: Bob Craven, Merle Drown, Bob Hoddeson, Loftus Jestin, Wesley McNair, Jack Scovil, and Moira Sieker. My wife, Linda, continues to be the first and last of my readers and my most patient supporter. Thank you all.

A number of librarians have helped me, as well, throughout the research process. Such devoted professionals are no doubt the unsung heroes of many a book. Any attempt to name them all would inevitably, I fear, leave out some crucial expert. So, I will say instead that the professional and most courteous staff members at several libraries have willingly lent their intelligence, curiosity, and knowledge to my eccentric needs as a writer of historical fiction. My most sincere thanks to the library and reference staffs at the American Antiquarian Society, the Portsmouth Athenaeum, the Special Collections Department of the University of New Hampshire, and the Thayer Cummings Library and Archives at Strawbery Banke. For many years, moreover, reference and interlibrary loan colleagues at my own institution, Southern New Hampshire University, have been helpful professionals and friends.

Southern New Hampshire University granted me a sabbatical and a summer research grant to work on this book. I am very grateful for that institutional support.

Spring 2002


This novel represents the third installment of a New England historical series covering two hundred years from 1648 to 1850.
The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin,
set in the seventeenth century, and
The Adventures of Allegra Fullerton,
set in the nineteenth, are the two previously published installments. Since this novel,
Rebecca Wentworth's Distraction,
is set in the eighteenth century, it is of course the middle narrative of a trilogy. For reasons that I myself don't entirely understand, I had to write about (which is to say “live in”) the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries before I could turn to the eighteenth. Anyone who has read the previous two novels will recognize some continuity of themes and characters—family and economic lineage, especially—but such recognition is, I hope, not necessary to enjoying the story told here.

This book is dedicated to my most enduring reader:
Patricia Begiebing



Author's Note to the Reader

Chapter 01

Chapter 02

Chapter 03

Chapter 04

Chapter 05

Chapter 06

Chapter 07

Chapter 08

Chapter 09

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37


Old Portsmouth was crowded between what is now Pleasant Street and the river; it is easy to imagine the waterside streets and alleys frequented by sailors in pigtails and petticoats; the mighty carousals and roaring choruses; the dingy, well-smoked dram shops; the stews and slums of back streets, and the jolly larks and affrays with the night watch.

–Samuel Adams Drake,

Nooks and Corners of the New England Coast

Yet even there (without nobility, or orders of gentry) you might see proof how necessarily some difference in rank, some inequality must and ought to grow up in every society and how Eutopian and ridiculous the contrary idea and attempt is. The inhabitants of the town by more information, better polish and greater intercourse with strangers, insensibly acquired an ascendancy over the farmer of the country; the richer merchants of these towns, together with the clergy, lawyers, physicians and officers of the English navy who had occasionally settled there, were considered as gentry; even a member of the Church of England gave a kind of distinctive fashion.

–Arthur Browne, Anglican minister to Portsmouth, 1736–1773

Chapter 1

he had good reason to feel pleased with himself. He had, six months ago, survived a harrowing Atlantic crossing from Bristol, England, and then endured the exceptionally deep snows of his first January and February in Boston. He had staked his future as a young portrait painter on the prospect of patrons in New England, and despite the presence of Joseph Badger, Robert Feke, and above all John Smibert, he had indeed found several patrons. He had managed to slip into Boston during yet another cessation of hostilities between the French and English. He had arrived in New England sufficiently after the epidemic of throat distemper to avoid that plague. And now, several years following the great earthquake as well, at the age of twenty-two, he found himself for a second day aboard a coastal sloop with gaily painted topsides and bright trim sailing in sunny weather from Boston to Portsmouth. In his portmanteau was a letter of commission from one of the most prominent families in the seaport, indeed in the colonies. He had every reason to believe that any association with the Brownes and Wentworths, yoked by marriage, was cause for unbridled hope.

That afternoon, upon disembarking and finding his way by hired chaise to the Browne manse, he was not disappointed. The fine brick house, three-storied with a gambrel roof and dormers, sat above the waterfront where Squire William Browne might keep an eye on his ships or cargoes at the docks and riding at anchor in the Pool. Two young black men wearing gardener's livery were attending the shrubbery. As he walked toward the front door, Sanborn admired a large, polished brass door handle and escutcheon plate. At the top doorstep he reached for the heavy brass knocker, perfectly centered in the paneling and in the shape of a dolphin, and knocked.

When the front door opened, Sanborn faced a haughty, well-spoken, old white man wearing a crisp Saxon blue frieze jacket with small metal buttons and slash sleeves lined with white bays—no doubt a family retainer from a previous generation. His scarlet breeches topped snow-white stockings. He ordered a black child to take Sanborn's baggage and showed Sanborn through a long stair hall and into an ample, high-ceilinged parlor lighted by substantial windows. He was left alone to admire the rich, well-molded paneling of the fireplace surround, the cupboard built into the chimney splays (replete with china plate, pudding dishes, wine glasses, and punch bowls), the oval tea table, and shapely chairs. After he dawdled in these pleasant circumstances for perhaps a quarter hour, Madam Browne herself came to greet him.

“Ah, Mr. Sanborn!” she said, entering sideways gracefully to manipulate her hoop-petticoat through the doorway. “You have arrived safe and, to all appearances, quite sound.”

“Indeed, Madam Browne.” He bowed.

They exchanged pleasantries over his means of finding them, the beautiful weather, and the peace and prosperity enjoyed in Portsmouth and abroad. She ordered tea, without asking whether he might prefer coffee or cider. She was an ebullient woman in, perhaps, her late thirties, well dressed, but not given to fashionable excess.

“Mr. Smibert highly recommends you,” she said.

“He's very kind, madam.”

“Nonetheless, he would not send to us some unpolished dauber, I'm certain.”

As she took her first sip of tea, she peered at him over her china dish.

He recalled his efforts of self-restraint with Mr. Smibert. He had not wished to appear arrogant, though barring Smibert he believed himself to be the most accomplished and best-trained portraitist in New England. He knew he needed Smibert's support, and hiding his pride in his own accomplishment had paid off.

“My old friend Mrs. Apthorp wrote also to speak well of you,” she continued.

“I shall do my best to give satisfaction, madam.”

“I don't doubt it, Mr. Sanborn. Mr. Smibert is well?”

“Well enough, yes, but he no longer travels to paint.”

“So I understand,” she said. “The terms in his letter meet our requirements, as you know.”

He bowed slightly from his chair.

“That you are to have comfortable quarters here and ten guineas for a single portrait. Whole length.”

“That is my understanding, indeed, Mrs. Browne.”

“Half payable upon acceptance of the commission,” she continued.

“Such is the usual practice, madam.”

“Good,” she said. “It is agreed then.”

“I am pleased to be of service.”

She nodded and took another sip of tea.

“I have but one question remaining,” he said.

“By all means, Mr. Sanborn.”

“Of whom is the portrait to be? Which member of the family, I mean to say.”

“Oh, of course,” she said. “It is to be of our daughter, Rebecca.”

“Of the child alone?”

Madam Browne nodded again, her body remaining perfectly erect. “Indeed, particularly as she is our only child.”

“It's a blessing she survived the distemper, Madam Browne. There were fearful stories about as soon as I reached Boston. God willing, we have passed this scourge.”

“God willing, Mr. Sanborn.”

He dared not ask whether they had lost any children in the plague that had appeared intermittently over a period of years. He wondered whether there were any other children in the household, but of course he could not make any such inquiries.

“She is even now in the back garden,” Mrs. Browne said. “Would you like to meet her?”

“By all means,” he said. He liked to see his subjects first comfortable in their own surroundings.

“It is such a perfect summer's afternoon.”

They rose together. She led him into the large back garden, along a path of small stones between planting beds, to where a child of about twelve years sat under a bower of white blossoms. The girl was dressed all in white, to the point, he thought, of affectation. She was reading from a book richly bound in deep maroon leather and did not notice their entrance. The mother and Mr. Sanborn stood by a moment and watched the child, as if arrested by their view of a garden creature of fantastical charm.

But the child rose quickly to be introduced, curtsied, and looked directly, even boldly he thought, into Daniel Sanborn's eyes.

“Mother says you are to paint me,” she said after being introduced. She smiled and continued to search his face.

“Quite so, miss,” he said. “We can start our first sitting at your convenience.”

“Tomorrow morning, I should think,” Madam Browne said. She looked at both of them in turn as if for acceptance of the idea.

“Oh yes, Mother, please,” Rebecca said. “As soon as you wish, Mr. Sanborn.”

Mrs. Browne suggested a few of Rebecca's other obligations that afternoon, “while Mr. Sanborn settles in,” as she put it. So they promised to meet in the parlor at ten o'clock in the morning.

When the girl left, Mrs. Browne turned to him. “Just the usual pillar or whatnot, Mr. Sanborn, will prove adequate. Or some pastoral portal or other. But we'd prefer her true dress and likeness otherwise.”

“You can rely on me, madam.”

Sanborn had set up his easel and paint box. He had stretched a particularly fine-woven canvas. After a five-minute wait the child came in, dressed just as she had been upon their first meeting. They chose a comfortable spot for her to sit and he arranged her posture to suit his craft.

“How many sittings do you expect, Mr. Sanborn?” Rebecca asked after he had begun.

“I'm not sure. Perhaps four?”

“May I see the canvas as you progress?”

“It might unsettle me to have the object of my study comment on her own developing aspect.” He smiled.

“I promise not to comment.” She was once again looking into his eyes. It seemed an innocent boldness, however.

“You promise,” he stated flatly while he concentrated on some preliminary sketching. The surface of the canvas felt pleasurably smooth.

“Indeed, Mr. Sanborn.”

“Indeed? Why such interest in the emerging object? Because it is yourself appearing ever more boldly upon the canvas?”

“No, sir, but because I myself daub a paper or board now and then.”

“Is that so? I see. Well, you're hoping for some free lessons then.” He chuckled, trying to put her at ease. Yet he suddenly recognized that she was already completely at her ease. She might have been a belle in her twenties, he thought, as he continued his preliminary sketches.

He ignored her request for the moment and concentrated on his work. He felt strangely dull, as if his journey, or perhaps her comeliness, had disoriented him. She would be a challenge to any painter, certainly. Yet this was a very important commission to him, and he thought of himself as an excellent draftsman. With one exception, his few patrons in Boston had been of a lesser sort. As might be expected. He knew from the start of his career that he would not be hired, particularly by the fashionable set, in London and the English countryside. Too much competition and secured patronage about for that. Not only the old British masters still in practice, but a gaggle of foreigners—Moses, Rusca, Soldi, Vandermyn, Vanloo. Even a man of Smibert's capability, whom George Vertue once ranked above Hogarth, had been wise in his time to escape these crowded fields for the gaping boroughs of America.

This commission seemed auspicious to him, as if his life was about to turn.

“Oh, I've never had any real lessons, only a little help from my tutor,” she was saying. “Nor do I think I'd like any lessons, Mr. Sanborn. But I'm very interested in how a painter such as yourself accomplishes his work.”

Saucy little thing, he thought. He did not respond right away, and she remained quiet.

Perhaps two or three minutes passed before he said, “Is that so?”

“Yes, Mr. Sanborn.”

“Well, if you promise to say nothing, I suppose there's no harm in it. If you're so keen on seeing my artifice.”

“Oh, thank you, sir!” she blurted, more like the girl she was now.

He always engaged his sitters in conversation, but he found this child unsettling—whether she saw his depiction of her or not. He shook off his feelings as foolish.

“Do you always dress in white, Rebecca?”

“Spring and summer.”

“And what about fall and winter?”

“Oh, then I dress in colors. But Mother allows only the deeper hues, nothing so bright as I might wish.”

A garden fairy. The idea amused him. Perhaps he should paint her in a garden instead of conventional interiors. But he recalled his patron's request and gave up the idea. She would look like a flower within doors nonetheless. And a rare flower to boot, rather exotic, by the look and sound of her.

He began to apply his brush to the canvas and the conversation went on in a somewhat more aimless fashion. She loved to read. She loved to arrange flowers. She loved to paint. Then finally more questions: Did he like New England? With whom had he studied in London? What was his source of this pigment or that? What was his first impression of Portsmouth? And so on. She rambled without the decorous reticence more typical of well-bred children, but her queries seemed pointed and purposeful. He didn't know what to make of her.

She had, as promised, said not a word upon looking over his work for that day. But her quiet study of his technique, even his fumbling here and there, disarmed him nonetheless. Before he realized what he had said, he asked whether she might in turn show him something of her own. She was delighted. She bid him sit in a chair while she fetched two specimens for him.

He sat down, tired from his labors. Within several minutes she returned bearing two canvasses. They were conventional subjects—flowers in urns (almost Italianate in spirit) and two small dogs lying upon a floral-patterned rug. But they were so strikingly executed, even in their untutored way, that he could not believe she had done them herself.

“These are quite extraordinary,” he said as he held the canvasses up one at a time. “And you say you've never had lessons?”

“Not proper lessons or study, Mr. Sanborn. You like them?”

“Well, I don't know if ‘like' is the right word, but they are extraordinary. Let's say I appreciate them.”

He was being honest now, but there was something more about the paintings he could not yet understand. Some energy expressed in them: the flowers and the little dogs presenting an unusual animation and verve. They were more like the work of previous centuries or distant lands. There was nothing of the painting master in them, nor the schoolmaster. They were proudly independent, but true and powerful in a completely unfamiliar way for all that. Most of his own masters would not approve. He did not allow himself to believe she had done them herself. Still, she was his sitter and he was being well paid. They would have to get along for several days. As for his misgivings, he kept his mouth shut. But whoever had painted these two was alarmingly gifted in some incomprehensible way.

He painted into the afternoon, when they stopped for dinner. Sanborn cleaned up and walked out into the sunshine. He squinted into the streets, trying to get his bearings. Above the roofs, ship masts swayed and flashed and flickered like silver in the golden light of early afternoon. Would it be possible to paint just what he saw, he wondered, as his eyes began to adjust. He did not allow his mind to think about how it might be done. He was hungry. Moreover, people would not pay for paintings of town or harbor before they would pay for portraits. He had better heed his own true interests; he had better garner more portrait commissions soon if he wished to survive here. He wandered down to the waterfront where he found a huckster selling quick meals of sausage and bread out of his cookshop.

When he returned to the manse, he tinkered with the portrait for an hour more and then quit out of fatigue. His long journey and his careful painting had left him exhausted still. Yet after a few hours of sleep that night he awoke fretful. He kept seeing the paintings behind his closed eyes. As he dozed he dreamed of them. At times he grew angry for her apparent lying to him. A certain trust must be established between the painter and the sitter. If she was a sweet little flower, might there be some bitterness to be discovered behind the floriferousness as well?

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