A Colonial Wooing/Chapter 13

A Colonial Wooing  (1895)  by Charles Conrad Abbott
Chapter 13: A Visit to Burlington

Chapter XIII.

A Visit to Burlington.

Early in the day, while a chilling fog rested over the landscape and the candles were yet burning in the kitchen of the Watson homestead, a negro brought a horse to the door, saddled, and with a leathern pack also upon the horse's back; and after waiting for a few moments he was relieved of his charge, and Matthew Watson, mounting the patient beast, turned its head towards the public road and was soon out of sight. His destination was Burlington. The road was a long and lonely one, and the recent thawing weather had made the way so muddy and yielding that it would be well towards night before he arrived at that flourishing town by the river. Matthew's purpose was, if possible, to secure passage for Ruth on one of the two ships that had been lying there all winter; and having transacted that important matter, he would return promptly, or failing, would, if necessary, keep on his journey to Philadelphia.

Many were the errands he had been charged with by his wife and boys, for the journey to town was an undertaking of some magnitude, involving an expenditure of both time and money; but Matthew was not given to bothering about trifles, as he called much of everybody's business but his own. "I trust I shall find Friend Gardiner at home, for he can best aid me in my concern to secure a proper vessel," he said to himself; "if it was only the other way, there would be no difficulty. Still, there are Friends returning in almost every ship, and William will be on board." Say what he would to himself, Matthew did not find the outlook a pleasant one. What if she were the only woman on board? And with this thought the man's stern features sterner grew. He was taking a fearful responsibility on himself, and he knew it, and why? Because he had failed to make of Ruth a prim, spiritless Quakeress, blind to about all that makes a life worth living. A dull, grasping animal himself, nothing akin to pleasure ever cast a ray upon his mind that was not physical rather than intellectual. His occasional remarks in meeting had no bearing on his own life; but his interests lay in his standing with the people with whom his life had been thrown, and his religion and his interests were so inseparable as to be practically one. Ruth had been a thorn at times in his flesh, and yet his smothered sense of justice had forced him often to admit to himself that her views of life were neither irrational nor irreligious; but they were not the views of Friends, and his own judgment must not weigh. He could scarcely be Friend Watson and a controlling spirit in meeting and yet have a worldling in his family. William Blake had a little property, and could he but bring about her marriage, then his responsibility would cease, and he could control William if he lived in the neighborhood; then, too, the cost of her maintenance would no longer fall upon her mother. What a piece of good fortune this opportune letter of Revell Stacy's, that made his way plain and provided for Ruth! But Matthew was troubled lest his motive in withholding the letter should yet be discovered. "It is my judgment that it is best for her," he continually assured himself, and all the while his "inward voice" that he had been known to preach about told him he was not to that extent "his brother's keeper." It was Ruth who was left to judge. To suit his own distorted views of duty he dared defy law and justice and decide for her. There was a passage in the letter he dared not let her read. Had he done so, she would have reached a different conclusion.

At times as he rode along, meeting no human being and so communing continually with himself, his fears almost overcame him, and he would check the horse's progress; but then the thought would come, to return would be to make known the truth, and the meeting would stand aghast at the grievous sin of one of their leaders. "It must be that my judgment is correct," he would mutter, and then, bolstered by the sound of words he uttered and vainly tried to believe, he pressed forward towards the town. It was a tiresome, lonesome, dispiriting journey, and Matthew dreaded to make known, in a garbled way, his errand when he reached his destination. Might he not contradict himself; might he not seem unduly anxious and possibly rouse suspicion in the minds of Friends?

This was too much for his stubborn pride, and he exclaimed, "Nonsense; whoever questioned me or my motives?" And with renewed confidence in himself he shifted his position, looked out upon the world instead of at his horse's neck, and rode on with more of the appearance of an upright man.

While the sun was setting back of the Pennsylvania hills Matthew Watson rode into Burlington, and, having found shelter for his horse, wended his way to Thomas Gardiner's and became his guest for the night.

The affairs of meeting, of the province, every topic that he could think of, was duly discussed, and not until the other members of the family had retired did Matthew mention the main purpose of his visit. The "Shield" and "Welcome" were still at Burlington, he had learned, and did Friend Gardiner think that passage for a young woman could be had upon either vessel? "Is she alone?" asked Thomas; "if so, it would not be possible. There are so few people that return, and particularly at this time of the year, that boats take merchandise only on the homeward passage. That a young woman should go with but the crew on board would not be proper, nor, indeed, would the captain of either vessel assume the responsibility of such a charge. And who, may I ask, is this young woman that would return?"

"My step-daughter, Ruth Davenport," Matthew replied.

"Ruth Davenport return to England!" exclaimed Thomas, in blank amazement. "And why must she go? Why, she has been with thee since an infant."

"Her uncle Timothy has left her property." And Matthew gave him the same information he had given others.

Friend Gardiner listened attentively, and then, after some minutes spent in silent reflection, deliberately replied, "I should think out of thy abundance thee might well maintain Ruth until she married, as she likely will do, and give her a portion then. She must be as a daughter to thee after all these years, and thee has no daughter of thy own. I am amazed at thy eagerness to have her go."

"But Ruth is not a Friend, as I would wish, and her worldliness is a sore trial to me. I had thought that the Friends in Yorkshire might prevail upon her, and she become an instrument in the welfare of her cousins. Thee may know the Davenports are worldly people."

"I cannot follow thee, Matthew, in thy reasons. Were she my child or step-child, she should not return, unless with me; but if thee is fixed in thy resolve, and Ruth is willing, she must go in the care of some returning Friend from Philadelphia. As the season advances, there will doubtless be such an opportunity."

"But she must go at once to prevent the bequest of her uncle being of no effect through her absence. William Blake, that is of our meeting, proposes to return with Ruth," replied Matthew, with evident doubt as to the effect of this information.

"And who is William Blake, may I ask? I do not recall the name."

"A young Friend from Nottingham that has been in the province for several years. He is much interested in Ruth, and will surely be company for her during the voyage."

"William, a young man, and Ruth, a young woman," remarked Thomas, slowly. "No, Matthew, I can give thee no advice, unless it is that thee reconsiders the whole matter; and let me add, the meeting will be lax in their duty if they do not inquire closely into this whole subject. Thy anxiety to have her go, whatever the way and whatever the consequence, is a strange view of parental duty."

"Is not her going for her own good,—good in both ways? She acquires an independence in England, and is saved from possible marriage with one whom I fear is not at heart a Friend. I am doubly doing my duty, as I see it; and as Ruth has so long been stubborn and received my reproofs with so little concern, she surely can care for herself during a voyage to England."

"If she sailed from here, she would land at Bristol, and it would be a lonely journey, if alone, from there to Scarboro."

"But William would accompany her," persisted Matthew.

"I cannot assist thee; it is a matter that I highly disapprove of." And here the conversation ended.

The next morning Matthew learned, as Thomas Gardiner had predicted, that the captains of the two vessels then at anchor before the town were both unwilling to take Ruth as a passenger unless other women went along; but there were ships at Philadelphia in which passage might be engaged. No offer that he could make would induce them to change their decision; and, more chagrined than he dare admit, he was left with the alternative to return home with nothing accomplished or go on another and longer day's journey to Philadelphia, and this he did. Even here he found difficulties and delays, but at last completed his task; and, as there were to be two other women passengers, neither Thomas Gardiner nor any of the Friends in Chesterfield could adversely criticise him. He felt infinitely relieved, and yet, two days later, when he attended meeting in Burlington, the Spirit did not move him to speak. Thomas Gardiner's eyes seemed steadily fixed upon him, and he was glad when the elders shook hands and meeting was over.

Matthew's peace of mind, or that stern confidence in his own strength which did poor duty for it, was not improved by the events of his trip. The cost was almost treble what he had anticipated, and he had much to provide for Ruth's comfort while on board. The sea was apt to be rough, the weather bad, and the voyage a long one, but he could take no backward step. He engaged her passage, and Ruth must now return to England about the middle of the month.

What, then, was his amazement when, soon after reaching home, his wife remarked, as he was beginning to force himself to believe the threatened storm was over, "John Bishop has spoken to Ruth in thy absence and she has accepted him."

"Ruth accepted him!" he exclaimed, rising suddenly from his chair; "then does she decline to return?"

"I have not heard her say, Matthew; but why should not John return with her? or perhaps she will marry him and not go. I am too much troubled of late to think or advise; thee must speak to Ruth."

"She is at Robert Pearson's, thee said; will she return to-night?"

"I think not. She said it was likely to be her last visit there, and she will stay as long as possible. Thee knows how attracted she is to Robert's daughters."

"It has been a grievous trial to me," replied Matthew, assuming what might be called his "meeting" voice, "that we ever permitted her to become so friendly there. Are there no young people of Ruth's age in the land except at Robert Pearson's?"

"But Robert is my cousin, Matthew."

"Which does not lessen our responsibility in Ruth's case. Should she marry out of meeting or against our wishes, what will the elders say of me, of us, as guides in our household? She is yet a child and must obey as a child, and what she may have said to John Bishop is not binding upon her." And Matthew walked to and fro across the kitchen floor, with his hands clasped behind his back.

"She may hold her words binding, Matthew, and I believe she will."

"Have I, then, no authority in my own household?" asked Matthew of his wife, standing near and looking intently at her.

Anne Watson knew when silence was golden, and made no reply.