A Colonial Wooing/Chapter 15

A Colonial Wooing  (1895)  by Charles Conrad Abbott
Chapter 15: Music in Meeting

Chapter XV.

Music in Meeting.

On the west window-seat in Pearson's parlor there was an Æolian harp. For several years this had been a source of delight to Ruth, who never tired of the sweet sounds issuing therefrom when the soft breezes breathed upon its strings. From it she had received a few crude ideas of harmony, just as the metrical version of the Psalms had given her an idea of versification. The two had made her a poetess in a primitive way, and after a fashion a musician. Her thoughts would often run to rhyme, and she would startle her hearers with giving expression to her thoughts, as though humming an old song. It was this strange habit, which grew upon her as the years rolled by, that caused her cousin Robert to nickname her the "Quaker Fairie," with long-drawn emphasis on the final syllable. This was a bit of pleasantry on Robert's part that would possibly have been straightway forgotten, but when he found his use of the name had startled and astonished Matthew Watson, he never lost opportunity to make use of it in her step-father's presence, and even went so far as to bribe the old man's boys, when little fellows, to call her "Fairy Ruth;" but the bribe was not sufficient recompense for the punishment they received, and the practice was nipped in the bud.

The harp at Pearson's was so constantly in Ruth's mind that she one day improvised one for herself, merely placing a single, tightly-drawn thread at the window's base and raising the sash so slightly that it would not be noticed as not all the way down. The result was pleasing. A faint, weird sound filled her little room, and, as she watched the setting sun and listened to this sweet whispering of the passing breeze, she composed many a short song in her artless way and stored them in her memory. The facilities for a written record of her thoughts were scanty, and to-day, though the weather was chilly, she sat by her window and listened to the harp that all winter had been silent, and turned over and over the blank pages of the little book Robert Pearson had given her. "If I had had such books as these some years ago, how full they would have been now!" she said to herself; "and I do wonder if one leaf now cannot be spared;" for she longed to write a real letter to John, something she had never done in all her life. "But why is there no music to-day?" she asked aloud, and then, looking more closely at the window, found the cord had been removed, and remembered she had taken it to the almost unused sitting-room downstairs, and there it had been all winter. She laughed at her discovery, and then took up the blank-book again. Why, indeed, she thought, should she have been taught to more than write her name, there was so little opportunity to make use of the knowledge. It had been a source of drudgery at times, for it had fallen upon her to teach her brothers penmanship, and neither boy took to such instruction willingly. She was learning nothing of importance, and so, why not a single leaf? There was ever so much to tell John, and when, at last willing to risk it, she thought of the ink-horn locked in her step-father's desk and no knife to whittle a goose-quill. "How did Robert expect me to write to him, with my blood smeared on the paper with a stick?" she said, aloud, and made the little room ring. "What a helpless creature I am! But it will not be always so." And Ruth went again to the window and looked out over the country for some time. Then she turned about and showed a face wreathed in smiles. "How they'll stare and start if it works!" she exclaimed, and, looking towards John's shop, she kissed her hand to the smoke that rose from its chimney and whispered, "Good-by, dear."

"Ruth dear," her mother said, as her daughter walked demurely into the kitchen, "father is concerned to have a religious meeting held here next Fifth day, and desires that thee should know it."

"Brother told me this morning, mother; I suppose he overheard father speaking of it."

"I do trust thee will be present, and not wander away, forgetting thy privilege until too late," her mother said, in such a sober way that it plainly showed she had some misgivings.

"Never fear, mother dear, I'll be here." And Ruth put her arms about her mother's neck and held her in a tight embrace.

When she could get her breath, the troubled woman said, "Do, Ruth, give up thy strange habit. Thee is almost a woman now, and what will thy cousins think of thee?"

"My cousins? Who, the Pearsons?"

"No, dear, those in England;" but the words and the thought were too painful for Ruth's mother, and she leaned her head on her daughter's shoulder and said no more.

"Please, mother, do not worry; thee promised to be cheerful until I started, and this is not keeping thy word." And Ruth kissed her parent again and again.

"But thee'll be at meeting; father feared—"

"Then father is a—"

"Ruth!"

"Is altogether mistaken."

Ruth was busy all the next day, and had scarcely time to do more than send word to John, without using a sheet of her cousin's note-book, that she hoped nothing would prevent his being present at meeting at her father's house on Fifth day morning, signing the note, with no little fluttering, "Thine, Ruth." For a long time she looked at those two words, which meant so much, so very much more than she perhaps realized; but could sorrow follow the fulness of such joy as now possessed her? She could not believe it. And then, looking, as usual, towards John's shop, she asked herself, When will the day come, and what of the "Pearson plot," as she called the long conversation with her cousin and John,—that "leap in the dark," what did it mean? But with all this strange medley of joy, doubt, and fear, she was trustful, and felt safe beyond all harm in the care of her cousin and of John.

"Mother," asked Ruth, "will meeting be held in the west room or in the kitchen or in the hall, or all of them?"

"In the west room, dear," replied her mother, delighted that her daughter should show so much interest in the matter; "and if that will not accommodate the Friends, there will be room in the hall."

"The women Friends will sit in there, then," said Ruth, pointing to the west room, "and the men in the hall. I shall sit next the window, and if the preaching is not good, I'll listen to the birds on the hill-side. They sing many a lesson we might well take to heart. A merry bird is the foe of despondency, I've heard cousin Robert say, and I incline to many of his views."

"Ruth dear, I fear thee is not a Friend at heart; surely John Bishop, too, does not hold thy strange views."

"Mother, if it is strange or worldly or wicked to love a singing bird, then I am wicked all over and through and through. How often have I told thee this! And, mother, when I was a little girl and came into the house with my apron full of flowers and threw them in thy lap, thee would laugh and call me a little witch, and why should a few years make such a difference? Why, the day I spent at the basket-maker's by the three beeches, and that poor Indian, 'that benighted soul,' as thee calls him, told me about the birds and beasts and where the eagle had its nest and the lynx its lair and where the rare flowers grew in the gloomy woods, I learned more than ever in any meeting, and been the better ever since, for I have seen the world look bright when others might say it was a dismal time o' year. We have no right to treat this beautiful world as beneath our notice because we do not understand it. That poor Indian's knowledge may not be of such use to him as it should be, and I wonder how he, knowing what he does, can be willing to lie in a drunken stupor so often; but, mother, he has made the sun to shine more brightly for me every time I go out of doors, and things mean so much more to me now, and the birds and flowers preach sermons that make what the Friends say seem very crude and harsh. No, I do not like attending meeting as well as a ramble in the fields or over the meadows. I can think better there and come back more at peace with myself and the world than when I come from meeting. John knows this, and while he does not quite approve, perhaps, he has never taken me to task for such worldliness. Besides, mother," said Ruth, after a pause, and with a sudden lighting of her face and added lustre to her splendid eyes, "he has never had a chance to say much since." And knowing that her mother knew to what time "since" referred, she abruptly stopped speaking.

"Thee is like thy father's people, Ruth; but when thee is older I trust there will be a sobering of thy views and such a change as thy father experienced. I have tried very hard to keep thee—"

"Straight? Well, mother dear, I have only been a little wavy at times, but kept a pretty direct course. Don't thee know how the water bubbles and boils in the brooks where there's a stone or stick in the way? but it gets by them and runs on smoothly as before; so I bubble and boil over when I meet with a bird or a flower or hear Pearson's pretty harp on the window-seat, but I never leave the channel of my life and find myself floundering out of my element; so in the end—well, mother, who, after all, knows about the end? Friend Bunting and Friend Stacy preach and pray, pray and preach, but, mother, do they know, know all about the mystery of a human life? Does thee suppose Friend Bunting will be preaching at me all Fifth day morning? If so, I shall close my ears."

Fifth day came, sunny, warm, and with that gentle westward breeze that has been aptly called the breath of spring. An hour or more before meeting was called the Friends came, in carts, on horseback, and on foot. They gathered in little knots about Matthew Watson's yard, and Matthew himself was in his element. Never had he been so satisfied with the world and with himself. He was a central figure to-day, and never were religious phrases so glibly rolled from his tongue; for, if worked up to something near the fever heat, Matthew could talk easily and well, and after painful preparation had, at times, become eloquent. Robert Pearson had been wicked enough to say that Matthew's memory was remarkable, and the sermons preached in Philadelphia had been carried without damage to the Crosswicks Valley; but then Robert was of the world, worldly, the Friends insisted.

At the appointed hour, ten o'clock, the Friends had gathered in the house and were seated as Ruth wished. A dozen women in the west room and perhaps as many men in the room and hall, the door being open and the seats so arranged about it that words spoken in one room could be heard in the other. Ruth entered late, and never had she appeared to greater advantage. Her hair was not held in much restraint; as was then the fashion, matted to the temples like so many square inches of yellow canvas, such as samplers were worked upon. Her clear skin was well set off by the roses in her cheeks, and no Friend had yet dared to preach against them. There was the look of love in her eyes, meant only for her mother and John, it may be, but shedding a light over all, and so appropriated by every one. The few young Friends present could not wholly keep their eyes from her, for, being at home, she wore no bonnet. These young Friends were not envious,—it would be unfair to say that,—but during the silence they timidly wondered why Ruth was so different from all others.

Ruth sat at the west end of the room, as she had told her mother she would, and when all was still again, for every one moved slightly when she appeared, she picked up a little silk shawl that was lying on the window sill, threw it over her shoulder as if to ward off a draught, and then put it back. The whole movement was so natural and so rapid as to be scarcely noticed even by those nearest her.

A long silence followed, and then, as Ruth supposed, Friend Bunting arose, and removing her bonnet, said, in that "preaching" voice that cannot be imitated, "Whose adorning, let it not be that outward adorning, of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, and of putting on of apparel."

At this Ruth looked at the speaker with a little flash of indignation in her eyes, and, without perceptible movement of her arm, removed the shawl from the window-seat, and before the preacher had gotten farther in her text than "but let it be," the kindly breeze swept over the hidden cord and the little room was filled with sweetest melody.

Never before had a text received such a reception, and whatever was in Friend Bunting's mind was now beyond recall. She sat down and replaced her bonnet, as if she would hide herself from those gathered about her.

That every one present should look up in a bewildered way was not surprising, but why stare at Ruth! It was too sweet a sound for any human voice, and yet some of the gathered Friends thought of her habit of singing, and wondered if this strange music too was one of her accomplishments. The meeting did not break up. The disturbing, unearthly sounds ceased as quickly as it started; and after a few minutes' silence, Matthew Watson, without text, spoke of the responsibility of parents; of the trials of godly parents when their children were rebellious—but Ruth's patience was soon exhausted. Again the little shawl, that had been carelessly thrown down, was removed, and, as if the winds were at her command, a steadier breeze set the cord in motion, and the weird sound, loud and clear as a trumpet, swept through the room. Matthew stopped and stared, then sat down as abruptly as had Friend Bunting, and as he did so the sound ceased.

All the while John Bishop had been sitting by the open door, where he could see Ruth plainly, and not the slightest motion of her head or hands had escaped him. He alone had guessed the truth, for he was familiar with the Pearson harp. Now was revealed to him a daring on Ruth's part that surprised him. He could not approve, yet could no more condemn. He had never ventured before to speak in a religious meeting, but free-spoken when matters of business were under discussion. To-day, all was different. It was a gathering, too, at a private house. There was no reason why he should not add his testimony. After a moment's pause he rose from his chair and said, "Parents, provoke not your children unto wrath." The elders, sitting in another room, had not seen him rise, and before the last of the few words had been uttered those that faced the little company had shaken hands and the meeting was over.