A Colonial Wooing/Chapter 19

A Colonial Wooing  (1895)  by Charles Conrad Abbott
Chapter 19: A Committee calls upon John Bishop

Chapter XIX.

A Committee calls upon John Bishop.

In a few days every inhabitant of Chesterfield and Nottingham had an inkling of the truth, and so were forced to content themselves with weaving theories and predicting the outcome of the whole affair. Outside the Pearson household, with the exception of John Bishop, no one knew the whole truth, and the inquisitive public—which was all of it—were more at sea than ever as to the incident on the Watson boat, when William Blake appeared upon the scenes. He had failed in all else, and why not pose as a hero now, when nothing but Ruth's flight was talked of? He had, he said, gone on board the shallop but an hour before,—lucky that he and John did not meet in mid-stream,—and was called by one of the crew, saying there were drunken Indians about. He rushed to Ruth's cabin to defend her, and she was gone! Had she bribed these Indians to carry her off? How he linked her name with his in his wild talk! and, alas! how eagerly his audiences accepted all his absurd suggestions! It is strange, but how they had been mistaken in William Blake! What a fine fellow he was, truly! Of course no one but a fool would have done as he did; but then, he was a fool, and a gaping crowd will follow one rather than a philosopher.

William went to Watson's, and was received as a guest, notwithstanding the protest of Ruth's mother; but her husband insisted that the man was misunderstood, and she should not be prejudiced by the world's people who spoke against him. He had property, was industrious and devoted to her daughter, and only that child's perversity and waywardness had thwarted his wishes, for William might to-day have been successfully in trade and Ruth's accepted suitor. Anne Watson shuddered as she heard these words; repeating the most distasteful ones beneath her breath, "Ruth's husband," and, as she had long ago learned to do, except on rare occasions, remained silent.

Naturally, William Blake desired to become conspicuous in meeting, and hoped to be put upon a committee to confer with Matthew Watson and then with John Bishop. The matter of Ruth's disappearance and subsequent defiance of her step-father could not be overlooked. Ruth was a birthright member of the society, and should she not be disowned?

There were some hard-headed, practical men in the Crosswicks meeting who seldom spoke, but when they did it was to excellent purpose. Caleb Wheatley was one of these. "Had they sought," he asked, "Ruth's reason for her rash act? It was to be as carefully weighed as the statements of Matthew Watson."

How Matthew stared and frowned when he heard this!

"Was John Bishop a party to the affair? Probably; but had they his admission to that effect, or discovered any proof of his complicity? Might they not be groping in the dark, and their efforts be as vain as beating the air? The meeting appeared to be of one mind, but might not a whole meeting be in error?"

Caleb's warnings fell upon deaf ears. The meeting as such was incapable of going astray, and they went on with committee appointments and committee instruction as if they were attending wholly to their own business, which they were not. Robert Pearson was not within their jurisdiction and John Bishop was. He must be called upon to explain, and it was a foregone conclusion only that would be acceptable that did not conflict with what Matthew Watson had said.

Robert Pearson, who mysteriously kept posted upon every movement "of the enemy," as he called them, and yet was always deep in the background, knew of the time of the committee conferring with Matthew, and pretty shrewdly guessed at the result. It was in effect that Matthew was a long-suffering saint and John Bishop a miserable sinner. All was so clear to them now that their call upon John partook of a character quite foreign to their instructions. They had no questions to ask, but assertions to make, based upon the assumption of Matthew's veracity. They must proceed without delay to call John to account, and demand his explanation for so flagrant a breach of all proprieties in a Christian assembly and placing the meeting in an unfavorable light before the whole world. Their zeal as inquisitors was growing rapidly warmer, when Robert Pearson, looking out of the shop door, exclaimed, "His Majesty's ghost, John, here come three owls on horseback!"

"Not all on one horse, I hope," replied John, coming to the door.

Sure enough, there, coming up the road, were the three Friends, their horses walking with weary steps, and the riders, as Robert suggested, looking "solemn, solemner, solemnest." "I'll go out the back way when they get near the front, and after a bit drop in, by accident-like." And Robert, with a broad grin, disappeared.

John met the Friends with a pleasant smile as they dismounted, and, regretting that he had not more comfortable seats to offer, arranged them as best he could on a bench, a box, and a pile of boards, and "the three owls" looked overburdened with wisdom.

"We have been with Friend Watson," commenced the spokesman, "this morning, and now are pained to say we have an unpleasant duty to perform."

"Yes?" remarked John, trying to look very serious and concerned; but the merry light that was ever in his eyes could not be dimmed even by so solemn an announcement, and the Friends stared at him as if they were ill at ease, and doubtless did wish themselves at home.

"Friend Watson," the spokesman continued, "has informed us that it was thee that took Ruth Davenport from the boat, forcibly removing her, and at an unseemly time of the night—"

"Hush!" rang through the shop, as if the old oak had been struck by lightning and its fire yet played about John's eyes. Then and there the discussion of that aspect of the affair ceased. "And," remarked John, with anger still in his heart, "that she left the boat against her wishes is false, utterly false."

"But William Blake informed us—"

"Then William Blake spoke an untruth knowingly," replied John; "now continue if thee pleases."

"Thy vehemence does not speak well for thy entire innocence," slowly drawled one of the committee, who had until then been silent.

"Perhaps sufficient indignation might rouse thee to vehemence, or has thee no pride in thy good name?" asked John, with almost a sneer in his tone, and that committee-man lapsed into silence, with his fingers interlocked and thumbs twirling rapidly.

Then followed a short silence on the part of all, and, having gathered his scattered thoughts, the spokesman began again some glittering generality, but John's patience was exhausted. As he had already so frequently done, he interrupted him in a firm way that admitted of no protest being entered, and remarked, calmly, slowly, and with such definiteness of expression that there would be no excuse if the committee wrongly reported him to the meeting.

"My Friends," John said, "I have been led, as you may know, to look with a more than merely friendly interest upon Ruth. Being myself free of all others, and believing her to be, I offered her my hand and she accepted it. Upon what ground her step-father disapproved I have never learned, but, what is of greater moment, her mother has not spoken against it. Ruth was opposed to returning to England, I equally so to have her go, but took no step to prevent it. Neighbor Watson withheld the whole truth, which made us suspicious, and that we were correct in our forebodings Robert Pearson fortunately and most unexpectedly discovered; but acting as he thought best, in his judgment and with Ruth's approval, he allowed Neighbor Watson's plans to be carried out so far as Ruth's real welfare would permit. Then we jointly interfered, with the result you already know of." And then, taking a sheet of paper from his pocket, said, "Here is a letter from Revell Stacy, of Scarboro, England. It is addressed to Robert Pearson, and was received after Ruth's preparations to leave home were completed. It says, in part, 'This will was made seven years ago, and I suppose Ruth must be now quite of age, and so, if she desires, need not spend the closing years of her minority with her English kinsfolk.' In other words, her step-father was so anxious to be rid of her he withheld this part of his letter, and trusted that once away she would never return. I hold myself a Friend, and have never known Ruth to be other than soberly and discreetly mannered; and if the innocent mischief of childhood is to be treasured against us, who shall escape? Ruth is eighteen years of age in the coming month, and on her birthday I trust we shall be married."

The three sets of thumbs ceased twirling, the fingers unlocked, and "the owls" moved uneasily. One of them pushed a leaning board so that it fell; another tried to clear his throat, in which was no obstruction. John waited for a reply, and, after unnecessary delay, the spokesman remarked, "We must report to the meeting thy words for their action; and thee has not yet passed meeting, John." The other Friends bobbed their huge hat-brims to signify their accordance with the spokesman's remarks. Then the three men arose as if to go.

But if they were done with John, he was not with them. "Am I to have no expression of your opinion before you go? Must you reserve this for the meeting? If so," continued John, "let me say that if your fears of the man overlook the wrong-doing of Neighbor Watson, I shall report the matter to another body. You come here as a committee, with hearts full of condemnation instead of overflowing with Christian charity, and now, knowing the whole truth, will not assure me that the scales have dropped from your eyes. I have seen Ruth, and we shall marry out of meeting if there is any attempt to frustrate our plans, and so be among you, but no longer belonging to the meeting. If I have been led astray as to my views of duty, I pray to be led back to the right path."

"Thy words suggest a firmer determination to marry Ruth than to remain a Friend," finally remarked the spokesman.

At this juncture Robert Pearson came strolling in, and, shaking hands with the committee, hoped they were well, passed upon the prospect of a favorable season, and then, looking up, said, "But you all look so very sober; I hope you have not been here to get measured for your coffins." And the committee almost smiled as they mechanically said, "Oh, no!"

John laughed, however, for he thought their plans had been coffined if they had not.

"Three owls on horseback," again remarked Robert, as they rode away.

"Their intentions were correct, perhaps; so let us be charitable."

"Charitable!" said Robert, with surprise. "I believe you would find an excuse for the Old Boy if he grabbed you by the throat. Come, John, one may be too charitable."

"Not in this world; though it is the heaviest task that we are called upon to perform."