A Colonial Wooing/Chapter 5

A Colonial Wooing  (1895)  by Charles Conrad Abbott
Chapter 5: A Worse Fate Threatened

Chapter V.

A Worse Fate threatened.

The women of the Crosswicks Valley had little to entertain them beyond the affairs of the meeting and of their own homes. Visiting, in anything approaching a formal way, was not common. The houses generally were far apart and the roads and by-paths too rough, in many places, to make walking a pleasure, or more than practicable upon urgent occasion. Horses could not always be spared that women might ride. The long established custom, however, of attending meeting on First and Fifth days gave excellent opportunity for gossipy conversation, both before and after the services were over, and these were never neglected. How much could the old oak in the Crosswicks meeting-yard tell if there was a tongue in that tree! Its enormous branches overspreading a wide grass-plot have shaded many a fair damsel and gentle swain who lingered long after their prosy parents considered time enough had elapsed wherein to exchange common-places.

"Is thee not keeping Joseph too long?" once called out an impatient father, as his daughter showed no disposition to bring her conversation to a close. "I hope thee will never think that of me," she whispered to Joseph, with a winsome smile, and then the demure little Quakeress hurried to her father's carriage and gravely discussed with her mother the sermon they had heard, as though she were the head of a family instead of the youngest child.

While youth remained there was always enough worldliness and sweet, harmless deception to hold back the austerities of the elders. No positive wickedness, but mischief and an assertion of the natural man that no follower of George Fox ever escaped, although in later years every one strove to forget it and cautioned their children against "the wiles of the adversary." Strange delusion, that of such intense mortification of the flesh. But while the worthy elders did their best by precept and example to rob the young of many of life's pleasures, they could not make existence an altogether colorless, songless pilgrimage. Nature was never set aside by a sermon, and the joys of existence denied to the eye and ear were compensated for, not occasionally, but daily, by these same elders in gluttonous feasting, to the point of clogging the intellect; a custom coeval with the rise of their faith. To be sure, Aunt Lydia Blaylock said even more than this, but what led to her being turned out of meeting was the remark, "The certainty of a good dinner nerves them to the infliction of a long sermon."

The young Friends that subscribed to their parents' views frequently made many a mental reservation, resolving to question more closely for themselves when of maturer years; but when these came, life had so many added responsibilities, it too often happened that an indifferent acquiescence to the forms of the society resulted. But there was another and possibly less doleful aspect of this stern religion among the young. Often has it happened that, when two or three have chanced together, freedom from care and from the restraint of a parent's presence has moved their sober steps to a quicker motion; and while no one would be malicious enough to say that they were dancing, it was, in sober truth, a dangerously near approach thereto. The spirit was indeed willing, but their fear was overpowering. How nearly we may approach the worldly and yet be safe has been the tenor of many a long discussion when this topic was ventured upon; and how can a ribbon jeopardize the soul been a problem that by night and day has vexed the young mind to a degree of desperation far more destructive of spiritual peace than a bit of color to relieve the monotony of an ill-contrived, uncomfortable gown.

All this in its various phases had passed through Ruth Davenport's mind, and, having the blood of her father's people in her veins, she was brave enough to speak her thoughts and to express dissatisfaction with an evasive answer; and when, after a long night's recuperative rest, she felt ready to meet the world on its own terms, it was with no spirit of meekness that she saw the long array of sedate Friends who had gathered under her mother's roof to congratulate them both and administer to their spiritual needs. With some show of grace Ruth took the well-meant sermon on gratitude for life saved, and would have been happy had this one woman who first spoke been the spokeswoman of the company. Not so; each old woman was confident she would be moved to speak, and in anticipation of the opportunity had composed a sermon; but Ruth had no patience left when the third worthy, growing dolorously poetical, was moved to say, "To think our young friend might have been drowned, and her little body never found———"

"Mother, mother!" she exclaimed, "do make the Friends go away or I'll go mad!" And she rushed from the room, to the mingled surprise, consternation, and regret of those present. It was some moments before she would consent to return, and when she did, her defiant looks put at once an end to all attempts at further preaching. Things took a rather more cheerful and certainly a far more practical turn; for not an old woman among them but was sure that the accident would end in a fever,—did not Ruth's strange manner plainly point that way?—and so had brought an abundance of their remedies. What a display was there upon the kitchen table! Every herb that ever grew in West Jersey was generously represented; and if every considerate Friend was to be duly considered, there was no escaping a watery death after all. As Ruth said to her mother, when the last visitor had departed, "I do not know but I had rather choke in Crosswicks Creek than be drowned in a deluge of herb tea. The taste wouldn't be so bad."

Ruth's mother gently laughed, and while the smile yet played upon her patient mouth Matthew Watson entered with a frown and contracted brows that showed trouble was brewing. Ruth noticed it, and in a moment felt that she was the cause of her step-father's ill-humor, if such it proved to be.

"Just see here, father, what the neighbors have brought in," pointing to the herbs in bundles lying upon the table; "if thee gets short of hay, thee'll know where to come."

"I would prefer to find thee less given to levity when I come in. The Friends have said thee has been quite unmoved by their admonitions and prayers and so given offence that reflects upon me. I am sorry thee is not led to be inwardly as well as outwardly a Friend."

"What, mother, is thy word as to the meeting forced upon us; had I not cause to break up what even thee thought an unwise assembling?" asked Ruth, quite indifferent to what her step-father had said, and plainly showing what she felt.

"Ruth, I did not say so; the Friends were very kind," replied her mother, frightened lest she should also be scolded by her husband.

"I know thee did not say so, but that was in thy thoughts, and thee smiled when I talked of the oceans of herb tea." And then, after saying this to her mother, Ruth turned about, and with perfect fearlessness in her eyes and abundant, ill-concealed scorn in her lips, said, in a very different voice, "No, father, I am not a Friend in the sense thee advocates, and never can be. Thee does not remember that I am a Davenport and not a Watson, and among them only my father was a Friend, and not, I hope, of such an unbending type as so many of those that make up the Crosswicks meeting."

"Ruth, Ruth!" faintly spoke her mother.

"Thee is an unruly, rebellious child, that brings a scandal upon us," remarked Matthew Watson, and he turned to leave the room.

"Rebellious? Does thee not recall the fact that I did not come to America of my own accord? Does thee not know that when I have coaxed mother to tell me of my cousins in Yorkshire, that it has made me long to go to them, until I thought that that meant leaving mother, and then I was content again; and when thee took mother from her home, thee knew that I had also to come, or thy words would have prevailed nothing; and when since then have I been a source of discomfort to thee? It is as easy to talk without forethought at home as at meeting, and thy one word 'rebellious' is as little called for as the sermon on 'levity' by Friend Lambert, who has so frequently to be counselled by the Friends to be less worldly in his demeanor. If mother is willing, and the way is provided, I will go back to Yorkshire. I hope my cousins will take me in."

"But thee does not know that they would. The way to a passage might be found." And Matthew put his hand upon the door-latch.

"Matthew, Ruth shall never leave me willingly," her mother said, in a tone that was startling to both husband and daughter,—a tone so full of meaning that it ended the conversation.