Esther & The Heathens: A Quaker Valentine Romance
A story by
Illustrations by Charlotte Lewis
Note: While this story is fiction, it is built around actual history. Nothing described below is beyond the range of real events of the time among Quakers.
I: One Committee Too Many
Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, 1828
When the Committee from the Women’s Meeting emerged from the parlor, they stopped to collect their long shawls and say goodbye to Esther Swain’s mother before leaving the house. Esther followed the two older women out, then went toward the stairs to go up to her room.
As she turned she saw a slice of grey skirt sticking out of the closet under the stairway. No dresses were hung there, and at once Esther knew it was her sister Piety, trying to hide. Piety, the little brat, had been listening to her interview with the committee!
Bristling, she stepped off the stairs, whirled around the bannister and pulled the closet door open. “All right, Magpie,” she muttered using the nickname her sister disliked most, “what does thee think thee’s doing?”
With a muffled squeal, thirteen-year old Piety slipped past her, followed by a brown-clad bundle of arms and legs topped with a curly red fringe, brother Jonah, eleven.
The pair raced behind the parlor, through the corner of the kitchen to the back stairs, then thumped frantically up its winding flight; but Esther, lifting her long skirts with one hand, was close behind, and followed them to Piety’s room. Jonah tried to slam the door behind him, but Esther forced it open, pushed through the doorway, then shut and stood blocking it as she confronted her puffing, red-faced siblings.
“What did you two think you were doing,” she demanded, “listening at the door down there to what was none of your business?” The fury in her voice was more than the offense warranted, but these two smaller Quakers were convenient targets for her first reaction to the Committee’s message, which was just beginning to sink in.
Jonah, who had yet to assume the sprouting bravado of adolescence, shrank away from his eldest sister, who at twenty-one and brimming with anger looked very imposing and grownup to him. But Piety was too full of what she had heard downstairs to be intimidated.
“Oh, Esther, we couldn’t help it, we had to know what was happening,” she admitted. Then, ignoring her sister’s ire completely, she stepped up and caught Esther’s hands in her smaller ones. “Esther,” she said, looking up at her gravely, “they can’t make thee do it, can they? They can’t make thee refuse to marry Will Macy just because of the trouble in Meeting. They wouldn’t dare. I won’t let them.” Her tone was as firm as her declaration was irrelevant.
This unexpected expression of support and affection caught Esther completely off guard, and instantly dissipated her wrath. She moved away from the door and sat down on Piety’s bed, staring at the floor.
“I wish thee could stop them, Piety,” she replied weakly, “but thee can’t. They are right, I suppose. To marry an Orthodox would be the same as marrying a Presbyterian, or even a Catholic.” She was now speaking as she had in the parlor with the Committee, flatly and submissively, overwhelmed by the authority they represented.
Jonah, emboldened by the sudden change of atmosphere, spoke up, imitating their father’s most solemn tone, the one he used for discussing weighty matters in Meeting for Business. “Yes, Esther, I’m sure thee will find true peace in resignation to the Divine leading,” he affirmed soberly. “Besides, as they told thee downstairs, thee must think of the reputation of Truth and the Meeting.”
Now Piety flared. “Oh hush, Jonah,” she snapped, “thee doesn’t know what thee’s talking about.” She mimicked his tone: “‘The reputation of Truth’, ‘Resignation to the Divine leading.’ Thee doesn’t even know what the word resignation means.”
Jonah, who was vain of his wide reading and vocabulary at such a young age, and especially his familiarity with Quaker history, retorted quickly. “I do so know what resignation means. It’s when you quit something, like when many Friends in the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1756 resigned rather than vote to support a war against the Indians.”
Piety rolled her eyes elaborately at his misconstruction. “Oh, please, that isn’t the meaning here at all, Jonah. And spare us thy sermons. Thee isn’t old enough to be a recorded minister yet.”
Esther looked up at them, her voice still soft. “It is all right, Jonah,” she said. “Thee was partly right about the word; but it also means, in this religious sense, to submit or yield to a higher power.”
Now she sounded as well like the friendly but precise schoolmistress she was during the day. “And thee is also correct that we must weigh our impulses according to their effect on the Meeting and the Society of Friends in the world. Our own creaturely desires will often tempt us to do things that would injure ourselves or others.”
Piety, scowling under her plain white bonnet, took her sister’s hand again and stared into her face. “Thee said it, but I don’t think thee believes it,” she whispered. “What’s that got to do with getting married, anyway? It isn’t as if thee was trafficking in slaves or joining an army at war.”
“Joining an army?” scoffed her brother. “A girl?”
“Thee hush!” Piety exclaimed, cutting off his snicker. “Thee understands what I mean, doesn’t thee, Esther? We have known the Macys all our lives. They have been Friends on Nantucket for a hundred years. And now just because of tiresome notional arguments in Meeting, some old women want thee to treat Will, thy own true love, like he was some heathen stranger.”
“‘Her own true love,’” Jonah now mimicked. “Talk about tiresome notions, that’s one for sure.”
Piety simply glared a response to his boyish cynicism. But Esther smiled wanly at it, then spoke to her sister. “I am afraid that however airy and notional the arguments have been, their effects have been very real. Most of the elders are Orthodox, and it is said they plan to disown everyone like us in Meeting who will not join them. They even want to keep us out of the Meetinghouse and force us to worship elsewhere.”
She stopped and sighed. “And Will’s father Thomas Macy is one of the hottest heads among them. To him and the other elders it is we, the ones they call Hicksites, who are the heathen.”
Now it was Jonah’s turn to be shocked. “Put us out?” he questioned. Unlike many other boys his age, he liked Meeting, and the big old Meetinghouse had been part of his life for as long as he could remember. “Could they really do that, Esther?”
“I don’t know, Jonah,” she replied. “But I believe they are going to try. It is said they are even ready to go to law to get rid of us if they have to.”
Jonah’s eyes widened, as if his soft-spoken sister had suddenly blasphemed. “Go to law? They wouldn’t, would they?” He had not suspected that this silly dispute over someone’s “true love” could possibly end up with Quakers, especially elders, dragging other Quakers into a worldly court. That would be a public violation of one of their oldest, most honored customs. That prospect suddenly made this discussion a much more serious matter than it had been to him.
“I don’t know if it will actually come to that,” Esther replied, “but the Orthodox in Philadelphia have already gone to the law. They even had some of the other Friends arrested in a quarrel over use of a burial ground.”
She shook her head. “It is an ugly business. That’s why the Committee came. A separation here is now certain. Our elders are already setting up another Meeting, and the women came tonight to say they are simply not comfortable with a marriage between members of the two groups. They say the Orthodox have shown themselves to be no longer really Friends at all, so it would be the same as marrying out.”
She paused again. “There is a session tomorrow night of the two sets of elders to see if they can agree to divide the Meeting property without going to court. Thomas Macy is sure to be there, and Will too most likely. You probably heard that they want me to go and tell him privately that under the circumstances our plan to marry is no longer wise. They are sure his father has said as much to him.”
“What about mother and father?” Piety asked. “do they agree with the Committee?”
“I’ll bet they do,” Jonah put in. “I have often heard father tell other grownups how much he dislikes the Orthodox notions and their high-handed ways. Just last month he told Reuben Starbuck that he figured there was trouble coming because of them and it had been coming for a long time. I didn’t understand what he meant then.”
He smacked his lips in anticipation of an exciting fight. “Don’t worry, father won’t let them turn us out of the Meetinghouse.”
“I hope not,” Esther said, “but Jonah is right about our parents, Piety. They met with the Committee last First Day informally, and are in unity with them. They have been doubtful about Will anyway for awhile, and not only because of the separation.”
“Then what about thee?” Piety wondered. “After all this, does thee still think the two of you could be happy together?” Now the younger girl was beginning to see how complicated the situation was.
“I-I don’t know anymore,” Esther confessed. She frowned, put her hand to her forehead, and looked at the floor again.
“We have talked about this more than once,” she said from behind her hand. “While Will agrees with his father on matters of belief, he has often told me that love among Christians is more important than uniformity of doctrine among Friends, as Jesus taught. And he assures me that he loves me, whatever my own notions might be. He says he feels it is God’s will that we should marry.”
“Does thee think so too?” Jonah inquired curiously. He was less interested in the marrying than the part about God’s will. He had not, in truth, ever felt much of anything that he could identify specifically with that mysterious supernatural motion which was supposed to provide a Friend with clarity and energy. To him it was like the hidden mechanism of a grandfather clock, and held much the same technical fascination.
Before Esther could answer, there was a knock at the door. “Esther?” came her mother’s voice. “Is thee in here?” She opened the door. “Come out now, Esther, it is time thy brother and sister went to bed.” Both Piety and Jonah started to protest, but she waved their complaints aside and ushered Jonah and Esther out into the narrow, candlelit hallway. “Go on now, Jonah,” she coaxed, shoving him gently toward his room.
“But mother,” the boy objected, “it’s not that late.”
“Go on,” she repeated firmly.
“Oh, all right,” he murmured reluctantly. “Goodnight.”
When the door to Jonah’s room had closed behind him, her mother turned to Esther and said, “I know this must be hard for thee, dear. Would thee like to share a cup of chamomile tea with me and talk about it before thee retires?”
Esther looked at her: the greying hair neatly tucked under the creases of her bonnet, the lines of worry and love that rayed out from the corners of her eyes and lower down framed her mouth from nostrils to chin.
It was probably the most familiar face in her world; yet when her mother spoke, Esther suddenly realized that the evening’s events had left her feeling distanced from her mother, guarded, as if the offer of tea and counsel came from a stranger, or someone she once trusted but could no longer. The awareness made her afraid, but it was inescapable.
“Thank thee, mother,” she heard herself saying carefully, “but I think I would rather think about this alone for awhile and then go to bed.” She turned toward her room to avoid the disappointment that began to cross her mother’s features. “Goodnight,” she said quickly.
“Goodnight, Esther,” her mother said.
In her room, Esther sat down at her desk, opened a wooden drawer and pulled out a large ruled ledger marked Journal. Jonah’s last question still rang in her mind. Opening the book, she read quickly over a few entries, then marked the date: “Tenth Month, 7th, 1828.” with a pen and began to write:
“Tonight I was asked to break off with Will because of the separation in Meeting, which is now underway. I told the Committee I would tomorrow evening.” Here she stopped, the pen still poised in her hand, unable to go on. Again she looked back at several previous entries, then pulled down from the shelf above her desk a copy of the New Testament. It had been given her by the same Meeting which was now splitting apart over, among other things, the meaning of that little book. But after leafing through it restlessly, she still found nothing that spoke to her.
Finally an impulse came. Putting back the New Testament, she picked up the pen and resumed writing, this time with more energy:
“O God and Father of us all,” she wrote, “can it really be that the following of Thy leadings by Friends has brought us, and me, into this confusion? If so, then what will lead us out of it? Amid the contentions and even hatred, how am I supposed to find the right path for me? Yet I am told I must now leave the path I had chosen for my life, and take another one, and be on that strange new path before I sleep again tomorrow. I have agreed to do it. but is that really Thy will for me?”
She hesitated here a moment more, and then continued: “I have been taught all my life to seek out Thy will for me, and then to follow it as early Friends did, no matter what the cost or hardship. I want to know that will tonight. My parents and the elders think they know it, but I have no real clearness in my heart about it. Am I simply to accept their word, as I always have? I am not a child any more. Will Thee not guide me now Thyself? Let me know thy will and give me the strength–”
She weighed the next phrase, then decided to put it down:
“–And the resignation to do what thee bids me, disregarding any obstacle, including my own will. I ask this in the name of Thy Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ.”
She underlined the last “Thee,” then laid the pen down and closed the book. For a moment she felt an impulse to cry, but she quelled it. Now was not a time to give way to emotion, she told herself; she would need all her composure for the day to come. There was school to face, and her parents at dinner before the meeting, and Will after that. And then?
She rose, and turned down the counterpane on her bed. Once tomorrow was finished, she concluded, then there would be time enough to grieve, if she must.
II: The Dangers of The Unseemly Practice of Mirth
Dinner the following evening was a somber and largely silent affair. Esther’s parents seemed ill at ease and said little, never mentioning the evening’s plans. Jonah wolfed down his food as usual, but punctuated his gulps with significant glances at Esther. Piety had developed an unspecified stomach distress and stayed upstairs.
Afterward, her father offered to drive her to Meeting in the wagon, but Esther declined, saying she preferred to walk. She threw her long knitted shawl over her cap and went out quickly, before her parents had a chance to say anything further.
It was autumn on Nantucket. Out on the island’s moors the heather and scrub oak had carpeted the low hills with deep red, magenta and brown. In town, the street Esther walked up was flecked with the fallen yellow and orange leaves of the young maple trees that line it. The evening was cool and still, and the dusk gave a purple tint to the grey cedar shingles on the plain houses.
Two blocks from home a lane cut across to the next street, on which the Meetinghouse stood several blocks further down. The lane was quiet and shaded by thick bundles of shrubbery that climbed over the back fences of the houses along it. Esther liked this lane, and she often walked it when going to town or to her school, which was a few blocks beyond the Meetinghouse. She and Will had taken it many times too on their way home.
She took it now, thankful for its secluded course. It fit her frame of mind; she was still deep in thought, waiting for clarity about the task before her.
At its far end, the lane rambled past the new Unitarian church. As she approached the corner, Esther heard singing, and the clean white clapboard building was made brilliant by the many glowing candles reflected off the brass chandeliers and shining through the big clear windows. The Unitarians were just beginning their midweek Meeting; by the doorway she saw the minister, her own cousin Seth Coffin, greeting people as they entered.
Something about the scene made her stop. She stepped to the side of the lane, near a large clump of ivy overhanging a fence, from which she could observe the church unseen. What drew her was not the music, though she had always, somewhat guiltily, enjoyed hearing the hymns that so often filled the air around Nantucket town’s other churches. Rather it was the people who were walking up the street and turning into the gate, pausing at the door to shake hands with Seth Coffin and let the men take off their hats.
Esther had suddenly put together two incongruous pieces of awareness about the figures in this scene: first, they were heathens; both parties in her Meeting, Thomas Macy and her father Micah Swain alike, agreed on that. But second, she, Esther Swain, was personally acquainted with many of them, and was related to most. This combination was what made them suddenly fascinating to
As she watched, another feature of the group struck her: many of these people had been raised as Friends. Some still wore a modified but recognizable version of the plain dress. It must be hard, Esther mused, to change suddenly from three or four generations of Quaker grey, brown and white to the gaudy and sinful colors of the world.
Hard, yes, but perhaps exciting as well. Seth Coffin’s congregation was growing steadily, that much was evident. Maybe the singing made the transition easier.
The minister went inside, closing the door behind him. The singing swelled to a final chorus, then died away. Esther waited another moment in the ivy until she heard Coffin’s deep voice begin to speak to the group; then she stepped out and turned past the church toward the Meetinghouse.
At that point a man emerged from the shadows across the street and came toward her. “Esther,” he called. It was Will.
Without thinking, she raised one fist in a gesture of mock anger. “Will Macy, was thee spying on me?” she demanded.
The tall, slender man, his face shadowed by a wide-brimmed hat, grinned broadly. “I most certainly was,” he affirmed. “I had a leading thee would come this way, and waited for thee.”
“And as usual, thee was rightly led,” Esther said.
He fell in step beside her, still smiling. “As usual,” he agreed with feigned modesty. “How is thee, Friend Esther?”
This would not do at all, Esther told herself, even as she smiled back. All he had to do was say her name, and at once she was giggling and wanting to play, forgetting why she was on that darkening street. But then, it was Will’s ability to be playful with her, without neglecting the serious parts of life, that had as much as anything drawn them together in the first place. “After all,” he had said when they first talked of marriage, “what good is a husband who thinks that all of life should be like Meeting for Worship?”
“Or a wife,” she had added, and they both had laughed.
Indeed, from the looks her mother sometimes gave her, it seemed they spent altogether too much of their time together laughing. If there was nothing in the Discipline specifically warning against the practice of mirth, still there seemed to be an unspoken limit to how much it might properly be engaged in, a limit they seemed regularly to transgress. But, she realized, I haven’t laughed since I last saw Will.
Esther put out her hand to take his arm; but then she hesitated and drew it back, instead catching the bottom of her shawl and twisting it between her fingers.
Will understood the nervous gesture, and with only a slight change in tone spoke her thoughts. “A committee visited thee, did they?”
She looked at him, startled. “How did thee know?”
He grinned again. “Ah, our Orthodox spies are everywhere,” he bantered. Then, more soberly, he said, “It’s a small island, Esther. Besides, father has spoken to me, too. And that is Committee enough for us Orthodox.”
Esther’s stomach suddenly felt hollow. The lightness and pleasure of their meeting vanished, blown away by Will’s last words like a scud of cloud in a gale. She walked in silence for a moment, her thoughts tumbling over themselves and blocking her words inside her. Finally she forced some out, in barely more than a whisper: “What is thee led to do, Will?”
They had arrived at the Meetinghouse gate. Will swung it open for her, then followed her through. “I have prayed on the matter,” he said, “and my leading has not changed, Esther.” He opened the big oak door, and she moved past him.
Inside, the unadorned Meeting room seemed more severe than usual in the yellow light of the spermaceti candles. Esther was unsure at first where she should sit; the two groups of elders had each taken one side of the aisle, with the Orthodox, which Will joined on the women’s side.
Esther felt strange sitting down in the section which had, all her life, been a male preserve. But that was where the Hicksites were clustered. It was evidence of how deeply the group was split that they were now divided by faction rather than by gender.
The meeting was already underway, and the tension was tangible. She slid onto a bench behind her father and Reuben Starbuck. Reuben was just rising to speak.
III: Not Within The Walls of This Meetinghouse
“I don’t think we need to waste any more time on formalities,” Reuben Starbuck declared in a deep gravelly bass. “Our canvass of the members shows that at least two-thirds are among those that have been called ‘Hicksites,’ although that name is not one we choose. The fairest settlement, in our view, would be to sell the Meetinghouse and the surrounding property, except the burial ground, and divide the proceeds according to the numbers in each party. The burial ground could be transferred to a separate corporation, which interested people would join and maintain through their own contributions. What say you to that?”
Thomas Macy stood to answer. The proposal did not seem new to him, and his reply also seemed prepared. “Thee is right, Reuben Starbuck,” he said coolly, “we should not waste time. So I will say plainly that among the world’s people such proposals might make some sense. But among Friends, who are charged with preaching and preserving the gospel of Jesus Christ in a world of darkness, they carry little weight. The Meeting’s property is in the charge of the elders. And it is our duty to see that it is kept for use in Christian worship and service. We have no intention of selling it to anyone for any other purpose.” Beside him the wide hats of the other elders were now nodding; and under their brims, their faces were set and stern.
Esther’s father got to his feet, anger showing in his cheeks and in the way his hands gripped the bench in front of him. “Do the beliefs and feelings of more than half the members of this Meeting carry no weight, either?” he demanded. “Who appointed thee pope over us, Thomas Macy?”
Obed Gifford, an aged elder, answered him curtly. “There are no popes here, Micah Swain. Thomas Macy speaks for the body of elders, according to the practice that has long been used among us. This Meetinghouse will not be sold. Nor will it be made over into a platform for the unsound and unbiblical doctrines of freethinkers like Elias Hicks and others so misguided as to be taken in by him.”
A Hicksite woman, Mary White, was now standing. “By that last remark, I assume thee is referring to us?” she fumed.
“‘Thou hast said it,’” Gifford answered sourly, quoting the Scriptural text with satisfaction.
“If you are not willing to sell the Meetinghouse,” asked Reuben Starbuck, “then what do you propose to do with it? Share it with us, as a few divided Meetings are doing?”
Obed Gifford smirked. “We will be more than happy to welcome into the Meetings of Friends convinced and faithful Christians. We will also unite with any Hicksites who admit the error of his obnoxious notions and are ready to accept the blood of Christ. But we will have neither unity nor fellowship with any others.”
Reuben Starbuck had flushed red as Gifford spoke, and his voice in retort was even deeper.
“The Society of Friends never had a creed, or any ruler besides the Light of Christ within its members,” he said loudly. “George Fox could see that Light in everyone, Catholics, Jews and Mohammedans, as well as other sorts of Christians. I daresay he could even see it in us so-called Hicksites, Obed Gifford, which is more than thee is able to do. And anyway, who set thee up to decide what and who is worthy of sharing fellowship with thee in this Meetinghouse?”
He pointed at the shuttered window. “I have been a member here since birth, and my parents and grandparents before me. They are all buried in our cemetery, without even a stone to mark their graves. I have contributed to the Meeting’s stock as I have been able, and borne its Testimonies as faithfully as I could.”
He thumped the top of the bench with a big, gnarled hand. “Am I now simply to give up my Christian liberty to a group which uses the cross of my Saviour as a cover for nothing more than their own pride and love of power?” He raised a shaking finger at Gifford. “I say no, I will not!”
Micah Swain was now up again, and Esther could see his lips pulled thin and tight. The fury in his expression was greater than she had ever seen, and it frightened her. “I have sat here silently long enough,” he shouted, “in meeting after meeting for many years now, listening to such as thee condemning innocent faithful Friends as infidels and freethinkers.”
He shook a fist. “It is not Elias Hicks who is changing the ancient doctrines of this Society. It is thee, Obed Gifford, and the rest of you who have yielded to the spirit of domination and division. If you have your way, there will no longer be a Friends Meeting here, but a church with creed and bishops and an inquisition to enforce it. Fox and Penn would not even be welcome, because they preached and suffered against just such powers.”
Gifford was shaking a fist now. “George Fox and William Penn and all the First Publishers of Truth affirmed the blood of Christ as the purchase of salvation,” he cried. “It is you Hicksites, with your rationalistic and freethinking notions who would deny Christ and the Scriptures any value for Friends.”
In his agitation his raised arm knocked the broadbrim hat from his hear. There was sweat gleaming on his temples. “ If these corruptions are not stopped now,” he said, “there will be nothing left of our religious profession but an empty shell, open to all the atheist and heathen doctrines that are now undermining our Christian civilization.”
He stooped to retrieve his hat. “And stop them we are determined to do,” he said more quietly, “at least within the walls of this Meetinghouse.”
IV: Where Such Damnable Trash Belongs
Micah Swain turned to Thomas Macy. “Does thee have the papers?” he asked. Macy nodded, and pulled from a folder on the bench a sheaf of thick vellum sheets.
“What are those?” demanded Mary White. “Your new creed for us to kneel and swear to? Does thee have a ring for us to kiss as well?”
“We neither have nor need any creed but the blood of Christ,” Gifford insisted. “These certificates only help us determine who else has received it.”
He took one from Macy. “Mary White,” he intoned, “is thee ready to affirm thy unity with us through the atonement of Jesus Christ, as recorded in the Scriptures and testified to by Friends?”
“What is thee asking me?” the woman retorted. “Does thy inquisition begin now? I will not answer any such examination.”
Gifford looked down at Macy and nodded; Macy, who had a pen ready, scribbled something on the top sheet, then stood up with it.
“Mary White,” he announced in a loud voice, “by refusing to answer our query, thee shows thy lack of unity with the Meeting, and it is my sad duty to inform thee of our Testimony against thee, recorded in this Minute, disowning any further religious fellowship with thee in our Monthly Meeting.”
He walked slowly over and extended his hand toward her, the vellum sheet protruding from his fingers like a weapon.
Mary White hesitated, then took the sheet. She looked at it for a moment, scanning it quickly, her mouth open in disbelief. “Well I never,” she said finally, “I never thought it would ever come to this, that I would be served with a Minute of disownment in the Meetinghouse where I have worshipped all my life.” Shaking her head, she sat down, uncertain what more to say or do.
Obed Gifford was not listening to her. He was now facing Reuben Starbuck. Esther heard him begin repeating the query about unity, then she glanced around at Will. The young man was staring fixedly at his father, who was again scribbling on the vellum. Will’s face was pale, and Esther could see a corona of perspiration on his forehead, just under the crown of his hat. He looked even more disturbed than Mary White. Esther felt an impulse to go to him, but before she could even reprove herself for the thought, Reuben Starbuck’s angry rejoinder pulled her attention unwillingly back to the front of the room.
“What does thee think thee is doing, Macy?” he shouted. “Thee has no authority to write up a disownment Minute against me or anyone else without the approval of a Business Meeting. This procedure is completely un-Quakerly and spurious. It will never stand up on appeal to Yearly Meeting.”
“Oh, yes it will stand up at Yearly Meeting,” Gifford said grimly, shoving the sheet at him. “Has thee forgotten that I am a member of Yearly Meeting’s Committee of Elders? So is Thomas. This Minute is signed by a majority of the elders of this Meeting, and that is sufficient. It will stand up at Yearly Meeting, and it will stand up in court too, if necessary.”
“In court!” Starbuck shouted hoarsely. “I knew it would come to this. You are so determined to steal our property from us that you’ll stop at nothing, not even taking other Friends to law. Thee won’t get away with this, Gifford. Nor will thee, Macy, thou scribbling snake.”
Thomas Macy’s head snapped up from his writing. “Thee’ll curb thy heathenish tongue if thee knows what’s good for thee,” he said coldly.
Esther’s hand came involuntarily to her mouth and she shut her eyes. She had never seen her seniors behave this way, especially in the open setting of a Friends Meetinghouse. Her head hurt. She wanted the words and anger to stop, or at least slow down.
But they didn’t. In fact, Obed Gifford was reciting his unity query to her father. She heard him rise and opened her eyes to see him, his cheeks crimson and his lips drawn even thinner.
“Damn thee, Obed Gifford,” came his voice between clenched jaws, interrupting his interrogator in mid-sentence. Esther saw that he was trembling as he spoke, and his words made her shake as well; she had never heard him curse before.
“Damn thee,” he repeated, even more venomously, “I will not let thee defile me with that filthy document before God and my own daughter!”
His voice rose to a bellow: “Get away from me with it! Get away I said!”
Gifford finished his recital, but faltered on the last sentence. Esther could see that the intensity of her father’s rage had momentarily daunted him. But he recovered almost immediately, took the paper from Thomas Macy and proffered it to her father with a gesture of triumph.
Micah Swain took the minute of disownment from Obed Gifford with a slow, deliberate motion, held it in both hands and looked down at it. Then, just as deliberately he pursed his lips and spat on it, crumpled it up, and threw it on the floor.
“That is where such damnable trash belongs,” he said more quietly. “There or in hell, and thee with it.”
The yellow wad bounced against Thomas Macy’s shoe. Macy leaned over and picked it up. “Profanity and blasphemy are poor substitutes for the gospel, Swain,” he said, unfolding the paper. “This Minute still stands, regardless of what thee does to this sheet.” He stood up and carried it across to Micah Swain again.
Esther’s eyes widened as her father suddenly reached up, jerked off his hat and, throwing it down on the bench beside him, put up his two fists, the fingers clenched so tightly that the knuckles were pale. “If thee touches me with that vile sheet, Macy,” he hissed, “so help me God, I’ll break thy jaw.”
The elder took two more steps toward him. “Try it,” he breathed. He let go of the paper with a slight push, so that it brushed Swain’s coat as it fell to the bench.
Micah Swain grabbed both Macy’s lapels and wrenched him forward and off balance, til their red faces were but two inches apart.
“Thou bastard,” Swain swore, “I will do it, too.”
Esther let out a muffled cry and buried her face in her hands. As the two men scuffled noisily, the room seemed to reel around her; she felt almost as if the ground beneath the floor was moving, splitting open, ready to plunge them all into some horrible dark pit.
Into her anguish, the next voice came only dimly. “Stop it!” someone cried. “Stop it, both of you!” The voice was closer now and louder.
“For God’s sake, stop it!”
It was Will.
V: Away With All Thy Rantings
Esther lowered her hands. Will had left his seat, moved around behind his father and pulled him roughly out of her father’s grasp, and now stood between them. His hat had been knocked off and his black hair tousled. Sweat stood out more boldly on his forehead. But he was no longer pale; there was passion in his face, and in his voice as well.
“What is happening here?” he cried, looking from one older man to the other. “What are you doing to each other? Will it be knives and pistols next?”
“Get out of my way, Will,” muttered his father, breathing hard. His eyes were still fixed on Micah Swain’s now ashen face. But Will only pushed him back further.
“No, father, I won’t,” he insisted. “I won’t let thee brawl like a drunken sailor, not here in this Meetinghouse over some words on a piece of paper. It is not worthy of either of you.”
His father looked at him now. “Who is thee to judge that?” he demanded, and pushed forward again.
Will shoved him back once more. “I have to judge for myself, father,” he grunted. “And I can’t abide this stupid meaningless quarrel another minute. You are all making a bad joke out of everything you ever tried to teach me in this building, everything I ever heard preached about here. You make me ashamed of you and myself for being here.”
“Curb thy tongue, young man,” Thomas Macy snapped. But he quit pressing toward Micah Swain and refocussed his anger on this unanticipated challenge from his son. “This is God’s work we are about here,” he went on. “However unpleasant it may sometimes be, especially in this time of trial. It is not thy place to interfere.”
“The Lord’s work?” Will repeated incredulously. “Thee calls this tavern brawl the Lord’s work? Once I believed it was, father. What I have seen here tonight has changed my mind; I don’t believe it anymore. If anyone is working here, it is Satan.”
“Will!” roared his father. “What is thee saying? Has thee been taken in by their false doctrines now too?”
“Stand up to him, Will,” called Micah Swain, wondering if he had made a convert. “Maybe thee can show him that we are right.”
Will whirled to face his fiance’s parent. “But I don’t agree with thee either,” he exclaimed. “Thee and thy rantings about popes and inquisitions and damning people to hell! They disgust me just as much. All of you here are destroying everything that the Society of Friends has meant to me, right here before my eyes, with your hate and your meanness and your plague of disowning.”
The two fathers were now fully diverted from their physical confrontation to this unexpected one. Will bent down and picked up his hat. Dusting off the brim, he spoke again. “I don’t know which side here, Orthodox or Hicksite, will win this shameful squabble,” he said slowly, “but whichever faction gains control of this Meetinghouse need not expect to see me in it again, disownment or not.”
He put his hat on his head and walked down the aisle to the big oak door, opened it and went out.
As the door swung to, Esther sprang up. “Will!” she cried out. “Will, wait!”
“Esther, sit down!” commanded her father. But she ignored him. She was going down the aisle too, faster, pulling on the door, then striding through its arch.
“Esther!” her father called again. “come back here! I won’t–”
The rest of his words were cut off by the door’s closing.
VI: Conclusion – Clearness & Chamomile
The night was cold now, and her breath billowed faintly over her shoulders as she hurried after the dark figure walking ahead up the quiet street. “Will!” she called again. “Wait for me!”
He stopped and turned. “Esther?” he called. “Is it thee?” He clasped her hands in his as she came up to him. “Esther, I–” he began. “Thee is shivering,” he interrupted himself. “It is cold. Thee has no coat.”
Esther shook her head. “I am not cold, Will. Let’s walk.” She took his arm now, firmly. They went on in silence for a few moments. Then Esther heard singing.
They were approaching the Unitarian Church again. The service was concluding with another hymn. Esther stopped a few houses away, and motioned for Will to listen with her. She couldn’t make out the words, but the rise and fall of the melody was enough.
They stood there, breathing out vague cones of mist, for only a few minutes, through no more than two verses of the hymn. But in that brief span of time, clarity came to Esther.
In her careful schoolteacher’s way, she observed the process with a certain professional detachment, making mental note of how to describe it to her brother Jonah, in answer to his last question of the evening before, as well as for recording in her Journal.
It was nothing spectacular or miraculous, she realized: more like seeing a glass full of muddy water become transparent as the sediment settled to the bottom, or watching a distant ship change suddenly from a hazy blur to a sharply-defined image as she refocussed her father’s old spyglass. There was no new thought or impulse in her mind; rather, she was now able to pull what was already there together in a new way, a way that made new and compelling sense.
“Esther, what is it?” Will perceived that something was happening; she had stopped trembling and was standing quite still, staring into the night. At his question she seemed to return from far away, but then she looked at him intently and tightened her grip on his arm.
“Will,” she began, “I have seen that thy leading was true. It is God’s will that we should marry, no matter what any elders may think of it. I have also seen,” she continued, “that thee was speaking to my condition in the Meetinghouse. It is no longer a spiritual home for me either, regardless of which party ultimately takes control of it. Their contention has driven me, has driven us, out.”
She was speaking very calmly. “Yet in another way, Will, I see that we have been led out of the Society, though for what purpose I don’t yet understand. We will find a new home, perhaps here in Seth Coffin’s church, perhaps in some other. And we will have work to do there, concerns to witness for, children to instruct, a community to join and build. We will be heathens, Will, at least in our parents’ eyes, but life will go on anyway, we will still worship God, and we will be happy.”
Will was slow to respond. “Esther,” he said at last, “is thee–is thee sure of this?”
She nodded firmly. “I am sure of it,” she answered.
“What thee says frightens me,” he admitted. “I am not used to the idea of being anything but a Quaker. But I can feel that thee is right. I could not go back there, not even if it meant losing thee.”
She squeezed his arm. “Thee needn’t worry about that anymore. What we have to figure out now is how to deal with our parents about this. That will take some skill, and doubtless some persistence.”
The door of the Unitarian Church swung open. Seth Coffin stepped out and turned to begin his farewells to those who were leaving early as the hymn swung into its closing Amen. Esther began walking again, toward the church. As she passed the doorway she called out, “Good evening to thee, Seth Coffin.”
The minister smiled down at the pair, but could not conceal his surprise. Friends rarely spoke to him, particularly in public. “Why, good evening to you, Esther,” he replied. “And is that Will Macy? Hello, Will, cool night, isn’t it?”
They nodded and passed on, not stopping to watch the parade of cousins, uncles and old schoolmates that was now emerging from the church. Esther turned and went down her leafy lane again, walking slowly as she talked with Will about how to handle the arrangements for a secular wedding, and what to do in the event of various possible parental stratagems to prevent it. Of the two, Esther was still the more calm and inventive.
By the time they turned the final corner near her home, they had agreed on a series of options, down to eloping to the mainland if necessary. As they approached the house, Will suddenly stopped and announced, “Esther, I must tell thee that I have had another leading.”
She paused and turned to him. “What is it, Will?”
“This,” he said, and drew her to him for a kiss.
After a moment, she pulled away a little, and stroked his stubbly chin with her finger. “As usual,” she whispered, “thee was rightly led.”
“As usual,” he murmured, and tried to kiss her again.
She drew away coyly. “But also as usual, Will Macy, thee needs a shave. Or is it true what they say, that the beard, like the theology, grows thicker and tougher on Orthodox men?”
He laughed and stole a kiss. “No, my love,” he parried, “it is as they told me–the cheeks of Hicksite women are like their beliefs: too soft and fuzzy to abide any chafing at all.”
Again she raised her hand in mock anger, but he stepped lightly away, just out of range. “Now, now,” he admonished, “there has been enough fighting among Friends for this night already. Besides, I just saw a curtain move on the upstairs window which makes me think thy sister Piety has been watching us. If so, she has seen plenty by now, so let’s not give her more to gossip about. Goodnight, Esther. I will see thee tomorrow.”
She blew a final kiss at him and turned to the door. When she opened it, her mother was standing in the hallway, clearly waiting for her.
Esther came in and took off her shawl and outdoor bonnet.
The sense of clarity was still with her. It overcame the sense of distance she had felt the night before, brought back her affection without diluting her determination. When she finished hanging up her wraps, she turned and faced the older woman.
“Mother,” she said, “I think I am ready to share that cup of chamomile tea with thee now.”
Copyright (c) by Chuck Fager
Esther & The Heathens: A Quaker Valentine Romance
This story and 18 others are included in the book Posies For Peg: Collected Stories. Ordering information here.