Esther & The Heathens: A Quaker Valentine Romance - Part Two
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.
Next: Not Within The Walls of This Meetinghouse