Esther & The Heathens: A Quaker Valentine Romance - Part One
A story by Chuck Fager
Copyright © by Chuck Fager
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.
Next: The Dangers of The Unseemly Practice of Mirth