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Harriet Beecher Stowe - Minister's Wooing (1859)

Aside from Uncle Tom's Cabin, which Mrs. Stowe herself regarded rather as a series of visions than as a production of her own mind, The Minister's Wooing is held to be her most artistic fiction. It appeared first as a serial in the Atlantic Monthly (1858-1859), and was issued in book form in 1859. Basipg it partly on fact and history, as in the two striking characters of Dr. Hopkins and Aaron Burr, partly on her own early life and her association with scholarly men and theological laymen in New England, and partly on her subtle, intuitive perceptions and sympathies amid Puritan principles and the unchangeable facts of human nature, she has given here a graphic picture of post-Revolutionary days. The strongest element in the book is the conflict between conscience, under Calvinistic predestination, and the human affection for departed friends, wherein the dry bones of New England theology are clothed with flesh and blood in intensely vital forms, while•the varied fortunes of several romantic loves form the warp and woof of the story.

MRS. KATY SCUDDER had invited Mrs. Simeon Brown, Mrs. Deacon Twitchell, and plump Mrs. Jones, the farmer's wife, to take tea with her on the afternoon of June 2, A.D. 17--.

In the small seaport town of Newport every-body knew the Widow Scudder. She was one of those who, in the speech of New England, are said to have "faculty"—which is Yankee for savoir faire, the greatest virtue, as shiftlessness is the greatest vice, of Yankee man or woman. She who hath faculty is never in a hurry, never behindhand. Of this genus was the Widow Scudder, she that was Katy Stephens, who had ignored all the well-to-do youths that sought her and married George Scudder, a grave, thoughtful, honorable young ship-master, but no money-maker; so that when he died his widow had only the little farm and one-story cottage and her lovely daughter Mary to represent him. Mary had her father's nature in feminine form, predisposed to religious exaltation, but inheriting from her mother a deftness of hand and clearness of judgment that made her skilful in all household labors, yet more quiet than her energetic mother.

On the afternoon of the tea, having made her simple toilet in her tiny bedroom, Mary sat for a moment at the window, and, looking tranquilly at the sinking sun, unconsciously began singing the words of a familiar hymn. There was a swish and a rustle in the orchard-grass, and a handsome young fellow of twenty-five stepped quietly up to Mary and kissed her.

"Why, James!" said Mary, starting up and blushing. "Come, now!"

"I have come, haven't I?" said he, laughing. Then his face darkened and he complained that since he had been at home this time her mother had been holding him off and preventing his having a word alone with her, although he had attended every prayer-meeting and lecture and sermon as regularly as a psalm-book, and almost broke his jaws keeping down the gapes.

Mary expressed sorrow that he should go to meeting merely to see her, and explained, rather lamely: "Mother thinks, now I'm grown so old, that—why, you know things are. different now—at least, we mustn't do as we did when we were children. But I wish you did feel more interested in good things."

"I am interested in some good things, Mary, principally in you, who are the best thing I know. Besides, I can't make head or tail of what they talk about in those meetings; it doesn't touch me or help we. You talk about my being a Christian. You have got into that harbor, but is it right to leave a fellow outside and not try to help him in? You could help me, but I don't understand Dr. Hopkins."

"And don't I care, James? If I could take my hopes of heaven from my own soul and give them to you, I would."

James had thought he loved Mary, but that ray of intense feeling showed him the selfishness of his affection for her. He confessed it, and asked her to give him her Bible, for he was to sail that evening on a three-years' cruise. He promised to read it and do what he could toward an upright life. He asked no promise from her, and even advised her to marry, should any really worthy man love her.

She told him she did not mean ever to marry. She gave him her Bible; he claimed one good-by kiss on the score of cousinship and because he might never come back, and was gone.

Mary's love for James had been from childhood so much a matter of course that it never had disturbed her emotionally; but this interview seemed to have struck some great nerve of her being; she trembled as he departed, and even felt a vague sense of guilt, although she had uttered no word of love, had only spoken of his soul and for his good.

Now came the "tea," which was graced by the ladies first mentioned, by their various husbands, and by the celebrated Dr. Hopkins, whose noble physique and great intellect were coupled with a childlike heart, and who honored the little Scudder cottage by dwelling therein.

Of course the company discussed their pastor's new theological views, which were arousing much interest in New England; also, of course, it was Mr. Simeon Brown, the wealthy slave-trading ship-owner, who led the talk and championed the doctor's interpretations; he had subscribed for twenty copies of Dr. Hopkins's new Theological System, and declared of each doctrine that that was just as he himself had thought it out ten years ago. At last all was over, and the guests departed.

When Mary returned to her chamber she saw a letter on the floor from James, with fuller explanations of his trouble in understanding the excellent Dr. Hopkins. He concluded by saying that if by her prayers, her Bible, and her friendship she could help him to be a good man, he was desirous to be brought there. This gave Mary deep pleasure, and while she was thinking it over with tenderness her mother entered. She frankly showed the letter and told her mother all the facts, even to her willingness to send James to heaven in her place; and the mother saw how it was. But Mrs. Scudder did not blame her; she talked tenderly of Mary's father, and her hope that her daughter would marry some such consecrated man.

"You do right to pray for James, Mary, but while he is gone you must think as little about him as possible; he is a man of unsettled character and no religion. But the Lord appoints all our goings, and in His hands, my child, I leave you." And Mrs. Scudder comforted herself with James's three-years' absence and aroused her mother-wit to compass better things.

Dr. Hopkins was a philosopher, a philanthropist, and in the highest and most earnest sense a minister of good. When he was once received under Mrs. Scudder's roof all immediate necessity for his vague general intention to marry was ended, since every material thing arose under his hand just when he wished it, without his knowing how or why.

As the pioneer of a new theology, he found many opponents; his pulpit talents were unattractive; his religious teachings were so ideal as to discourage ordinary virtue; his church and his salary were small. The real gospel he preached was in his unworldly living, his ministrations to the poor, and his grand humanity. The doctor was happiest in his study, where he lived the ideal intellectual life. But could Love enter that walled seclusion? Even so; but he came so silently, so cautiously, that the good doctor never even raised his spectacles to see who was there. He had lived in a growingly richer life ever since he had the gentle Mary as pupil, household companion, and ministering angel, while he knew it not.

But Mrs. Scudder had her own ideas; and while too wise to move an eyelash prematurely, she thought with joy of one man worthy of her Mary.

Mr. Zebedee Marvyn, the father of James, was a cousin of Mrs. Scudder's, a methodical, successful farmer, intelligent and respected; his wife was a beautiful, sad-eyed, deep-natured woman, as thrifty and orderly as he, but a great reader, especially interested in mathematics, yet filled with longing for the music, the art, the cathedrals, of which she eagerly read but never could know; while she listened with a mother's intensity as Dr. Hopkins unrolled the awful problems of existence which she could not accept with either joy or submission.

Their children had all been exemplary except James, who, as baby, boy, and youth, was an irruption of good-natured mischief and irresponsible activity, until he ran away to sea. But he had risen in his calling and was now mate of the Monsoon, expecting soon to command a ship. The only one who seemed to understand James was old Candace, a partly African woman, one of the three slaves owned by Mr. Marvyn. She loved him and defended him, and even when he absconded she told his father that James would yet be the stay of his old age. At each return from his voyages James and his mother drew closer together, while old Candace was as sure of his being "'mongst de 'lect" as if she had seen the record,

Listening to her exuberant talk one morning aroused Dr. Hopkins to see that the enslaving of such people was a sin for him to testify against. Mrs. Scudder tried to dissuade him, thinking of the consequences; instancing Simeon Brown, one of their church's largest supporters, who would surely take offense. The doctor could not believe that so clear a thinker, who readily announced his willingness to give up his eternal salvation for the good of the universe, could hesitate about a few paltry dollars.

"He may feel willing to give up his soul," said Mrs. Scudder naïvely, "but I don't think he'll give up his ships—that's quite another matter."

And Mrs. Scudder was right. Mr. Brown could not see the applicability of either gospel grace or American independence to the African question (except that bringing those heathen hither opened to them Christian instruction not attainable in Africa); and finally frankly warned his pastor that he should stop his subscription and go to Dr. Stiles's church—upon which Dr. Hopkins majestically left him.

He then went to see Mr. Marvyn, who expressed a doubt whether his own servants cared enough for liberty to take it if offered. But Candace was sent for, and the question put. She said: "Mass'r Marvyn an' Missis were as good friends as she wanted, and she didn't want to shirk work; but to feel free she did want."

"Well, Candace, from this day you are free," said Mr. Marvyn.

Candace shook and trembled, and finally, throwing her apron over her head, rushed for the kitchen and threw herself down in a tempest of tears and sobs. But she soon returned, announcing that she should go right on doing her work just the same. And Mr. Marvyn did the same for his other two servants.

There was to be a great wedding-party at Wilcox Manor, and Mrs. Scudder, whose mother was a Wilcox, was invited, with Mary. After the necessary conferences and labors with Miss Prissy, the chief dressmaker of the community, the two ladies were duly arrayed for the great event.

The entertainment was grand indeed, for Newport had its families of wealth and position. To Mary it was like an enchanted dream, and she was a marked beauty of the occasion.

As she stood at one door of the central hall, looking out into the illuminated garden, a gentleman passed with a lady on either arm. He was of middle height, with a fine head, a fascinating smile, and especially attractive eyes. Seeing Mary, he inquired about her; Mrs. Wilcox told him of Mary's family connection with them and presently startled Mary by saying: "Miss Scudder, I have the honor to present to your acquaintance Colonel Burr, of the United States Senate."

No name in the new Republic bore greater prestige than that of Aaron Burr. He was a grandson of Jonathan Edwards, whose genius has swayed New England even until now, and son of eminent parents, and he united in himself the quickest perceptions and keenest delicacy of fiber with diamond hardness and steadiness of purpose. Mary was charmed by his mingled ease and deference, and readily responded to his pleasant influence. They strolled into the garden. She quietly accepted his delicate flatteries; but when she met his assumption that she should often mingle in such gay scenes with the fear that they would take too much time and thought from the great object of life, he checked a smile and asked what that should be.

Mary answered in the familiar words: "To glorify God and enjoy Him forever."

"Really?" he asked with a penetrating glance.

"Is it not?" Mary asked.

With tears in his fine eyes the tactful man gently kissed Mary's hand, saying: "Thank you, my beautiful child, for so good a thought—practicable, however, only to those of angelic natures"; and then talked of the highest things. But they were interrupted by a gay voice behind a clump of box:

"Eh, bien, mon ami, qu'est ce qu to fais ici ?" and out came a lovely, dark-eyed figure, dressed like a Marquise of Louis the Fourteenth's time.

"Rien que m'amuser," he replied, and presented the ladies to each other—Miss Scudder and Madame de Frontignac, the latter the wife of Colonel de Frontignac, one of La Fayette's officers. After a pleasant chat they separated, but Colonel Burr attended Mary to supper and even handed her into the small one-horse wagon with her mother and Dr. Hopkins as they left. Then he returned and made his peace with Madame de Frontignac, whom, although she was the wife of his friend, he had allured into a friendship that had become dangerous to her peace of mind. She had supposed that she loved her elderly husband until she met Burr and came to a deep-hearted awakening; he meanwhile merely playing with her, as with any charming woman, for his amusement.

Dr. Hopkins was to preach on Newport's great traffic, and the little meeting-house was crowded with gentility; but first families were as invisible to him as to Moses on the Mount. In his discourse he depicted the horrid facts of slave-hunting, transportation, sale, and consequences, and brought home to New-port its share in "this unrighteous and bloody commerce," while also applying the recent American struggle for liberty and its famous Declaration of natural right; and for the time he held his audience under the shadow of God's justice. But then they departed, reassuring themselves that they really were the first families, that thus the world had always gone, and that the good doctor was a radical fanatic.

One day Miss Prissy rushed into Mary's curtained-off garret-corner boudoir and announced Colonel Burr, to call on the ladies; though she had brought the doctor out to talk to him while they dressed up a bit.

Colonel Burr conversed with the doctor as ingenuously as an earnest neophyte, and the good man was expounding his views when the ladies entered. Soon the Colonel tactfully changed the subject and asked them to show him the sea-view from the hill. He won Mrs. Scudder completely and stayed to dinner. Gentle and pliable as oil, he penetrated every joint of the house-hold with his seductive sympathy. He had indeed charmed the whole family, who hoped that they might be the means of drawing him to a Christian life.

Mrs. Marvyn was now to study French with Mary. She never failed to speak of her deeply beloved son, while Mary listened with sympathy. True, she was not to think of James except in her prayers, but that was her frequent frame of mind. Meantime she and the doctor had many religious talks, which Mrs. Scudder noticed with satisfaction.

Colonel Burr came again, this time with Colonel and Ma-dame de Frontignac. The lovely French woman was charmed with Mary, who was fascinated by her; and this visit was followed by many others. Virginie de Frontignac came often, and would delightedly roam the beach with Mary, and also became a frequent inmate in Mrs. Marvyn's home, but at last returned to Philadelphia.

Toward evening, one afternoon in late June, Mary returned from one of her frequent walks by the sea, and heard Miss Prissy excitedly telling her mother how Mrs. Marvyn fainted dead away at news just brought.

Mary's blue eyes were wide with horror.

"Tell me—what is it? is it—is he—dead?"

Mrs. Scudder opened her arms.

"My daughter!"

"Oh, mother, mother!"

They laid her on her mother's bed—the first and last resting-place of broken hearts—and the mother sat by her in silence.

The next day Mary was at her usual tasks, only very pale, finding relief in work. She and her mother and the doctor drove to Zebedee Marvyn's, where James's mother eagerly took Mary to her own room. The shadow of eternity was upon them all; for the speculative theories of Divine government, retributive justice, and inscrutable "election" to bliss or misery were not mere theories to that generation of believers in logic rather than in love; all was profoundly vital and actual.

But Mrs. Marvyn, who never had been able to accept the current faith enough to unite with the church, now in a frenzy of grief denounced all weddings and childbearing as criminal:

"Every new family is built over this pit of despair, and only one in a thousand escapes!"

While Mary stood dumb with horror, she continued, more and more excitedly, until Mary called Mr. Marvyn, when she shrieked: "Leave me alone. I am a lost spirit!"

Here Candace burst in and walked up to Mrs. Marvyn. "Come, ye pore lamb," she said, and gathering the trembling form to her bosom sat down and rocked her like a baby.

"Honey, darlin', ye a'nt right. Why, de Lord a'nt what ye t'ink. He loves ye, honey! Why, jes' feel how I loves ye—pore ole black Candace, and I a'nt better'n Him as made me. Who was it wore de crown o' thorns, lamb? Who was it said:

Father, forgive dem' ? Dar now, ye're cryin', and dat'll ease yer pore heart. He died for Mass'r Jim, Jesus did. Laws, jes' leave him in Jesus's hands why, honey, dar's de print ob de nails in His hands now!"

The floodgates opened, and healing sobs and tears shook the frail form. All wept together. They laid the mother on her bed, and sleep came down upon her weary eyes. A long illness prostrated Mrs. Marvyn, and Mary remained with her until she began to amend. They often communed together after that. Mrs. Marvyn had taken Candace's way—she rested her heart on Christ. Mary found the same resting-place, while at home she was more than ever helpful to her mother and tenderly solicitous in her ministrations to the good doctor.

The third spring of apple-blossoms in our story appeared, and with it a visit from Virginie de Frontignac. In her loving confidences she told Mary of her sad love for Burr and her accidental discovery how insincere was his professed affection for her—though still she loved him. Mary opened to her the un-ecclesiastical, pure gospel of Jesus in the New Testament—a revelation to the sorrowing woman, needing help to tear from her heart the unworthy love; for she had written Burr a letter of disappointment and farewell.

Meantime Mrs. Scudder came to her daughter one day, saying that their good doctor had asked that Mary become his wife. He had long loved her, and Mary acknowledged that she loved him now better than any other man; and so, with tears of regret, and in a dutiful hope of making him happy, Mary consented.

The announcement excited the parish to universal approval. Gifts began to come, preparations to be made; Miss Prissy was in her sublimest element. Old Candace had made one of her famous cakes for the quilting-party which was to make the wedding-quilt, and in talking to Miss Prissy acknowledged her resignation, seeing it was the doctor; but, after all, declared that she couldn't yet believe that Mass'r Jim was really dead.

"Now I feels t'ings gin'ally, but some t'ings I feels in my bones, and dem allers comes true. Now dat ar feelin' I ha'nt had about Mass'r Jim yit, an' I'm waitin' fur it, to clar up my mind."

A day or two later Colonel Burr called. At Virginie's request Mary saw him and told him that her friend preferred not to meet him, and that during her stay they would rather not receive his visits. This led to discussion, and Mary very plainly if kindly told him how thoughtlessly and cruelly he had wrecked their friend's happiness for his own amusement, and she broke into uncontrollable sobs, which indeed awoke the diviner part of the man to deep emotion. This, however, he checked, and expressing his gratitude for her words and his realization of the nobility of their friend, he departed.

The wedding-day was fixed for the first of August, and during two previous weeks preparations went on apace. One after-noon Mary was walking homeward from the seashore in the sunset light, thinking—alas!-of James, when suddenly foot-steps sounded behind her and a voice of emotion cried: "Mary!" She turned and found herself in his arms.

"Oh, is this a dream?" she cried. " James! are we in heaven? Oh, I have lived through such agony! I thought you never would come—" and she swooned.

But it was no dream; an hour later the manly figure still sat there, cherishing her in his arms. And they talked of death, of love mightier than death, of their great joy. At last, rising to go, James broke the unconscious charm by saying:

"You will allow me, Mary, the right of a husband to watch over your life and health?"

And Mary, shocked to remembrance of realities, had to tell him of her word passed, and of its being the same as if James had come a week later and found her married. The battle of duty and love was on.

Mary had not received James's letter, announcing his return, telling of his voyage, his escape from shipwreck, his change of heart toward God, the new life opened up to him by the Gospels of her little Bible, and his hope to make her his wife. But, though torn by grievous struggles, she firmly stood to her sense of duty, her mother anxiously approving. And when James's delayed letter came she found genuine happiness in his new spirit. At the house James was cordially received by all. Mary hesitated to let him go frankly to the doctor and put the case; but—it was Saturday evening—she promised to answer him finally on Monday.

On Sunday Candace exclaimed to Miss Prissy that it was a shame to let that good man go ahead without knowing that he was breaking the heart of the saint he loved, and she urged Miss Prissy to tell him about it, for no one ever took offense at Miss Prissy. That evening the little woman went to the doctor, and with great embarrassment blurted out the facts. He was thunderstruck; and, only asking whether any of the parties had re-quested her to communicate this to him, and receiving a negative answer, he bowed her out with ceremonious thanks.

It was a crushing blow to the excellent man, who had a large, passionate, determined nature, and who felt his will rise in rebellion at this frustration of all his wishes and plans. To control himself he deliberately began hunting up proof-texts for one of his theological theories; and when again calmed to reasonableness, found in prayer and self-renunciation the needed strength to accept blessedness in lieu of happiness.

The next morning he conferred long with Mrs. Scudder; and, when James came to claim Mary's promised decision, he sent for them both. He told them that there was evidently a cross to be borne by someone, and as between man and woman it was fitting that the man should bear the burden.

"Mary, my dear child," he said, "I will be to thee as a father, but I will not force thy heart."

Mary threw her arms around his neck and, sobbing, exclaimed : "No, no ! I will marry you, as I said."

"Not if I will not," he replied, with a benign smile. "Young man, I give thee this maiden to wife," and he lifted her from his shoulder and placed her gently in the arms of James, who, overawed and overcome, pressed her silently to his heart.

"There, children, it is over. God bless you!" said the doctor.

Before they left James grasped the good man's hand, saying: "Sir, this tells on my heart more than any sermon you ever delivered. I never shall forget it!"

The doctor saw them slowly leave the apartment, and, following, closed the door.

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

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