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The Day of Their Wedding
By William Dean Howells, 1895
ALTHEA clutched Lorenzo nervously by the coat-sleeve in the twilight of the parlor, and whispered, "Oh, Lorenzo, do you think we'd better?"
"Yee, I do, Althea. It would be ridic'lous to back out now. We've got to do it."
"Yee, I presume we have. But not--not unless you wish it as much as ever you did!"
"I do, full as much. Don't you, Althea?"
"Oh, yee--yee. Will it take--very long?"
"How should I know, Althea?"
"That is so. But I hope it won't take long. I can't seem to--get my--breath."
"There! There he is! I shall behave, Lorenzo. But don't you--don't you try to deny anything if he asks you!"
"Nay, I won't, Althea."
The minister came in again, and Althea saw that he had a different coat on and a book in his hand. He sat down and faced them, gravely smiling, and pushed softly backward and forward in the rocking-chair he had taken. After waiting for them to speak, he asked, "Is there something I can do for you?"
He looked at Lorenzo, who glanced in turn at Althea; she met his eye with a mute reproach that made him speak.
"Yee, there is. We--we some thought of gettin'--married."
"Well," said the minister, still smiling, "that is rather serious business, though people seem not to think so always. Do you live in this state?"
"Nay--or no, I should say. We are from Massachusetts."
"Have you friends in Saratoga whom you would like to have present?"
"Nay, we are strangers here," answered Lorenzo. "We just came this morning." He looked at Althea for the reward of his honesty, but her eyes were fixed upon the minister.
"At all in a hurry?" asked the minister, with a smile.
"Some of a hurry," Lorenzo asserted, and he drew a long, sighiug breath, as if to strengthen himself for further question.
The minister laughed a little. He was a tall, fair young man, with a light-colored mustache cut short along his lip. "I'm sorry for the hurry. I don't think it's the best way to get married. But if you've made up your minds--"
"Yee--yes, we have," said Lorenzo, boldly. "Haven't we, Althea?"
"Yee," Althea answered, more faintly.
"It a'n't any new thing or any sudden thing with us," said Lorenzo. "We've thought it over, and we've talked it over, and we've made up our minds, fully. The only hurry that there's been about it was our comin' here, and that we had to do, to save feelin', as much as anything. We no need to do it."
Still Althea did not look at Lorenzo, but at a favorable change that passed over the minister's face she gave a little sigh of relief.
"Well, that's good," said the minister. "I can marry you, of course, and I will, if you wish. But the step you are going to take is the most important step you can take in your whole lives. I like to have people realize that, before I help them to take it, and reflect that it is irrevocable. But if you are attached to each other you will wish it to be so," he suggested, always smiling.
"Yee," said Lorenzo.
"That is the theory," continued the minister, and he looked at Althea, as if he felt that he could address a finer and higher intelligence in her. "But the strongest feeling is not always the surest guide. Would you like to go away for a little while, and ask yourselves and each other whether you are quite sure, and then come back?" He looked from one to the other kindly. Althea glanced at Lorenzo as if shaken. Lorenzo would not meet her eye.
"We've done that already. We know our minds now as well as we ever shall," he said, with a kind of doggedness.
"Very well," said the minister. "I thought I ought to suggest it. I must ask whether there is anything in the lives of either of you, or in your circumstances, which should cause you a conscientious scruple against entering the state of marriage."
"Nay," they answered together.
"I needn't ask if you have either of you been married before or are now married?"
"Oh, nay," they answered, and Lorenzo permitted himself the relief of a laugh at the notion. Althea smiled in sympathy.
"And your name?"
The minister made a note of the names, and he said, "Is that driver a friend of yours?"
"Nay," said Lorenzo, "we don't know him."
The minister laughed as if he enjoyed the rogue's pretence of intimacy with them. "Well," he said, "I don't see why we shouldn't proceed. As you have no friends of yonr own to be present, I will just call my wife to witness the ceremony."
He went out again, and Althea murmured to Lorenzo in the twilight, " Oh, I hope she'll come soon!"
"I don't believe but what she will," he murmured back. He tried to take her hand, to reassure her, but she kept it from him.
"Because if she don't," she scarcely more than gasped, "I don't believe I can bear it."
Lorenzo was silent, as if he did not know what to answer, and they sat mute together in the dim room till the minister came back.
"My wife will be in directly," he said, seating himself in the rocking- chair; " she has to make some change in her dress;" and now he spoke to Althea more especially. "With you ladies everything in life seems an occasion for that."
He smiled, and Althea smiled in mechanical response. "Yee," she said.
The minister looked at her, and after a momentary hesitation he said, "May I ask why you use that form of speech. I notice that you both use it."
Althea looked at Lorenzo, and he answered, bluntly, "We are Shakers."
"Oh, indeed!" said the minister. "That is very interesting. I have never met any of your people before. You must excuse me if I say that I observed something peculiar in you at the first glance. But I supposed that the Shakers had a dress of their own."
"Yee, we have--in the Family," said Lorenzo; "but we got these things since we came into the world-outside."
The minister said "Oh!" and Althea blushed with a consciousness that imparted itself to the whole texture of her pretty dress, and to the cherry ribbons on her breast and hat. "But don't you use the plain language, and say thee and thou, like the Quakers?"
"Nay, we say Yee and Nay, 'for more than this cometh of evil.' "
A sort of sectarian self-satisfaction, a survival of conditions he had abandoned, expressed itself in Lorenzo's tone, and he was not apparently sensible of the irony in the minister's "Oh, I see!" But Althea stirred as if she felt it.
"We only say so now," she explained, "because we have the habit of it. We have no right to set ourselves above anybody else in the world-outside any more, as far as that goes."
"Will you excuse me?" said the minister, with a burst of frankness. "But if it isn't intrusive, I should like very much to know something about your Family life. You are communists, I believe?"
"Yee, we have all things common. There is not much to tell you. We all work and serve. I taught the school. Lorenzo was in the herb and seed shop; we put them up for sale."
"But your religious life--your social life?"
"We believe in the Bible, but we believe that Ann Lee came after Jesus to fulfil his mission. We think that revelation continues to this day, and that we are always in communion with the spirit world. The spirits give us our hymns and our music."
"I have heard something about it," said the minister, "and about your dancing at your meetings."
Lorenzo laughed with a little sectarian scorn. "That is about all that some folks in the world-outside think there is to it. That's what they come to see, generally. And it a'n't dancin', to call it rightly. It's more of a march."
"I should like to see it," said the minister. "But your distinctive social peculiarities besides your communism?"
Neither of the young people answered at once. At last Althea said, in a low voice, "We live the angelic life."
"What do you mean by that?"
She was silent, and looked at Lorenzo. he answered, impatiently, "They don't get married; they think they are as the angels in heaven."
"Oh, indeed! Then--"
"That's the reason we left them. If there had been any other way--" Lorenzo hesitated, and Althea took the word.
"We never should have left the Family as long as we lived. They took us when we were little, and they have taken care of us, and taught us, and done everything for us. They loved us, and we loved them. But--"
She stopped in her turn, and Lorenzo resumed, "Well, the whole story is, we got to feelin' foolish about each other."
"Do you mean," and the minister suppressed a smile as he spoke, "that you fell in love?"
"Well, I presume you would call it that in the world-outside."
"I see," said the minister. "And as you could not be married there--"
They were all silent now till Althea asked, in a trembling voice, "Do you think--it is wrong for us to--get married?"
The minister roused himself from the muse he was falling into. "Not the least in the world! Why should I think so?"
"We tried to look at it in every light, but sometimes I am afraid we were blinded by our feelings for each other. We didn't wish to be selfish about it, and it did seem as if our--"
"Being in love?" suggested the minister.
"Yee--was a kind of leading, and that we had as good a right to think that it was put into our hearts as any of the other things."
"That is the way the world-outside regards it," said the minister, with a smile that betrayed his relish of the phrase he had adopted. "We even go so far as to say that matches are made in heaven. I must confess that some of them don't seem to bear out the theory."
"But you think--you think that there is nothing wrong in marriage itself, even if folks are not always happy in it?" Althea pursued.
"Most certainly," said the minister. "It's often very bad; but at its worst it's probably always the best thing under the circumstances." He seemed to speak in earnest, but he kept his smile on Althea, as if her quaint seriousness amused him in its relation to the worldly gayety of her appearance. The spirit of a nun speaking from the fashions that Althea wore with as much grace as if she were born in them might well have appealed to a less imaginative sympathy. "Why do you ask? Were you taught that it was wrong in itself?"
"Nay--nay," she faltered.
"They're always talkin' against it," said Lorenzo, bitterly. "They say themselves that it's all right in the earthly order; and yet they keep braggin' up the gospel relation and the angelic life, and tellin' you that Christ never got married; and I think it's wore on her. I tried to convince her the best I could that Christ wouldn't have gone to weddin's if he hadn't approved of 'em, for all he didn't marry."
"Do you think he did approve of them?" she entreated, tremulously, of the minister.
"I think he did, indeed."
"But if--Don't his not marrying make it appear as if he thought it was of the earthly order?"
"There it is again!" cried Lorenzo. "She can't seem to get past that! I tell her--and I don't know how many times I've told her that we can't all expect to lead the angelic life in this world."
"We can if we choose," she retorted, nervously, speaking to Lorenzo, but still intent upon the minister's face.
"I don't believe," he said, "that we ought to study a literal conformity to the life of Jesus in everything; that is, we should not make his practice in such a matter an article of faith. I should say that if any one felt strongly appealed to by it, he would do well to follow it; but if he did not, he would not do well to follow it; and especially would not do well to enforce it upon others."
"There! Didn't I say so?" demanded Lorenzo of Althea. "Let everybody do according to his own conscience."
"As long," said the minister, "as Christ's words do not explicitly condemn marriage--"
The voice of Althea broke in upon him, still tremulous but clear, and gaining firmness to the close: "And Jesus answering said unto them, the children of this world marry and are given in marriage; but they which shall he accounted worthy to obtain that world and the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage; neither can they die any more; for they are equal unto the angels; and are the children of God, being the children of the resurrection."
The minister listened with a smile, as if her child-like fanaticism interested him like something of rare and peculiar quality, but he replied, with a certain touch of compassionate respect, "Is that the passage they ground their doctrine on? You know those are Luke's words, and Luke had his facts at second-hand. The other gospels do not report the words of Jesus so, but even if Luke's report were the most accurate, as it's certainly the fullest, I should not take it literally. I have thought a good deal about that passage," said the minister, "for I have to do a good deal of marrying and giving in marriage, and I read in it a deeper meaning than the face of the words bear. In a certain sense, marriage is both the death and the resurrection. If you will think about it, you will see that it is the very symbol of eternity in human life. All other human relations dissolve and end, but that endures imperishably. The family continually perishes through marriage, which creates it. Children are born to a wedded pair, and there is a family; they grow up and marry, and the family which they constituted ceases to be, as the family which their children shall constitute will cease to be. But the marriage of the father and mother remains to all eternity. If there is no giving in marriage beyond this life it is not in condemnation of marriage, but in recognition of the fact that it is from everlasting as well as to everlasting, like all things eternal."
"There, Althea," murmured Lorenzo; but the girl did not speak.
The minister went on, "The husband and the wife lay down their separate lives, and take up a joint life, which, if they are truly married, shall be theirs forever. There is no marrying after death, but heaven is imaged in every true marriage on earth; for heaven is nothing but the joy of self-giving, and marriage is the supreme self-giving. We call the ceremony 'getting married,' he pursued, expanding with a certain pleasure in his theme, which was not, perhaps, very relevant to it; "but the living together, the adjustment of temperaments, the compromise of opinions, the reconciliation of tastes, is what we should call 'getting married.' I should wish you to remember that marriage is the giving up of self. That is its highest meaning. If it is not that, it is something so low as to be the unworthiest of all human relations. If you do not give up yourselves, if you insist upon what you think your rights against one another, you will be yokemates of perdition, and your marriage will be a hell. I suppose it is the dread of something like this in marriage that has created the celibate sects in all times and in all religions. But marriage is properly the death of the individual, and in its resurrection you will rise not as man and woman, but as one pair, in the unity of immortal love. I declare," he broke off, "I don't know what's keeping my wife. I'm detaining you an unconscionable time. If you'll excuse me, I'll just go--" He started from his chair, and made a movement towards the door.
Althea sprang to her feet, and put out her hand. "Nay!" she said, nervously, "don't call her yet. Lorenzo--I--Don't you believe we'd better take a little time to think--and come back? You could let us come back?" she entreated of the minister.
"Why, surely! Again and again, as often as you wish. Go and think it over; and if you still have any misgiving--"
"We haven't any misgivings," said Lorenzo, stoutly. "But if she wants to get her mind clear, I won't be the one to hinder or hurry her."
"That is the right spirit," said the minister, and he offered the young fellow his hand. "I shall be here till twelve o'clock--it's eleven now--and after that not till between four and five. I shall be glad to see you back, but if you don't come-- Good-morning!" He smiled cordially upon them at the lattice door, where he parted from them, and held it open for them to pass out.