The Reluctant Groom

 By Faith L. Justice

Johan Michael Lutz sat in a hickory chair, crushing the brim of his felt hat. The seven elders of the Lehigh Lutheran Church of the Province of Pennsylvania sat behind a pine table, beards bristling. He lowered his eyes. “I’m f-forty.  T-t-too old to ch-change my ways.”

Heinrich Diebolt, the oldest of the elders, snorted. “Brother Lutz, God and Queen Anne gave us this land to tame and cultivate. It will be a Christian land, but not without some effort on our part. The Scriptures say, ‘go forth and multiply.’ You have yet to do your Christian duty.”

Johan’s face flushed. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, garbling his angry words. “I tr-tr-tr-.” He stopped and took a deep breath. “I tr-tried. N-N-No wo-woman would have me.” In his youth, his short stature and stammer marked him as an object of ridicule among young women and he had avoided their company ever since.

“Brother Lutz, the matter is now out of your hands.” Elder Diebolt pushed a letter toward Johan. “Your bride is coming on Saturday next. Her name is Margueritha Inglard. If she approves, the marriage will take place within a month.”

Johan stood, bowed to the elders and exited the clapboard church onto the muddy village street. How dare the elders subject him to such humiliation and possible rejection!  His temples throbbed. He jammed the hat onto his head, the letter into his pocket, and strode down the street toward his cabin; ignoring the curious glances of passersby.

* * * * *

Sunday morning, Johan grunted as he lowered himself into the wooden tub. After church services, he would meet his prospective bride. He sat, knees under chin, and soaked until the water began to cool. He considered not showing up, but the week had given him time to consider the elder’s proposition. In spite of his misgivings, he had to meet the woman, had to see for himself if there was any hope. If the worst happened, he could resume his life without the interference of the elders. Surely, they would leave him alone if the woman rejected him. If she didn’t, he had a glimmer of hope, a possibility of happiness.

He toweled dry and dressed with care, tying an intricate knot in his cravat and tucking a handkerchief up his sleeve. He tied his flyaway brown locks into a neat tail at the nape of his neck with a black ribbon, donned his hat and left; hope and fear alternately spurring and slowing his steps.

Johan heard the first notes of a hymn as he approached the door. He strained to catch a glimpse of his possible bride over the backs of bonnets and hats, but could see nothing. He suffered through the long sermon and belted out the hymns. He never stammered when singing and often wondered at the fact.

Finally, Elder Diebolt read out the community news. A baby boy born to the Herbers. The Muellers had chickens for sale or trade. A militia was forming in response to the Lenape’s threats to recover the land stolen by the so-called “Walking Purchase.” This caused concerned whispering among the congregation.

Johan heard the mutterings, but was more concerned with the impending meeting. He rubbed sweating palms on his breeches, as Elder Diebolt rumbled to a close. A final prayer and the congregation rose to leave. Johan waited outside, shifting from foot to foot. People filed out, Elder Diebolt among the last, followed by his wife and a woman dressed in gray broadcloth, white bonnet and knitted shawl.

Diebolt spotted Johan fidgeting by the steps and frowned. “Brother Lutz, you were late.”

Blood rushed to Johan’s face. “P-Pardon, Elder Diebolt.”

“I hope it won’t become a habit.”

“N-No sir.”

The two women approached and lingered on the bottom step. Diebolt bowed. “Mistress Inglard, may I present Master Lutz?”

Johan held his breath as she turned her face his way. His heart thudded painfully. She was much younger than he thought she would be. He had expected a spinster or widow closer to his own age, weathered, with a bitter mouth; a woman who could do no better than a stammering aging bachelor. Marguritha looked to be in her mid-twenties, with a fresh complexion and dark hair tucked primly under her bonnet. A long nose and narrow jaw gave her a slightly horsey look, but her eyes arrested him. Large, light brown with gold flecks, set wide apart and sparkling with humor. Her generous mouth pursed in a shy smile as she offered her hand to Johan. It was small with long tapering fingers; the pads calloused from many needle pricks, like a seamstress.

“Good Sabbath to you, Master Lutz.”

“G-G-G…” He bowed over her hand and took a deep breath. “G-Good Sabbath to you, Mistress Inglard.”

She stepped off the stair and, to his delight, only topped him by a few inches.

“You are joining us for Sunday dinner, are you not, Master Lutz?” Mistress Diebolt asked.

“Y-Yes, Mistress.” Johan gave a slight bow in her direction, then put a firm hand under Marguritha’s elbow to guide her down the street toward the Diebolt house.

The whitewashed clapboard home, surrounded by a low wooden fence, dominated the smaller homes on the street. They entered, through a red door, into a central hall with a staircase leading to the second floor. The wide pine boards had been recently scrubbed and waxed to a high shine. Johan frowned, thinking of his own much less impressive home.

Elder Diebolt led them into a parlor with oak furniture and white-washed walls. A side table boasted a silver tea set and delicate blue and white china cups and saucers shipped from England. A rather crude portrait of the Elder and his wife sat over the empty fireplace.

Mistress Diebolt lingered in the doorway. “I’ll see to dinner. It should be ready soon.”

Johan saw Marguritha to a cushioned chair and took a plain one on the other side of a small table where he could observe her, but be out of her direct line of sight. Diebolt settled his large frame on a padded settee and turned his frowning gaze on Johan. Johan felt his throat tightening.

Marguritha’s soft voice broke the silence. “Master Diebolt, what is this ‘Walking Purchase’ you spoke of at the end of the sermon today? It seemed the cause of some consternation among the fellowship.”

Johan stifled a sigh of relief at not having to talk.

Diebolt leaned back and clasped his hands over his stomach. “It’s a sad affair. William Penn, a good and fair man, treated the Lenape well. He established Pennsylvania as a haven of tolerance. But his sons and agents are another story.” He snorted. “Weak, greedy, immoral men!”

“Penn’s sons dug up an unsigned paper from over fifty years ago that claimed the Lenape granted them land on the Lehigh River, west as far as a man could walk in a day and a half. Last September, their agent prepared a trail and hired the fastest men in the province to run it. One covered seventy miles, which granted the Penns over a million acres of Lenape land. My youngest son bought land and moved his family onto it before we knew it was a swindle. The Lenape are threatening reprisals.”

Johan frowned. Natives troubled other provinces, but not Pennsylvania. He had more fear of white savages than red when he traveled.

Marguritha put a hand on the old man’s knee. “Are your son and family in danger?”

“The assembly—damn rascals all of them!—has found in favor of the Penns. But the Lenape are appealing to their Iroquois overlords for redress. If the tribes come to the Lenape’s defense, we could have war.”

A young girl in a servant’s apron came to the door. “Mistress invites you to the dinner table.”

On the way to the dining room, Diebolt leaned down to Johan and whispered, “Talk to the girl!”

The dining room was as well appointed as the parlor, with a mahogany table, carved chairs and a massive sideboard laden with food: a tureen of oyster stew, a ham, roasted potatoes and parsnips sprinkled with butter and dried parsley, corn bread, stewed pears, a large bowl of wild greens dressed with vinegar and a cherry pie crusted with precious sugar.

Johan’s mouth watered at the mélange of enticing smells. It was early spring and the Diebolts did well to put on such a feast when stores were scarce. “Wh-Where did you get the gr-greens?”

Mistress Diebolt surveyed her largesse and smiled. “Mistress Inglard gathered them in the wild.”

Johan smiled. His mother had been a village herb woman and he had fond memories of gathering plants in the woods at her side.

“She also made the cherry pie and sewed her own gown.”

Johan recognized Mistress Diebolt’s unsubtle attempt to assure him of Marguritha’s domestic skills. But what had she said to Miss Inglard about his suitability as a husband?

The older woman indicated a chair to the left of her husband’s. “Sit here, Master Lutz. Mistress Inglard, you may have the next seat.”

“Let us join hands and thank the Lord for this bounty.” Diebolt led them in prayer, then the servant girl served the oyster stew and filled their glasses with apple cider. Johan ate his fill in spite of his nervousness.

“Mistress Inglard, I understand you were born in this country?” Mistress Diebolt broke a lengthy silence.

“My parents were settled in the Mohawk valley with others to manufacture pitch for the English navy, but the pines were the wrong kind and the settlers didn’t have good shelters or enough supplies. If it hadn’t been for the natives they would have perished. I was born shortly after they abandoned the settlements and moved to New York.”

“That was a shameful scheme.” Elder Deibolt shook his head. “I give thanks every day I followed Penn rather than one of the other agents.”

“Master Lutz,” Marguritha tuned to him. “Were you born here?”

Three pairs of eyes turned to Johan. “N-n-no.” He ducked his head.

Elder Diebolt frowned. Mistress Diebolt sighed. Mistress Inglard looked down at her plate.

Johan’s face grew warm. She must think me a lack-wit!

“Master Lutz’s family is from the Neckar valley, as is mine.” Elder Diebolt broke in. “Where in Germany did your parents hail from?”

“The Main River. Father often told me of the winter of 1708 when it was so cold, the river froze solid and wood didn’t burn in the open.”

“Aye, it was a bad one. After the French ruined our farms, we nearly starved. Thank the Good Lord for Queen Anne and William Penn.”

The food lost its flavor as Johan recalled the wretched families living in tent camps outside London while the English government cooked up one scheme after another to rid themselves of the Germans.

“Were your parents farmers, Mistress Inglard?” Mistress Diebolt asked.

“No. My father was a printer and Mother a seamstress. She died shortly after my birth and Father recently of a wasting disease.”

Mistress Diebolt reached over to pat Marguritha’s hand. “We’ve all given so much for the promise of this new land. I’ve buried three children here.” Tears glistened in her eyes. “Master Lutz is an orphan, as well.”

Johan nodded. The loneliness, he normally held in check, settled like a stone in the pit of his stomach. He gave a shy glance toward Marguritha. Could he hope?

“What dark talk for such a happy occasion!” Elder Diebolt turned to Johan. “Master Lutz, tell Mistress Inglard of your farm and your business.”

Johan froze, a forkful of greens halfway to his lips. Damn the man! He couldn’t give a one-word answer or duck his head to that question.

“I-I-I-I…” He took a swallow of cider. “It’s j-j-j-j…” He unclenched his jaw. “I-I-I-I…”

He wasn’t able to unstick his tongue. He took a quick glance around the table. Disappointment and concern marked the Deibolts’ faces. But what flitted across Marguritha’s, before she masked it? Revulsion? Pity?

He stood, gave a brief bow and walked quickly out the back door hoping they would think he needed to use the privy. He ran through the kitchen garden to the top of a low rise and sat on a rail bench; his back to the house. Angry tears stung his eyes. Why had the elders interfered with his life? He had been content until they held out the hope of family, companionship…love. How deluded to think a woman could love him when he couldn’t even talk to her!

After a few moments, he stifled a sigh. Fool. He must bury his hopes, but gather his dignity. He must go back and apologize.

“Master Lutz, have I disappointed you in some way?”

Johan started and turned his head. Marguritha stood in bonnet and shawl, her face shadowed.

“N-no!”

“May I sit?”

“Of c-c-course.”

They sat looking over the quiet village. Most folks were inside with their dinners, but soon would be out to do evening chores.

“I was told you were a man of few words, yet you’ve barely spoken to or even looked at me. When you left so suddenly, I feared you disapproved.”

“N-no, it’s not that.”

“Then what is it?” She clasped her hands in her lap and lowered her head. “I know I am not pretty, but I work hard and can be of help to you. I kept me and my father alive during his illness by taking in sewing and bartering our kitchen vegetables.”

Johan stiffened. He had never thought Marguritha would feel rejected by him.

“I th-thought you found me lacking. M-most women like t-taller men and I st-st-st…” He took a breath. “I stammer.”

She turned to him. “One of the advantages of maturity is the loss of romantic notions, Master Lutz. I’ve seen many a young woman come to grief marrying a handsome man who then strayed to other beds; or a quick talking man who took his pleasure and left the girl with the child. I value what a man does and how he lives above how he looks or what he says.”

“Or how he s-says it?”

“Elder Diebolt and the others recommended you highly to me as a kind, honest, hard-working man.”

“Th-they did?”

“I have the letter here.” She reached into a slit in her skirt to retrieve a paper from the pocket tied around her waist and handed it to Johan.

It was addressed to a Lutheran congregation in New York. He unfolded the missive and read a section:

Johan Michael Lutz is forty-years of age and a member in good standing of the community. He owns productive land with a house and operates a carting business for cash and trade. He is in good health, sound of limb, but short in stature. He is of a shy nature, but good with animals, helpful to his neighbors, and attends church regularly.

He folded the letter and handed it back. “N-Not the most f-flattering of portraits.”

“But practical. I’m sure the letter describing me was in the same vein.”

He nodded and blushed.

“I would not force myself on anyone. We are free people and have a choice. If you do not care for my countenance or character, I will travel on to Philadelphia where I can provide for myself with my sewing skills.” She looked across the valley. “But I would like to marry and have children. I have no other family in this land. I understand the same is true of you. No brothers or sisters?”

“I had a sister. She died on the passage over.” He shuddered at the memory of the small canvas-wrapped bundle being dumped into the sea. “Mother, a healer, died of fever in the London camp. She used all her medicine on others and had none for herself.”

“I never knew my mother. All I have is this.” She opened a locket hanging on a ribbon around her neck. The miniatures inside showed a young woman with curling brown hair and a man with a long nose and narrow jaw.

“She’s very pretty.”

“I favor my father.” Marguritha clicked the locket shut. “And your father?”

“He and I settled here when I was twelve, but he died of a fever shortly after I turned eighteen. I’ve been on my own ever since.”

“Managing the farm and building your business? That’s quite an accomplishment for a young man alone with no family.”

He shrugged. “I did what was needed.”

“Did you not want a wife and children?”

“Yes, but the years slipped by and…it was just easier to be alone.”

She turned to him. “You didn’t stammer once while talking of your family.”

“I didn’t?”

Johan’s hand crept closer to Marguritha’s. She seemed a kind and decent woman, not at all disturbed by his lack of height or repulsed by his stammer. He enclosed her hand in his, running his thumb over the sewing calluses. Her life had been hard and lonely, as well.

She smiled at him and a light kindled in his breast. He had lived with loneliness for over twenty years and hadn’t realized how it leached joy from his life. He smiled back.

“Mistress Inglard, will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”

She lowered her eyes and answered softly, “I will, Master Lutz.”

He raised her hand to his lips for a soft kiss. Her hand trembled. She blushed and turned her glance away. His heart beat a fast tattoo.

After a moment, she nodded toward the house. “The evening is cooling. Perhaps we should repair to the good Diebolt’s abode and tell them the news. Mistress Diebolt has been peeking from her window for quite some time.”

They stood and he squeezed her hand.

“Thank you, Mistress Inglard.”

“You’re welcome, Master Lutz.”

_______________________________________________________________

Faith L. Justice lives and writes historical novels in Brooklyn, NY. Check out her website at www.faithljustice.com to read her award winning short fiction, articles, reviews, interviews with other authors and sample chapters of her debut novel Selene of Alexandria. Her most recent effort is a nonfiction e-book, Hypatia: Her Life and Times, a collection of articles about the famous 5C Lady Philosopher of Alexandria. For fun, Faith likes to dig in the dirt–her garden and various archaeological sites.

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