Story of Waitstill Baxter

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Author: Kate Douglas Smith Wiggin

XVIII a State O’ Maine Prophet

SUMMER was dying hard, for although it had passed, by the calendar, Mother Nature was still keeping up her customary attitude.

There had been a soft rain in the night and every spear of grass was brilliantly green and tipped with crystal. The smoke bushes in the garden plot, and the asparagus bed beyond them, looked misty as the sun rose higher, drying the soaked earth and dripping branches. Spiders’ webs, marvels of lace, dotted the short grass under the apple trees. Every flower that had a fragrance was pouring it gratefully into the air; every bird with a joyous note in its voice gave it more joyously from a bursting throat; and the river laughed and rippled in the distance at the foot of Town House Hill. Then dawn grew into full morning and streams of blue smoke rose here and there from the Edgewood chimneys. The world was alive, and so beautiful that Waitstill felt like going down on her knees in gratitude for having been born into it and given a chance of serving it in any humble way whatsoever.

Wherever there was a barn, in Riverboro or Edgewood, one could have heard the three-legged stools being lifted from the pegs, and then would begin the music of the milk-pails; first the resonant sound of the stream on the bottom of the tin pail, then the soft delicious purring of the cascade into the full bucket, while the cows serenely chewed their cuds and whisked away the flies with swinging tails. Deacon Baxter was taking his cows to a pasture far over the hill, the feed having grown too short in his own fields. Patty was washing dishes in the kitchen and Waitstill was in the dairy-house at the butter-making, one of her chief delights. She worked with speed and with beautiful sureness, patting, squeezing, rolling the golden mass, like the true artist she was, then turning the sweet-scented waxen balls out of the mould on to the big stone-china platter that stood waiting. She had been up early and for the last hour she had toiled with devouring eagerness that she might have a little time to herself. It was hers now, for Patty would be busy with the beds after she finished the dishes, so she drew a folded paper from her pocket, the first communication she had ever received in Ivory’s handwriting, and sat down to read it.

MY DEAR WAITSTILL:—

Rodman will take this packet and leave it with you when he finds opportunity. It is not in any real sense a letter, so I am in no danger of incurring your father’s displeasure. You will probably have heard new rumors concerning my father during the past few days, for Peter Morrill has been to Enfield, New Hampshire, where he says letters have been received stating that my father died in Cortland, Ohio, more than five years ago. I shall do what I can to substantiate this fresh report as I have always done with all the previous ones, but I have little hope of securing reliable information at this distance, and after this length of time. I do not know when I can ever start on a personal quest myself, for even had I the money I could not leave home until Rodman is much older, and fitted for greater responsibility. Oh! Waitstill, how you have helped my poor, dear mother! Would that I were free to tell you how I value your friendship! It is something more than mere friendship! What you are doing is like throwing a life-line to a sinking human being. Two or three times, of late, mother has forgotten to set out the supper things for my father. Her ten years’ incessant waiting for him seems to have subsided a little, and in its place she watches for you. [Ivory had written "watches for her daughter" but carefully erased the last two words.] You come but seldom, but her heart feeds on the sight of you. What she needed, it seems, was the magical touch of youth and health and strength and sympathy, the qualities you possess in such great measure.

If I had proof of my father’s death I think now, perhaps, that I might try to break it gently to my mother, as if it were fresh news, and see if possibly I might thus remove her principal hallucination. You see now, do you not, how sane she is in many, indeed in most ways,—how sweet and lovable, even how sensible?

To help you better to understand the influence that has robbed me of both father and mother and made me and mine the subject of town and tavern gossip for years past, I have written for you just a sketch of the "Cochrane craze"; the romantic story of a man who swayed the wills of his fellow-creatures in a truly marvellous manner. Some local historian of his time will doubtless give him more space; my wish is to have you know something more of the circumstances that have made me a prisoner in life instead of a free man; but prisoner as I am at the moment, I am sustained just now by a new courage. I read in my copy of Ovid last night: "The best of weapons is the undaunted heart." This will help you, too, in your hard life, for yours is the most undaunted heart in all the world.

IVORY BOYNTON

The chronicle of Jacob Cochrane’s career in the little villages near the Saco River has no such interest for the general reader as it had for Waitstill Baxter. She hung upon every word that Ivory had written and realized more clearly than ever before the shadow that had followed him since early boyhood; the same shadow that had fallen across his mother’s mind and left, continual twilight there.

No one really knew, it seemed, why or from whence Jacob Cochrane had come to Edgewood. He simply appeared at the old tavern, a stranger, with satchel in hand, to seek entertainment. Uncle Bart had often described this scene to Waitstill, for he was one of those sitting about the great open fire at the time. The man easily slipped into the group and soon took the lead in conversation, delighting all with his agreeable personality, his nimble tongue and graceful speech. At supper-time the hostess and the rest of the family took their places at the long table, as was the custom, and he astonished them by his knowledge not only of town history, but of village matters they had supposed unknown to any one.

When the stranger had finished his supper and returned to the bar-room, he had to pass through a long entry, and the landlady, whispering to her daughter, said:—

"Betsy, you go up to the chamber closet and get the silver and bring it down. This man is going to sleep there and I am afraid of him. He must be a fortune-teller, and the Lord only knows what else!"

In going to the chamber the daughter had to pass through the bar-room. As she was moving quietly through, hoping to escape the notice of the newcomer, he turned in his chair, and looking her full in the face, suddenly said:—

"Madam, you needn’t touch your silver. I don’t want it. I am a gentleman."

Whereupon the bewildered Betsy scuttled back to her mother and told her the strange guest was indeed a fortune-teller.

Of Cochrane’s initial appearance as a preacher Ivory had told Waitstill in their talk in the churchyard early in the summer. It was at a child’s funeral that the new prophet created his first sensation and there, too, that Aaron and Lois Boynton first came under his spell. The whole countryside had been just then wrought up to a state of religious excitement by revival meetings and Cochrane gained the benefit of this definite preparation for his work. He claimed that all his sayings were from divine inspiration and that those who embraced his doctrine received direct communication from the Almighty. He disdained formal creeds and all manner of church organizations, declaring sectarian names to be marks of the beast and all church members to be in Babylon. He introduced re-baptism as a symbolic cleansing from sectarian stains, and after some months advanced a proposition that his flock hold all things in common. He put a sudden end to the solemn "deaconing-out" and droning of psalm tunes and grafted on to his form of worship lively singing and marching accompanied by clapping of hands and whirling in circles; during the progress of which the most hysterical converts, or the most fully Cochranized," would swoon upon the floor; or, in obeying their leader’s instructions to "become as little children," would sometimes go through the most extraordinary and unmeaning antics.

It was not until he had converted hundreds to the new faith that he added more startling revelations to his gospel. He was in turn bold, mystical, eloquent, audacious, persuasive, autocratic; and even when his self-styled communications from the Almighty" controverted all that his hearers had formerly held to be right, he still magnetized or hypnotized them into an unwilling assent to his beliefs. There was finally a proclamation to the effect that marriage vows were to be annulled when advisable and that complete spiritual liberty was to follow; a liberty in which a new affinity might be sought, and a spiritual union begun upon earth, a union as nearly approximate to God’s standards as faulty human beings could manage to attain.

Some of the faithful fell away at this time, being unable to accept the full doctrine, but retained their faith in Cochrane’s original power to convert sinners and save them from the wrath of God. Storm-clouds began to gather in the sky however, as the delusion spread, month by month and local ministers everywhere sought to minimize the influence of the dangerous orator, who rose superior to every attack and carried himself like some magnificent martyr-at-will among the crowds that now criticized him here or there in private and in public.

"What a picture of splendid audacity he must have been," wrote Ivory, "when he entered the orthodox meeting-house at a huge gathering where he knew that the speakers were to denounce his teachings. Old Parson Buzzell gave out his text from the high pulpit: Mark XIII, 37, ’AND WHAT I SAY UNTO YOU I SAY UNTO ALL, WATCH!’ Just here Cochrane stepped in at the open door of the church and heard the warning, meant, he knew, for himself, and seizing the moment of silence following the reading of the text, he cried in his splendid sonorous voice, without so much as stirring from his place within the door-frame: "’Behold I stand at the door and knock. If any man hear my voice I will come in to him and will sup with him,—I come to preach the everlasting gospel to every one that heareth, and all that I want here is my bigness on the floor.’"

"I cannot find," continued Ivory on another page, "that my father or mother ever engaged in any of the foolish and childish practices which disgraced the meetings of some of Cochrane’s most fanatical followers and converts. By my mother’s conversations (some of which I have repeated to you, but which may be full of errors, because of her confusion of mind), I believe she must have had a difference of opinion with my father on some of these views, but I have no means of knowing this to a certainty; nor do I know that the question of choosing spiritual consorts’ ever came between or divided them. This part of the delusion always fills me with such unspeakable disgust that I have never liked to seek additional light from any of the older men and women who might revel in giving it. That my mother did not sympathize with my father’s going out to preach Cochrane’s gospel through the country, this I know, and she was so truly religious, so burning with zeal, that had she fully believed in my father’s mission she would have spurred him on, instead of endeavoring to detain him."

"You know the retribution that overtook Cochrane at last," wrote Ivory again, when he had shown the man’s early victories and his enormous influence. "There began to be indignant protests against his doctrines by lawyers and doctors, as well as by ministers; not from all sides however; for remember, in extenuation of my father’s and my mother’s espousal of this strange belief, that many of the strongest and wisest men, as well as the purest and finest women in York county came under this man’s spell for a time and believed in him implicitly, some of them even unto the end.

"Finally there was Cochrane’s arrest and examination, the order for him to appear at the Supreme Court, his failure to do so, his recapture and trial, and his sentence of four years imprisonment on several counts, in all of which he was proved guilty. Cochrane had all along said that the Anointed of the Lord would never be allowed to remain in jail, but he was mistaken, for he stayed in the State’s Prison at Charlestown, Massachusetts, for the full duration of his sentence. Here (I am again trying to plead the cause of my father and mother), here he received much sympathy and some few visitors, one of whom walked all the way from Edgewood to Boston, a hundred and fifteen miles, with a petition for pardon, a petition which was delivered, and refused, at the Boston State House. Cochrane issued from prison a broken and humiliated man, but if report says true, is still living, far out of sight and knowledge, somewhere in New Hampshire. He once sent my father an epitaph of his own selection, asking him to have it carved upon his gravestone should he die suddenly when away from his friends. My mother often repeats it, not realizing how far from the point it sounds to us who never knew him in his glory, but only in his downfall.

"’He spread his arms full wide abroad
His works are ever before his God,
His name on earth shall long remain,
Through envious sinners fret in vain.’"

"We are certain," concluded Ivory, "that my father preached with Cochrane in Limington, Limerick, and Parsonsfield; he also wrote from Enfield and Effingham in New Hampshire; after that, all is silence. Various reports place him in Boston, in New York, even as far west as Ohio, whether as Cochranite evangelist or what not, alas! we can never know. I despair of ever tracing his steps. I only hope that he died before he wandered too widely, either from his belief in God or his fidelity to my mother’s long-suffering love."

Waitstill read the letter twice through and replaced it in her dress to read again at night. It seemed the only tangible evidence of Ivory’s love that she had ever received and she warmed her heart with what she felt that he had put between the lines.

"Would that I were free to tell you how I value your friendship!" "My mother’s heart feeds on the sight of you!" "I want you to know something of the circumstances that have made me a prisoner in life, instead of a free man." "Yours is the most undaunted heart in all the world!" These sentences Waitstill rehearsed again and again and they rang in her ears like music, converting all the tasks of her long day into a deep and silent joy.

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Chicago: Kate Douglas Smith Wiggin, "XVIII a State O’ Maine Prophet," Story of Waitstill Baxter, ed. Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937 and trans. Townsend, R.S. in Story of Waitstill Baxter (New York: A. L. Burt Company, 1916), Original Sources, accessed September 24, 2018, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DLEG4NVEJQPQSIH.

MLA: Wiggin, Kate Douglas Smith. "XVIII a State O’ Maine Prophet." Story of Waitstill Baxter, edited by Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937, and translated by Townsend, R.S., in Story of Waitstill Baxter, Vol. 22, New York, A. L. Burt Company, 1916, Original Sources. 24 Sep. 2018. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DLEG4NVEJQPQSIH.

Harvard: Wiggin, KD, 'XVIII a State O’ Maine Prophet' in Story of Waitstill Baxter, ed. and trans. . cited in 1916, Story of Waitstill Baxter, A. L. Burt Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 24 September 2018, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DLEG4NVEJQPQSIH.