Chapter Two: Elizabeth
"He is an altogether decent man."
A warm, encouraging smile was on Rebecca Nurse's wrinkled lips. She sat in a chair by the fire, her even more wrinkled hands laid over one another on top of her walking stick. She sat with straight, ramrod posture, as if she were presiding over a congregation rather than the modest kitchen and eating room of the Kilbourne house.
"He is young, but he is earnest, hardworking and honest." she said, continuing, "John has always been special. I have known him since he was pulled from his mother's womb, and have observed him to be naught but gentle and kind. Miriam and Abel have done well in bringing him in the ways of the Lord."
Elizabeth sat across from her, mending a shirt of her father's. She said nothing and kept her eyes downcast, deliberately avoiding eye contact with the woman who had been like a second mother to her for half of her life.
"There are of course, other obvious, favorable qualities about his person," Rebecca was saying, a knowing smile turning up her lips, "It is no punishment to look upon his face, or figure. You could scarce hope for a more handsome mate in all of Salem, I think."
Two bright spots of pink appeared at Elizabeth's cheeks, but she only pressed her lips together in mild embarrassment and continued with her sewing.
The older woman seemed to finally take notice of her silence and paused, a concerned frown wrinkling her features, "Elizabeth?" she called out, "My dear?" her hand reached out and gently laid upon Elizabeth's, making her pause in her work, "Why do you not speak? Do you...do you find any part of my words offensive?"
Elizabeth shook her head, "Of course not, Rebecca." she replied, "Nothing you said could ever be thought of as such."
"Then my child, what is the matter? Tell me."
She paused, licking her lips and finally releasing her father's shirt into her lap, "It is nothing." she answered quietly, "Nothing of great consequence."
"And yet?" Rebecca pressed.
"You know that I would never disobey my father. I will be an obedient daughter. I will brook no argument to the marriage. And yet... I cannot deny that I find myself filled with...uncertainty. "
"Uncertainty?" Rebecca gave a small chuckle of relief, "My dear child, do not let yourself be troubled! These feelings are entirely natural for a young girl to have at the prospect of marriage. Heavens, when I think of my own anxiety on the eve of my marriage to Francis. I was so out of sorts, I could scarce speak the words in my own vows," she laughed again, "All seemed so uncertain to me on that day."
Elizabeth's expression lightened, "Truly?" she asked, her voice having a small tone of hopefulness.
"Of course. It is a serious, solemn business, marriage is. Two separate individuals are entering into a holy covenant- not only with themselves, but more importantly, with the Almighty. It should not be taken or entered into upon a mere whim- it is entirely right for a girl of your character to approach it cautiously. In all earnest, I would be concerned if you did not."
Elizabeth bit her lip, "I know you are right." she said, "But Rebecca...we cannot pretend...I cannot bring myself to ignore..." Her hands stilled in their needlework as she set the shirt down on her lap. She squared her shoulders, briefly pressing her lips together resolutely before continuing, "I'm twenty three years old." she murmured quietly, "My father has little money and no great position in the village. And I'm..." she gave a small, sad smile, "I am no great beauty to behold. I bring little value to to this marriage. Mr. Proctor's family is wealthy and respected. He is younger and-" her cheeks pinkened again, "He is...pleasant in appearance. I am entering this marriage fully aware that the only reason we are being joined together is at the insistence of our fathers. He would never have chosen me as his bride himself."
Rebecca's old face was stricken as she reached out and touched Elizabeth's hand, "My dear child," she began, but Elizabeth only shook her head, pulling the hand away,
"No. No, please Rebecca...no pity." Pity was the last thing that Elizabeth wanted- from Rebecca or anyone. She had received enough pity over the years from her neighbors. People had pitied her when her mother and her brother died. People had pitied her for being the only child of Josiah Kilbourne. People pitied her because she was twenty three years old, unmarried, and would never be anything remotely close to beautiful.
If there was anything that the abundance of pity had taught Elizabeth, it was that it could be cruel. So very cruel. In Salem, on the opposite end of pity was not kindness or empathy- there, pity was accompanied by scorn and derision. People pitied the poor, the weak, the indolent; outcasts that could never hold their heads up in the village. People like Sarah Good, the homeless beggar were pitied- pitied and scorned. Nothing, absolutely nothing could be worse than being pitied as she was.
But now she was engaged to John Proctor, and Elizabeth only foresaw more of the horrible pity she'd received throughout the entirety of her life only continuing to follow her into her marriage. Even worse, she was afraid that her husband would pity her just as much as their neighbors did. The thought of being married to a man that was cruel to her was bad- but to be married to a man that pitied her was to Elizabeth, far worse.
" I wish you to know," she spoke again, her voice clear but still quiet, "I do not have any great expectations for love or affection. I know that is not what the Almighty has created marriage for. But I must also confess that I find Mr. Proctor and I to be so...unevenly matched that I neither have very much hope that he will ever care for me at all. I believe that he will- that he must- resent being forced to marry me."
"My dear," Rebecca said, "Elizabeth, how could you ever think such things? You must not think of yourself so meanly. John would have never agreed to your match if he did not at least-"
"Those are conciliatory thoughts, Rebecca- but I know the truth. Mr. Proctor's father is a very stern man. He would not wish to anger or invoke his wrath against him. No dutiful son would. Mr. Proctor and I scarcely know one another. What there is yet for him to know about me will not likely stir him to any great feelings of affection. I have accepted that."
"Nonsense." the older woman said firmly, "Hear me, child: you are kind. You are gracious, humble, obedient, righteous and chaste. These are the true qualities that a proper husband seeks in a wife- not great physical beauty. These are the qualities that will cause a marriage and flourish. You surely do not believe that Francis and I have been happy together for over thirty years because of mere physical vanity, do you?"
Elizabeth shook her head, "No, of course not. But I cannot help but see Francis as an exceptional man among all others- and your marriage is surely just as exceptional among many others in Salem-"
"Francis is an exceptional man and husband, and I daresay that we have been happier together than many other husbands and wives in this village," Rebecca agreed, "But you must believe that I am in earnest when I tell you that John Proctor is also an exceptional man, Elizabeth. He is as kind, humble, obedient and righteous as you are. The two of you are far more well matched than you realize. You will build a strong, holy union with one another- and I warrant that in given time, you will come to love and honor one another in the same spirit that Francis and have grown to do."
Elizabeth said nothing for a long moment. Rebecca's words brought a variety of emotions to her inside that she struggled to understand. On the one hand, she felt compelled to remain rooted to her grim, but steadfastly pragmatic beliefs regarding her marriage to John Proctor. Hadn't it been the foundation upon which Josiah had raised and educated her? Her father was one of the more cynical and pessimistic men that Elizabeth had ever known or seen- there was no room for dreaming, illusions or exaltation in the Kilbourne household. He had brought up Elizabeth with his embittered, harsh view of the world and its people- particularly where women were concerned.
"Women are naturally weak, feeble creatures," Josiah had told her numerous times throughout both her child and adulthood, "You are easily swayed by worldly temptations and indulgences, prone to gossip and deceit. Even worse still, physical beauty in a woman is far too often an instrument of Satan against your male betters. While it is to your advantage that you were not given any of your own, I will not abide for you to believe yourself exempt from the discipline that your sex requires. A husband's duty is to rule and chastise his wife against the temptations of the Evil One. A wife's duty is to obey him in all things."
Perhaps Rebecca was able to believe the way that she did with no difficulty because of the differences in her and Elizabeth's circumstances. Josiah had seen to it that Elizabeth had no illusions whatsoever about life, love and marriage. And although Elizabeth had not been alive when she married, she had heard that Rebecca had been a very lovely young woman at the time of her marriage. Even then, when she had seen nearly fifty summers, there was a sweet and vibrant attractiveness to Rebecca that Elizabeth found herself (although ashamedly) envious of. When Rebecca Nurse smiled or laughed, her face shone like the sun. She had deep, pure blue eyes like sapphires, a well formed mouth with full lips, and high cheek bones. Her hands were soft and delicate, the fingers slender and long with clean white nails like half moons. Even her gait was graceful everywhere she walked. For a woman of a mature age, she was nevertheless all femininity, all womanliness,
Elizabeth did not smile or laugh frequently. Her father was disproving of mirth and amusement, as he believed they made the spirit all the more susceptible to temptation from the Devil. And even if she defied his pleasure and attempted to do so anyway, she knew that it would not cause her to even minutely resemble Rebecca.
Josiah did not allow her to keep a looking glass in her bedroom, as he thought they were instruments of vanity for women. The only mirror in the household was in his room, a luxury he claimed he kept only for the sake of shaving his whiskers. In rare moments of weakness when she had been cleaning and tidying the bed chamber, Elizabeth had paused before the mirror, catching glimpses of her reflection. Because of what she saw, the moments were not frequently repeated.
She was not beautiful. There was little to nothing about herself that was even desirable. Her eyes were dull and listless, even when she smiled. Her mouth was not full like Rebecca's, but flat and thin. Her own hands were roughened and coarse, the fingers short and stubby with brittle nails stained by garden and house work. It had never occurred to her to try and clean them or improve their appearance. Because of her unusual height and rail-like build she moved awkwardly oftentimes, like a scarecrow who had only recently learned how to walk.
The thought of John Proctor coming to love her as Francis nurse loved Rebecca seemed ludicrous when in consideration of the facts of her apperance.
But on the other hand...
Suppose what Rebecca said was true, and she had unfairly judged John. Suppose he was not as superficially driven as she had observed so many other of his sex to be. Suppose he would be able and willing to respect her for the virtues that Elizabeth did strive so earnestly to achieve, even if he could never value her for any great beauty. Just suppose...
Elizabeth set her sewing aside and rose to her feet, walking to the fireplace. She stared into the tranquil flames, her expression distant and distracted with her thoughts. "I know that you would never lead me astray with careless counsel, Rebecca." she said, "I value it above all others in my life...even above my father's. I trust you more than anyone in the world. If you say that Mr. Proctor is a good man, then I must believe it. If you say that he is capable of caring for me as Mr. Nurse cares for you, then I must believe that as well. And if you truly believe that we can be happy together...I have no excuse to doubt your faith."
Rebecca also rose from her chair to come and stand beside her, the smile returned to her lips, "Then you've no more objections to the marriage?"
Elizabeth shook her head, "No. I will do what is required of me, Rebecca. I always will. I will marry Mr. Proctor- and I will try to be a good and dutiful wife to him. I will try to make him happy."
The elder woman took her face in between her hands, gently cupping Elizabeth's cheeks, "Then I can safely promise you, my dear child: all will be well."
Elizabeth managed to give a small smile, "I pray you are right."