After the butler escorted Lysander Fenwick away, William folded his arms and grumbled. He grumbled until his stomach answered with a deeper grumble, whereupon he postponed his sulk and crossed the house to the dining room. His son Springett was skipping around the table, chanting a silly rhyme. Little Letitia was already in a chair, drumming a spoon against a plate as Gulielma and the nanny tried in vain to feed her. William told Springett to sit and be still, then directed the nanny to take Letitia away.
His words were not stern, but Gulielma heard the frustration at the edge of his voice and gave him a look. William frowned and wouldn’t meet her eye. The footmen soon entered and laid breakfast on the sideboard. The family gathered their meal, sat for a minute of silent grace, then began to eat.
It was an opulent meal. There was a smoked haunch of pork, a flagon of cider, a tall plate of bacon, mashed apples, Madeira wine, fresh bread with newly-churned butter, a bowl of olives, and a bucket of oysters. There were pots of rich sauces and saffron spread as thick as salt. William’s dark mood didn’t ruin his appetite. He emptied his plate several times, frowning all the while. Gulielma asked him a question about their meeting, as guests would soon arrive, but his answer was curt, so she left him to his silence. The tension grew until William pressed his utensils to the table and released a jet of air through his nose.
“Gulielma,” he said, “It may be time to spend with greater prudence.”
“Whatever dost thou mean?” she asked, sipping from a crystal chalice.
“Well,” William looked around for ideas then gestured at his plate. “Many evenings we sup on salmon and partridge. Perhaps we should try less costly fare.”
“But thou lovest salmon and partridge.”
He sighed. “Verily, I do.”
“Mother, I like partridge,” said Springett.
Gulielma shushed her son and tried to cheer her moody husband with a smile. “No trouble, dear. Fewer partridges then.”
But William was not cheered. He had to settle ten thousand pounds of debt with a yearly income of two thousand pounds. This was a problem even larger than partridges.
He decisively forked some eggs. “And I shall cancel my fourth coach.”
“But we have nearly hired another groom.”
“Hire no one.”
Gulielma was surprised. “William, what did that nasty banker say to thee?”
“Little of consequence, dear.” William ate another piece of bacon. “I will be selling a bit of Ireland again.”
“A trifling bit. Fifty acres, perhaps. Not too much more.”
“Was there not profit enough when thou hadst sold my father’s lands?”
“That was years ago, dear.”
“He is hardly our most noxious creditor, Gulielma. Others will accost me, and I will answer them in turn.”
“How many other creditors?”
“Trouble thyself not, please.”
“This one haunted our very door. Must we get a guard?”
“We certainly can’t afford that.”
“All will be mended soon, dear. We need but sustain until the king grants my proprietorship in the Americas.”
“Indeed.” Gulielma had heard this plan before and was not thrilled.
Springett bounced in his chair and kicked the table. “Father, I wish to join thee at sea. I can pilot the ship.”
“Springett, thou art too young.” said Gulielma quickly.
“Hist now and finish thy bread.”
William swallowed an olive. “I was but a few years older than Springett my first time aboard my father’s warship.”
Gulielma gave him a sharp look. “He is too young, William. I pray thou hath no plan to cross the ocean with thy children at such a tender age.”
“Peace, dear. Even presuming a most fortuitous reception by the king, I will not receive my grant for at least a year. There will be negotiations with agents of Lord Baltimore and the Duke of York who possess neighboring claims, then further negotiations with the Lords of Trade. These men will all want bribes to grease their duplicitous machinations. After that I will need time to prepare the affairs of settlement, chartering ships and such. ‘Tis a long and laborious pursuit. Then, like our Savior, I shall lead the faithful multitudes to salvation.”
Springett’s eyes widened. “Father, dost thou mean we will have no partridge for a year?”
“Yes, Springett, we may need to tighten our belts.” William poured a thick pool of gravy on his pork. “Just remember the example of our Redeemer. A year without partridge is a mild cross to bear beside, well, the cross.”
Gulielma looked aside at William. She tried not to complain how lonely she felt when he left on long preaching tours, but a voyage across the Atlantic would last years. She composed her voice to sound amused. “Pray do not hurry overmuch to win your grant, William. Thy children profit much from the sight of thee, as do l.”
“That’s lovely, dear, but I will need to organize these lands as soon as I am able. When I return we will cross the seas together, enjoying its fruits of tolerance and prosperity in my new colony. I daresay even Letitia will be old enough for the voyage then.”
Before Gulielma could respond, a footman entered the room. “Thy guests have begun to arrive, Friend William.”
“Thank you,” said William. He rose and left the house with Gulielma and Springett close behind him.
Their wide lawn was covered with rows of benches now. A few Quakers already sat, and more arrived by the minute, walking up the dusty lane beside the property.
It was Sunday for most Englishmen, so the guests shared the lane with a trickle of churchgoers for the Anglican chapel just over the hedge. It was easy to distinguish the two groups. The Quakers wore gray and shared a somber, contemplative expression, while the Anglicans wore colors and gave the Quakers dirty looks. One Anglican saw a guest on William’s lawn and threw an apple at him. “Infernal Quakers!” he growled.
As William owned the manor, he had the ironic right to choose the local Anglican vicar, so his guests were relatively safe from organized harassment. Most meetinghouses were not so fortunate, and William’s meetings grew more popular by the month.
The Quakers were organized in local groups called Meetings, and these Meetings gathered at services called meetings. Quaker Meetings held many kinds of meetings, all illegal. The most radical Meeting meetings were silent meetings: the meeting was silent because the Meeting was silent. It was not enough to hear or read of Christ; Quakers were called to feel Him, a transcendent state best reached through quiet devotion: diving so deep into the self that one found the Seed of God.
Nearly two hundred Quakers from many Meetings had gathered on William Penn’s lawn for a silent meeting. He and Gulielma walked among the crowd, offering welcomes and making introductions: a mutli-Meeting meeting meant some Meetings had never met. However, they all knew William. He was too humble to admit his fame except when he found it useful.
When the scheduled hour arrived, William stood at the front of the lawn and began the silent meetings with a speech.
“Hello. Welcome, Friends. Ah! Softly, please. Softly. I see there are some just arriving now. Be not troubled. There’s seating for everyone. Welcome. Madam in the back, if thou wouldst attend the lamentations of thy child, he bringeth our assembly much distress. Welcome. Softly now. Softly. Peaceable, Friends.” The noise continued, so he stood on a bench and shouted, “Softly, please!” The crowd went silent. William cleared his throat. “Welcome, on this most blessed day, to our secret monthly meeting of the Society of Friends. Thou mayst expect to start with blessed silence, but there are so many here of diverse practices, an introduction is appropriate. ‘Tis my humble honor to introduce myself as thy host, William Penn.” He paused expectantly.
There was silence, so he said, “I emancipated many of thee from prison.”
There was a scattering of polite applause.
He nodded. “I know many are here as thine own meetinghouses were closed by cruel sheriffs or torched by mobs who are loved by the Almighty all the same. I wish to reiterate that this meeting is secret, so I urge all assembled to employ discretion with thy words beyond this place.”
A stranger riding up the lane cursed at the Quakers and made a vulgar gesture.
William ignored him. “Let us seek in stillness the Inner Light for the remainder of our time together.” With that, he joined Gulielma and Springett on the nearest bench, and the silence commenced.
It was perfectly peaceful for nine minutes.
Silent meetings had no hymnals or sermons. However, members of the assembly sometimes felt moved to share a spiritual discovery or read a passage of scripture. Anyone was welcome to share. Speakers occasionally used this freedom to deliver less lofty observations. Not all Friends were friends.
Sure enough, one frequent critic stood at the tenth minute and walked to the table with the provided Bible in the center of the meeting. But instead of opening the book, he stared directly at William and recited, “First Timothy, chapter six, verse ten, ‘For the love of money is the root of all evil, which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.’” The man then looked slowly at the mansion, with its stately red brick and eighteen chimneys, then looked back at William, then sat down.
William grumbled. More speakers rose, and several used the venue to criticize him. These tiny barbs danced on the edge of decency, but William knew that rising to defend himself would simply be crass, so he sat and stewed. The last critic was especially galling, as he remembered inviting the man’s family to dinner. He had even fed them chocolate. Could they fathom the price of chocolate? It came from Mexico!
William struggled to find inner stillness after that. He heard constant whispers behind him, hidden under the canopy of gray hats. Most were only from his imagination, and each whisper he imagined was about him. He was particularly bitter because he had hoped to advertise land in his potential colony after the meeting, but these attacks on his character would sour that appeal. He supposed that dispensing with the colonial offer left more time for him to offer legal advice. Chains had always been a Quaker’s reward, but it seemed there were more Friends in bondage every year. William saw an old lady nearby who seemed unusually serene, and he tried to follow her example in prayer until he realized she was asleep.
About the time, his back door crashed open. A footman sprinted across the lawn. “Friend William!
“Yes?” asked William, keenly aware of the hundreds of eyes on both of them.
“A carriage is coming.”
“I cannot say, but it has an escort of the king’s soldiers. Six of them.”
William’s features stretched in shock. He stood on his bench. “Silence everyone,” he shouted to the silent meeting, “Please stay here.”
He followed the footman back into the house. They reached the front hall just as a heavy knock battered the door. William took a breath, then he straightened his hat and opened the door.
Outside stood his old friend Robert Spencer, the Earl of Sunderland and the king’s most trusted ambassador, flanked by two royal dragoons holding their tall plumed helmets.
“Friend Robert!” stammered William. He tried to think of any useful remark but failed. “You’re here.”
“Mister William Penn.” Robert gave him a brilliant smile. “How are you, good fellow?”
“Quite well. Why, uh-”
“Forgive me for appearing like this, but I have quite the important question for you.”
“The king has seen that petition of yours for that patch of the Americas. I know it’s a marvelous bit swifter than we expected, but these happy surprises do happen, and His Majesty thinks it’s jolly stuff, quite good indeed. He’d like to discuss it with you.”
“That’s a most-”
William paused. “Immediately?”
“Yes, so I wanted to ask, are you doing anything terribly important this morning?”
“Ah.” William looked over his shoulder in the general direction of his lawn. “No. Just a quiet morning here.”
Robert’s smile somehow grew wider. “Splendid.” He clapped. “Well, I’ll give you a minute to put things in order and kiss the wife. Let’s not leave the king waiting, eh?”