In Saint Maggie, Eli is a hesitant, almost bashful suitor. Eli has been friends with Maggie for five years, ever since he first came into Blaineton, saw the outbuilding on her property, and asked her if he could use it for a print shop. But it takes the new minister’s attention to Maggie to force him to make his move.
Eli threw his arms into the air. “Mrs. Blaine, you cannot tell me that you’re blind to this!” And he began to tick examples off on his fingers. “One, we spend a great deal of time together. Two, we have more than a few things in common. Like abolition. And this – we help escaped slaves make it to Canada. And three, we talk all the time. And four, we have good discussions. No, we have excellent discussions!” He paused to take a long, deep breath. “And, seeing as how we’ve known each other for four years and seeing as how we get along…”
“Mr. Smith, precisely what are you trying to say?”
“I want to know, Mrs. Blaine, if it would be all right – that is, would you like it if we – if we – oh, blast!” He took a huge breath and finished all in a rush, “Would you like it if we kept company?”
Everything stopped for Maggie. She was stunned. “Are you saying you want to court me?”
“Yes!!” Eli straightened his shoulders and pushed his spectacles up his nose. “Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. I know I’m not doing a good job of it. I haven’t gone courting since Martha. That’s been eleven years and ...” He shoved his hands back into his pockets. “Oh, I just don’t know how to say it.”
He's not any better at proposing marriage, but there is something endearing about Eli’s clumsiness. He and Maggie have found themselves alone in a field one evening during camp meeting. Normally they are surrounded by family and friends and displays of physical affection are limited. This brief time alone together, during which they engage in some heavy petting, is a wake-up call. After all, there is no reliable form of birth control, and, as a naughty old saw goes: “More souls are made at camp meeting than saved.”
Although the proposal lacks romance, it does voice Eli’s love and care for Maggie. He’s not a cad. Not at all. Here is what he tells her after he abruptly puts a halt to what easily could become a full-on sexual encounter.
“Rather than letting the both of us suffer [from sexual frustration] or, worse yet, ruin your reputation we, you know – we just ought to get married. I mean, if we keep on like this, we might end up, you know, maybe making a little soul of our own. I know we haven’t talked about it yet, but we both know that we’re going to get married eventually. So why wait?”
Maggie accepts his proposal. Now they must negotiate several important things: Maggie’s occupation as a landlady, Eli’s lack of religious affiliation and Maggie’s piety, and Maggie’s temperance.
First the occupation issue. The boarding house is within the sphere of nineteenth womanhood. It is not a job that takes Maggie outside the home, but her establishment does lack respectability. Would Eli expect Maggie to devout herself to keeping a house solely for the two of them? Would she need to give up her boarding house for his reputation?
Maggie watched the fire for a moment. “We’ve never discussed this,” she said at length, “but do you expect me to give up the rooming house after we marry?”
Now it was his turn to let the fire talk. Finally, he said, “I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it.”
“Well, I don’t want to give up the rooming house,” she replied in a rush. “Where would our people go? What would happen to Grandpa O’Reilly?”
“But you’re always saying that the work is so hard.”
“Yes, it is hard. And I know I complain some, but I also like it. And I care a great deal about the men in the house. It wouldn’t be right.”
Eli smiled. “I understand.”
“Are you sure? Many men would insist that their wives simply keep house.”
He laughed. “Maggie, you are keeping house! It just happens to be for a very large family with no blood ties.” His eyes lit up with mock inspiration. “Hey! Know what I think? I think we’re starting a family empire. You own the rooming house and I own the newspaper. We’ve got some good possibilities here. What should we take over next? The dry goods store?”
Once Eli understands how much keeping house for four boarders means to Maggie, he is supportive. Kudos to him!
Now, religion. Eli has been raised as a Quaker (Society of Friends) but does not have a meeting. Maggie, however, is a firm Methodist. How will the two negotiate that? The issue is solved even before Eli proposes. When they begin courting, Maggie notes this in her journal:
I was utterly amazed to see that Eli had entered our church. He was greeted by some of the men gathered at the back. These attend services only to please their wives, and their wives complain that they have not yet come to Jesus. I suppose I could say much the same of Eli. But he was raised as a Quaker, and things are different with them.
Eli must have felt my stare, for his eyes met mine and he smiled at me. He was dressed in his best but rumpled clothing, and held his hat awkwardly by the brim.
I smiled in return. Frankie commented that Mr. Smith seemed to have suddenly gotten religion. At this, I felt my cheeks grow hot.
Lydia whispered that, if such were the case, then we should expect Mr. Smith to throw himself upon the altar rail.
Free-thinker that he is, Eli does not become a Methodist, but he does commit to attending church with Maggie because he “believed that it was important for husband and wife to worship together, and had chosen to sacrifice his personal conform in favor of family solidarity.”
And speaking of sacrificing comfort, let’s talk about drinking. Our Methodist Maggie supports temperance and frowns on the regular imbibing of alcohol. However, as friend Emily reminds her, she is not teetotal. Maggie keeps a bottle of whiskey around to make cough medicine or other nostrums and has been known to take a sip or two of dandelion wine. But will she be able to deal with Eli’s tendency to take a drink now and then?
Just as he attends church for her, Maggie will need to let him have a drink on occasion (but not after putting up a mild fight). In fact, Maggie comes face to face with this on her wedding night.
The men in the boarding house take Eli off and share some whiskey with him. When Maggie finds out, she is annoyed, but Emily gives her perspective: “Your man’s in need of a little liquid courage and they’re just helping him out.”
Still a bit miffed, Maggie lets Eli take her to the honeymoon suite (above his print shop). Once they are alone, she learns that her new husband indeed is nervous – perhaps as nervous as she – and she suddenly finds her sense of humor, plus a little something extra.
…Eli walked over to the bed post and nervously cleared his throat. “All right. All right. I might as well confess. I’ve been drinking. But I guess you know that.”
“Indeed, I do.”
He looked quite uncomfortable. “Grandpa O’Reilly insisted on toasting me.” With a wince, he added, “Five or six times.”
It was very amusing, but Maggie folded her arms and tried to look stern. “And how much did you drink, Elijah Smith?”
“Umm...not as much as O’Reilly?”
“But you are drunk.”
“No, no!” he said quickly. “I mean, look at me. I didn’t stumble coming up the stairs. I didn’t drop the lamp. I’m not drunk. Really.”
She eyed him. “Are you sure?”
“We’ll see,” she replied and began to unbutton the corsage to her dress.
That sounds like a challenge.
If you want to know what Maggie does to get Eli in the mood on their wedding night, you’ll just have to read the book.
But things aren’t all fun and games for our couple. Tomorrow, I’ll be writing about the stress on Maggie and Eli’s marriage in Walk by Faith and how it could have broken them apart.