Chapter 54: The Mission

Her steward bent low to speak in Hester’s ear. She had a guest at the door.

“Well, bring her in, Tertius. Don’t keep her standing.”

“Milady, I think perhaps you should attend to this yourself … at the door.” The steward looked distinctly nervous. So much had changed around the household in recent months. It was hard to know what the master and lady wanted of him anymore. But this particular problem was not something the steward was willing to settle on his own authority.

Hester rose to follow Tertius to the entry, listening as he explained that her visitor was a woman and, very obviously, gentile. He did not want to put the household in danger of contamination by inviting her in.

Hester bit back her irritation and turned the steward to face her. “We’ve been over this several times, Tertius. All are welcome in our home now. You don’t have to ask my permission. You don’t have to worry about the cleanliness laws. It doesn’t matter who presents themselves at our door. You are to welcome them in.”

“Yes, Milady,” he said, shifting anxiously from one foot to another. “But this is difficult for me. It was not the way I was raised. And it has not been the practice of this household until recently. It’s very confusing.”

“And what is it you find confusing about all, Tertius?”

“Milady, please.” He stepped back.

Hester sighed and patted the servant on his arm. “All right. I guess we’re all finding this new way a little uncomfortable.” She shooed him off. “Go on about your duties. I’ll see to our guest.”

When she opened the door, Stauria stood in the road, waiting patiently.

“Stauria, come in! Welcome!”

“I wasn’t for sure this was the right house.”

“Yes, yes. Do come in.”

The day was cold, so she led Stauria through the atrium into a room where a brazier burned warmly. She took the young woman’s cloak and sat her on a comfortable couch, close to the heat.

“What a delight! I’m so glad you’ve come by.”

Stauria blushed. “I don’t mean to bother.”

“Nonsense. You should have been in my home long before now. Well … can I get you something to eat or drink?”

“Nothin’ for me, thanks.”

Hester sat on a chair in front of her guest and took the young woman’s hands. “Let me look at you.”

What a difference, she thought. Ever since she’d held the girl’s cheeks in her hands, Stauria had made remarkable progress. Each week, when they greeted one another at worship or worked side-by-side in the grain distribution, Hester found new reasons to marvel at the transformation. She’d put on some weight, and in all the right places. The circles under her eyes were gone. The eyes themselves sparkled with life and energy. And her cheeks, smooth and flushed from the cold, looked like a child’s.

Here she sat. Healthy. Clean. Her hair washed and combed.

Hester had to look away for a moment.

“Stauria,” she whispered. “You’re beautiful!”

The younger woman blushed. Her eyes brimmed.

“Have I given you thanks for doing this for me?”

“The Lord healed you, Stauria, not me. And, yes, you’ve thanked me. Every time we’ve seen each other since.”

“I can’t tell you what it’s like … what’s goin’ on with me.” She clutched Hester’s hands more tightly. “To get stronger every day. To have reason t’hope.”

“I can’t imagine, my dear.” Hester tried to ease the pressure on her fingers. “And I’m so happy for you.”

“But do you know what’s the most of it?” The tears spilled over suddenly and ran down her face. “Hester, I’m scared.”

Hester had not expected this. She looked at the girl with genuine alarm. “Scared? But why would you be afraid? You have this wonderful new start. You have a new life.”

“I’m scared …” the sobs shook her, “that what I’ve got … are new cheeks. But … what if I can’t be … a new woman … a different woman.”

“Oh, my dear girl.” A wave of understanding washed over her. She moved to the couch beside Stauria and wrapped her arms around the girl as she wept.

“When you touched me … the sickness left. But the mem’ries stayed. All the yestertime aches. I’ve got so many bad thoughts in my head. I … I’ve done so many awful things.” The words came in a rush now, in spite of the tears. “Prisca’s kind, but I don’t know as I have any kindness in me. Paul is a good man, but I don’t know as I can be good. I’ve been all about myself for so long. I’ve been greedy and cruel. Your hands didn’t take that away. I don’t know as I’ll ever trust a man again … or trust myself with men. Oh Hester, how can I have a new life,” she wailed, “when it’s me that has t’ live it.”

They sat together for a long while as she cried, the woman who’d drunk only the bitter dregs of life and the woman who’d tasted so much that was sweet.

When the tears finally slowed, Stauria wiped her face on the hem of her tunic and gave Hester a sheepish smile. “I’m beggin’ your pardon. I didn’t come here to wet on your couch.”

Hester sat in silence for awhile. She stared at Stauria. And then she moved back to her chair and sat with her back straight and her hands in her lap.

“Stauria, I want you to listen to me. Are you listening? Most of life is about second chances. Learning from our mistakes. Choosing a better way. I know because I’ve done some starting over myself. I started over when my boys died. I’m starting over now that I’ve lost my friends and community.” Her tone was stern, like a mother with a misbehaving child. She’d have offered Stauria sympathy if she thought it was what the girl needed. But she suspected a little sternness, a bit of grit, might do her more good.

“And every time, I told myself I couldn’t start again. Too much sadness. Too much pain. I’m too old. I’m too set in my ways. And every time, I’ve had to force myself to get up and make a fresh start today. Every day. No excuses. No self-pity. No quitting.”

She watched Stauria carefully, reading the signs. She was listening.

“Now you, Stauria, are not very good at second chances because you’ve never been given a second chance your whole life. You know nothing of fresh starts because you’ve never had one. And you’re thinking right now that somehow you’re different from me or Prisca or Stephanas or Paul—too flawed to make a new beginning, too scarred to live a new life. You’re thinking that second chances come easier for other people than for you. Well, you’re wrong.”

The girl’s eyes widened.

“Those are excuses. You’re feeling sorry for yourself. And you can’t afford that.”

Stauria looked down at her hands.

“No, look at me, Stauria. The only thing you have to do for a new life is the same thing any of us has to do. Admit that you need one. Be hungry to have one. And then decide to make a fresh start today. And tomorrow. And the day after. No excuses. And no quitting.”

At last she softened and reached for Stauria’s hand. “This is your life, Stauria. You can start again. We’ll help you. God has promised to show you the way and give you the strength. His Spirit is working to make you new on the inside. But you have to give us the chance to help. You have to believe you can be new.”

Stauria’s eyes were locked on hers. The tears were gone now and Hester could see new resolve taking hold. She figured that was a good sign.

“I believe God can do what he promises. The question, child, is do you believe it?”

“I do.” Her eyes wavered. “I’m workin’ on believin’ it. I’m trying, Hester.”

Hester patted her hand. “That’s all we can ask.” She sat back in her chair. “Now, if you didn’t come to cry on my couch, why did you come?”

She shrugged. “I need work. And a place to bed. Aquila and Prisca have taken me in so far. But it’s clumsy, the three of us in their little place. And they can barely make ends meet, feedin’ themselves and Paul. I’m a burden.”

“Yes,” Hester agreed. “I should have thought of that.”

“I about asked Paul if I could bed down at Gaius’s house. There’s room a’plenty. But then I reckoned that might not be … seemly … with Paul there at all hours and others coming and going.”

Hester suppressed a smile.

“Besides, it’s more than a crib and a place to hang my cloak. I’m yearning for some honest work. I’ve wasted enough time on the other sort.”

Hester thought for a moment. “I’ll have to ask Crispus, of course. But I’m sure we can arrange something. Our house is large—we certainly have the room for you. What kind of ‘honest work’ would you be interested in?”

“I got a double measure of faults. But pride ain’t one of ’em. I’ll do anything.”

The two women stood and embraced and walked towards the front door.

“Stauria,” Hester asked on the way. “Have you ever used the word ‘seemly’ before … or worried about ‘seemly’ behavior?”

She smiled. “Not so’s I can recall.”

Hester stopped at the entrance and put her hand on Stauria’s arm. “See, my child? There’s new life breaking out already.” She squeezed. “You’re going to be just fine. Now why don’t you bring your things over this evening.”

“But you needed to talk to Crispus afore.”

Hester raised her eyebrows. “My dear girl. I learned a long time ago that asking a man about such matters is merely giving him the privilege of agreeing with what you’ve already decided.”

[Next Chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.