Book Excerpt

This excerpt describes the first meeting between the 51-year-old Justice James Wilson and his bride-to-be, 19-year-old Hannah Gray of Boston. The newspaper article at the beginning is genuine, while the rest is a combination of fact and fiction.

From the Columbian Centinel, Boston, Massachusetts, June 8, 1793:Yesterday the Circuit Court of the United States opened in this town: When the Hon. Judge WILSON delivered to the Grand Jury, a Charge, replete with the purest principles of our equal Government, and highly indicative of his legal reputation. After the Charge, the Rev. Dr. THATCHER addressed the throne of Grace, in prayer.

Sunday, June 9, 1793

I now have something extraordinary to write about—at least, it may be extraordinary, it’s too soon to tell. We were in church this morning, and Dr. Thatcher was droning on, as is his custom. I confess I had allowed my attention to wander to the feather trim on Mrs. Cooke’s new hat in front of me, which was of a charming bluish green color, when of a sudden I felt an elbow in my ribs. Quit that, Sarah, I hissed, or I’ll give you as good back. No, she whispered with some urgency, her hand shielding her mouth, don’t you see that old gentleman there on the other side of the aisle, the one with the piggy face and the spectacles? He’s been staring at you this past quarter of an hour, his mouth hanging open for all the world to see.

I glanced in the direction she indicated, with a little shift of her head, and indeed there was a gentleman—a stranger—staring at me quite boldly, although I thought Sarah’s description of him unjust. He had a round face and something of a double chin, and a short, upturned nose, but he did not put me in mind of a pig in the least. Or not much, anyway.

On and on Dr. Thatcher’s sermon went, and now I could feel the gentleman’s eyes on me, studying me it seemed, though I’d been entirely ignorant of them before Sarah pointed him out. I dared not raise my own eyes in his direction, lest I be thought immodest, but I did manage a quick glance every now and then. I don’t know what it was, exactly, about the man that so unsettled me. Perhaps it was his age, or the intensity of his gaze. In any event, I began to feel quite flustered and faint, which is not characteristic of me in the least.

I thought Thatcher would never stop—it was a full two-hour sermon, I’ll warrant, and not one of his best, I could tell even from what little mind I gave it. Then there were hymns to be got through, and a closing prayer—and at last, just as I expected that we were all to be released, Dr. Thatcher cleared his throat and began to speak yet again.

“We are deeply honored this morning,” he intoned, “to have with us, in our midst, joining us in reverent worship and praise, an esteemed member of the highest court of our Nation, the Honorable Judge James Wilson.”

And at this, the very gentleman who had been staring at me so intently arose—revealing that he was of quite an impressive height—and bowed graciously, first to Dr. Thatcher; and then, with a quick series of little bows, to various members of the congregation; and finally, with the deepest bow of all, directly to me! I fear I blushed a deep crimson, for I could feel my face grow hot. I smiled and nodded my head back at him, as seemed only polite.

“You see?” Sarah hissed. “I told you!”

Then, when we were saying our farewells to Dr. Thatcher just outside the church door (and trying to sound sincere in complimenting him on his sermon), who should come up beside us but this same gentleman, Judge Wilson, smiling expectantly.

“Ah, Judge Wilson—allow me to present Mrs. Gray,” Dr. Thatcher said (for it was obvious that Judge Wilson was desirous of an introduction). “And her charming daughters, the Misses Sarah, Hannah, and Lucy Gray.”

Another deep bow from Judge Wilson, which we returned with curtseys. Much of the congregation was waiting behind us, so we were obliged to move on, with Judge Wilson following (“Like some sort of large sheepdog,” Sarah scoffed later, continuing her ridiculous animal comparisons).

We conversed for a few minutes—or rather Mama and Judge Wilson did: innocuous chit-chat about the weather, and Judge Wilson’s circuit (which he is, it appears, in the midst of), and so on. It was obvious that the Judge was originally from Scotland, as he had retained quite strongly the accents of his youth (I predicted to myself, correctly, that Sarah would have no end of fun imitating his speech later on). It was also obvious that his primary interest was not in the weather, or his circuit; for he continued to stare at me, even in the midst of conversation, which made things a trifle awkward.

At length the skies, which had been of a looming gray all morning, let loose a few drops of rain. We began to bid Judge Wilson goodbye, so as to hurry home before we were drenched, but he interrupted us.

“Can I not, Madam, offer you and your amiable family a ride home in my coach?” he said to Mama, with another bow. “It would be a great honor for me, I assure you.”

“How very kind of you, Sir, ” Mama said. “But surely you cannot accommodate all four of us.”

“Ah, dear lady, but indeed I can!” Judge Wilson replied.

Judge Wilson then led us around the corner onto Coopers Alley, where there stood the most resplendent coach I have ever seen—of a spotless creamy white, with a bluish gray trim, and pulled by four handsome chestnut steeds. On seeing Judge Wilson approaching, the driver leapt from his perch and opened the door, revealing benches ample enough for six, covered in a deep red velvet, and the ceiling and walls upholstered in red silk.

“Oh, my heavens,” I could not help but cry. “How exquisite!”

Judge Wilson smiled down at me from his lofty height and bowed yet again. “Miss Gray, if it meets with your approval, I could wish for no higher compliment.” …