"Good-morning, Louisa. Shake hands with your aunt, Jack."
"He can't till I'm through sweeping. Good-morning, John; what brings you here?"
John sat down on the steps, and Jack flew to the barn, where there was generally an amiable hired man and a cheerful cow, both infinitely better company than his highly respected and wealthy aunt.
"I came because I had to bring the boy to the only relation I've got in the world," John answered tersely. "My wife's left me."
"Well, she's been a great while doing it," remarked Louisa, digging her broom into the cracks of the piazza floor and making no pause for reflection. "If she had n't had the patience of Job and the meekness of Moses, she'd have gone long before. Where'd she go?"
"I don't know; she did n't say."
"Did you take the trouble to look through the house for her? I ain't certain you fairly know her by sight nowadays, do you?"
John flushed crimson, but bit his lip in an attempt to keep his temper. "She left a letter," he said, "and she took Sue with her."
"That was all right; Sue's a nervous little thing and needs at least one parent; she has n't been used to more, so she won't miss anything. Jack's like most of the Hathaways; he'll grow up his own way, without anybody's help or hindrance. What are you going to do with him?"
"Leave him with you, of course. What else could I do?" "Very well, I'll take him, and while I'm about it I'd like to give you a piece of my mind."
John was fighting for selfcontrol, but he was too wretched and remorseful for rage to have any real sway over him.
"Is it the same old piece, or a different one?" he asked, setting his teeth grimly. "I should n't think you'd have any mind left, you've given so many pieces of it to me already."
"I have some left, and plenty, too," answered Louisa, dashing into the house, banging the broom into a corner, coming out again like a breeze, and slamming the door behind her. "You can leave the boy here and welcome; I'll take good care of him, and if you don't send me twenty dollars a month for his food and clothes, I'll turn him outdoors. The more responsibility other folks rid you of, the more you'll let 'em, and I won't take a feather's weight off you for fear you'll sink into everlasting perdition."
"I did n't expect any sympathy from you," said John, drearily, pulling himself up from the steps and leaning against the honeysuckle trellis. "Susanna's just the same. Women are all as hard as the nether millstone. They're hard if they're angels, and hard if they're devils; it does n't make much difference."
"I guess you've found a few soft ones, if report says true," returned Louisa, bluntly. "You'd better go and get some of their sympathy, the kind you can buy and pay for. The way you've ruined your life turns me fairly sick. You had a good father and mother, good education and advantages, enough money to start you in business, the best of wives, and two children any man could be proud of, one of 'em especially. You've thrown 'em all away, and what for? Horses and cards and gay company, late suppers, with wine, and for aught I know, whiskey, you the son of a man who did n't know the taste of ginger beer! You've spent your days and nights with a pack of carousing men and women that would take your last cent and not leave you enough for honest burial."
"It's a pity we did n't make a traveling preacher of you!" exclaimed John, bitterly. "Lord Almighty, I wonder how such women as you can live in the world, you know so little about it, and so little about men."
"I know all I want to about 'em," retorted Louisa, "and precious little that's good. They 're a gluttonous, self-indulgent, extravagant, reckless, pleasure-loving lot! My husband was one of the best of 'em, and he would n't have amounted to a hill of beans if I had n't devoted fifteen years to disciplining, uplifting, and strengthening him!"
"You managed to strengthen him so that he died before he was fifty!"
"It don't matter when a man dies," said the remorseless Mrs. Banks, "if he's succeeded in living a decent, Godfearing life. As for you, John Hathaway, I'll tell you the truth if you are my brother, for Susanna's too much of a saint to speak out."
"Don't be afraid; Susanna's spoken out at last, plainly enough to please even you!"
"I'm glad of it, for I did n't suppose she had spunk enough to resent anything. I shall be sorry tomorrow, 's likely as not, for freeing my mind as much as I have, but my temper's up and I'm going to be the humble instrument of Providence and try to turn you from the error of your ways. You've defaced and degraded the temple the Lord built for you, and if He should come this minute and try to turn out the crowd of evildoers you've kept in it, I doubt if He could!"
"I hope He'll approve of the way you've used your 'temple,'" said John, with stinging emphasis. "I should n't want to live in such a noisy one myself; I'd rather be a bat in a belfry. Goodbye; I've had a pleasant call, as usual, and you've been a real sister to me in my trouble. You shall have the twenty dollars a month. Jack's clothes are in that valise, and there'll be a trunk tomorrow. Susanna said she'd write and let you know her whereabouts."
So saying, John Hathaway strode down the path, closed the gate behind him, and walked rapidly along the road that led to the station. It was a quiet road and he met few persons. He had neither dressed nor shaved since the day before; his face was haggard, his heart was like a lump of lead in his breast. Of what use to go to the empty house in Farnham when he could stifle his misery by a night with his friends?
No, he could not do that, either! The very thought of them brought a sense of satiety and disgust; the craving for what they would give him would come again in time, no doubt, but for the moment he was sick to the very soul of all they stood for. The feeling of complete helplessness, of desertion, of being alone in mid-ocean without a sail or a star in sight, mounted and swept over him. Susanna had been his sail, his star, although he had never fully realized it, and he had cut himself adrift from her pure, steadfast love, blinding himself with cheap and vulgar charms.
The next train to Farnham was not due for an hour. His steps faltered; he turned into a clump of trees by the wayside and flung himself on the ground to cry like a child, he who had not shed a tear since he was a boy of ten. If Susanna could have seen that often longed-for burst of despair and remorse, that sudden recognition of his sins against himself and her, that gush of penitent tears, her heart might have softened once again; a flicker of flame might have lighted the ashes of her dying love; she might have taken his head on her shoulder, and said, "Never mind, John! Let's forget, and begin all over again!"
Matters did not look any brighter for John the next week, for his senior partner, Joel Atterbury, requested him to withdraw from the firm as soon as matters could be legally arranged. He was told that he had not been doing, nor earning, his share; that his way of living during the year just past had not been any credit to "the concern," and that he, Atterbury, sympathized too heartily with Mrs. John Hathaway to take any pleasure in doing business with Mr. John.
John's remnant of pride, completely humbled by this last withdrawal of confidence, would not suffer him to tell Atterbury that he had come to his senses and bidden farewell to the old life, or so he hoped and believed. To lose a wife and child in a way infinitely worse than death; to hear the unwelcome truth that as a husband you have grown so offensive as to be beyond endurance; to have your own sister tell you that you richly deserve such treatment; to be virtually dismissed from a valuable business connection, all this is enough to sober any man above the grade of a moral idiot, and John was not that; he was simply a self-indulgent, pleasure-loving, thoughtless, willful fellow, without any great amount of principle. He took his medicine, however, said nothing, and did his share of the business from day to day doggedly, keeping away from his partner as much as possible.
Ellen, the faithful maid of all work, stayed on with him at the old home; Jack wrote to him every week, and often came to spend Sunday with him.
"Aunt Louisa's real good to me," he told his father, "but she's not like mother. Seems to me mother's kind of selfish staying away from us so long. When do you expect her back?"
"I don't know; not before winter, I'm afraid; and don't call her selfish, I won't have it! Your mother never knew she had a self."
"If she'd only left Sue behind, we could have had more good times, we three together!"
"No, our family is four, Jack, and we can never have any good times, one, two, or three of us, because we're four! When one's away, whichever it is, it's wrong, but it's the worst when it's mother. Does your Aunt Louisa write to her?"
"Yes, sometimes, but she never lets me post the letters."
"Do you write to your mother? You ought to, you know, even if you don't have time for me. You could ask your aunt to enclose your letters in hers."
"Do you write to her, father?"
"Yes, I write twice a week," John answered, thinking drearily of the semi-weekly notes posted in Susanna's empty worktable upstairs. Would she ever read them? He doubted it, unless he died, and she came back to settle his affairs; but of course he would n't die, no such good luck. Would a man die who breakfasted at eight, dined at one, supped at six, and went to bed at ten? Would a man die who worked in the garden an hour every afternoon, with half a day Saturday; that being the task most disagreeable to him and most appropriate therefore for penance?
Susanna loved flowers and had always wanted a garden, but John had been too much occupied with his own concerns to give her the needed help or money so that she could carry out her plans. The last year she had lost heart in many ways, so that little or nothing had been accomplished of all she had dreamed. It would have been laughable, had it not been pathetic, to see John Hathaway dig, delve, grub, sow, water, weed, transplant, generally at the wrong moment, in that dream-garden of Susanna's. He asked no advice and read no books. With feverish intensity, with complete ignorance of Nature's laws and small sympathy with their intricacies, he dug, hoed, raked, fertilized, and planted during that lonely summer. His absentmindedness caused some expensive failures, as when the wide expanse of Susanna's drying ground, which was to be velvety lawn, "came up" curly lettuce; but he rooted out his frequent mistakes and patiently planted seeds or roots or bulbs over and over and over and over, until something sprouted in his beds, whether it was what he intended or not. While he weeded the brilliant orange nasturtiums, growing beside the magenta portulacca in a friendly proximity that certainly would never have existed had the mistress of the house been the head-gardener, he thought of nothing but his wife. He knew her pride, her reserve, her sensitive spirit; he knew her love of truth and honor and purity, the standards of life and conduct she had tried to hold him to so valiantly, and which he had so dragged in the dust during the blindness and the insanity of the last two years.
He, John Hathaway, was a deserted husband; Susanna had crept away all wounded and resentful. Where was she living and how supporting herself and Sue, when she could not have had a hundred dollars in the world? Probably Louisa was the source of income; conscientious, infernally disagreeable Louisa!
Would yet the rumor of his changed habit of life reach her by some means in her place of hiding, sooner or later? Would she not yearn for a sight of Jack? Would she not finally give him a chance to ask forgiveness, or had she lost every trace of affection for him, as her letter seemed to imply? He walked the garden paths, with these and other unanswerable questions, and when he went to his lonely room at night, he held the lamp up to a bit of poetry that he had cut from a magazine and pinned to the looking-glass. If John Hathaway could be brought to the reading of poetry, he might even glance at the Bible in course of time, Louisa would have said. It was in May that Susanna had gone, and the first line of verse held his attention.
May comes, day comes, One who was away comes; All the earth is glad again, Kind and fair to me.
May comes, day comes, One who was away comes; Set her place at hearth and board As it used to be.
May comes, day comes, One who was away comes; Higher are the hills of home, Bluer is the sea.
The Hathaway house was in the suburbs, on a rise of ground, and as John turned to the window he saw the full moon hanging yellow in the sky. It shone on the verdant slopes and low wooded hills that surrounded the town, and cast a glittering pathway on the ocean that bathed the beaches of the nearby shore.
"How long shall I have to wait," he wondered, "before my hills of home look higher, and my sea bluer, because Susanna has come back to 'hearth and board'!"
V. The Little Quail Bird
Susanna had helped at various household tasks ever since her arrival at the Settlement, for there was no room for drones in the Shaker hive; but after a few weeks in the kitchen with Martha, the herb-garden had been assigned to her as her particular province, the Sisters thinking her better fitted for it than for the preserving and pickling of fruit, or the basket-weaving that needed special apprenticeship.
The Shakers were the first people to raise, put up, and sell garden seeds in our present-day fashion, and it was they, too, who began the preparation of botanical medicines, raising, gathering, drying, and preparing herbs and roots for market; and this industry, driven from the field by modern machinery, was still a valuable source of income in Susanna's day. Plants had always grown for Susanna, and she loved them like friends, humoring their weakness, nourishing their strength, stimulating, coaxing, disciplining them, until they could do no less than flourish under her kind and hopeful hand.
Oh, that sweet, honest, comforting little garden of herbs, with its wholesome fragrances! Healing lay in every root and stem, in every leaf and bud, and the strong aromatic odors stimulated her flagging spirit or her aching head, after the sleepless nights in which she tried to decide her future life and Sue's.
The plants were set out in neat rows and clumps, and she soon learned to know the strange ones—chamomile, lobelia, bloodroot, wormwood, lovage, boneset, lemon and sweet balm, lavender and rue, as well as she knew the old acquaintances familiar to every country-bred child—pennyroyal, peppermint or spearmint, yellow dock, and thoroughwort.
There was hoeing and weeding before the gathering and drying came; then Brother Calvin, who had charge of the great press, would moisten the dried herbs and press them into quarter- and half-pound cakes ready for Sister Martha, who would superintend the younger Shakeresses in papering and labeling them for the market. Last of all, when harvesting was over, Brother Ansel would mount the newly painted seed-cart and leave on his driving trip through the country. Ansel was a capital salesman, but Brother Issachar, who once took his place and sold almost nothing, brought home a lad on the seed-cart, who afterward became a shining light in the Community. ("Thus," said Elder Gray, "does God teach us the diversity of gifts, whereby all may be unashamed.")
If the Albion Shakers were honest and ardent in faith, Susanna thought that their "works" would indeed bear the strictest examination. The Brothers made brooms, floor and dish-mops, tubs, pails, and churns, and indeed almost every trade was represented in the various New England Communities. Physicians there were, a few, but no lawyers, sheriffs, policemen, constables, or soldiers, just as there were no courts or saloons or jails. Where there was perfect equality of possession and no private source of gain, it amazed Susanna to see the cheery labor, often continued late at night from the sheer joy of it, and the earnest desire to make the Settlement prosperous. While the Brothers were hammering, nailing, planing, sawing, ploughing, and seeding, the Sisters were carding and spinning cotton, wool, and flax, making kerchiefs of linen, straw Shaker bonnets, and dozens of other useful marketable things, not forgetting their famous Shaker apple sauce.
Was there ever such a busy summer, Susanna wondered; yet with all the early rising, constant labor, and simple fare, she was stronger and hardier than she had been for years. The Shaker palate was never tickled with delicacies, yet the food was well cooked and sufficiently varied. At first there had been the winter vegetables: squash, yellow turnips, beets, and parsnips, with once a week a special Shaker dinner of salt codfish, potatoes, onions, and milk gravy. Each Sister served her turn as cook, but all alike had a wonderful hand with flour, and the wholewheat bread, cookies, ginger cake, and milk puddings were marvels of lightness. Martha, in particular, could wean the novitiate Shaker from a too riotous devotion to meat-eating better than most people, for every dish she sent to the table was delicate, savory, and attractive.
Dear, patient, devoted Martha! How Susanna learned to love her as they worked together in the big sunny, shining kitchen, where the cooking-stove as well as every tin plate and pan and spoon might have served as a mirror! Martha had joined the Society in her mother's arms, being given up to the Lord and placed in "the children's order" before she was one year old.
"If you should unite with us, Susanna," she said one night after the early supper, when they were peeling apples together, "you'd be thankful you begun early with your little Sue, for she's got a natural attraction to the world, and for it. Not but that she's a tender, loving, obedient little soul; but when she's among the other young ones, there's a flyaway look about her that makes her seem more like a fairy than a child."
"She's having rather a hard time learning Shaker ways, but she'll do better in time," sighed her mother. "She came to me of her own accord yesterday and asked: 'Bettent I have my curls cut off, Mardie?'"
"I never put that idea into her head," Martha interrupted. "She's a visitor and can wear her hair as she's been brought up to wear it."
"I know, but I fear Sue was moved by other than religious reasons. 'I get up so early, Mardie,' she said, 'and it takes so long to unsnarl and untangle me, and I get so hot when I'm helping in the hayfield, and then I have to be curled for dinner, and curled again for supper, and so it seems like wasting both our times!' Her hair would be all the stronger for cutting, I thought, as it's so long for her age; but I could n't put the shears to it when the time came, Martha. I had to take her to Eldress Abby. She sat up in front of the little looking-glass as still as a mouse, while the curls came off, but when the last one fell into Abby's apron, she suddenly put her hands over her face and cried: 'Oh, Mardie, we shall never be the same togedder, you and I, after this!'—She seemed to see her 'little past,' her childhood, slipping away from her, all in an instant. I did n't let her know that I cried over the box of curls last night!"
"You did wrong," rebuked Martha. "You should n't make an idol of your child or your child's beauty."
"You don't think God might put beauty into the world just to give His children joy, Martha?"
Martha was no controversialist. She had taken her opinions, ready-made, from those she considered her superiors, and although she was willing to make any sacrifice for her religion, she did not wish to be confused by too many opposing theories of God's intentions.
"You know I never argue when I've got anything baking," she said; and taking the spill of a corn-broom from a table-drawer, she opened the oven door and delicately plunged it into the loaf. Then, gazing at the straw as she withdrew it, she said: "You must talk doctrine with Eldress Abby, Susanna, not with me; but I guess doctrine won't help you so much as thinking out your life for yourself.
"No one can sing my psalm for me, Reward must come from labor, I'll sow for peace, and reap in truth God's mercy and his favor!"
Martha was the chief musician of the Community, and had composed many hymns and tunes—some of them under circumstances that she believed might entitle them to be considered directly inspired. Her clear full voice filled the kitchen and floated out into the air after Susanna, as she called Sue and, darning-basket in hand, walked across the road to the great barn.
The herb-garden was one place where she could think out her life, although no decision had as yet been born of those thoughtful mornings.
Another spot for meditation was the great barn, relic of the wonderful earlier days, and pride of the present Settlement. A hundred and seventy-five feet long and three and a half stories high, it dominated the landscape. First, there was the cellar, where all the refuse fell, to do its duty later on in fertilizing the farm lands; then came the first floor, where the stalls for horses, oxen, and cows lined the walls on either side. Then came the second floor, where hay was kept, and to reach this a bridge forty feet long was built on stone piers ten feet in height, sloping up from the ground to the second story. Over the easy slope of this bridge the full haycarts were driven, to add their several burdens to the golden haymows. High at the top was an enormous grain room, where mounds of yellow corn-ears reached from floor to ceiling; and at the back was a great window opening on Massabesic Pond and Knights' Hill, with the White Mountains towering blue or snow-capped in the distance. There was an old-fashioned, list-bottomed, straight-backed Shaker chair in front of the open window, a chair as uncomfortable as Shaker doctrines to the daughter of Eve, and there Susanna often sat with her sewing or mending, Sue at her feet building castles out of corncobs, plaiting the husks into little mats, or taking out basting threads from her mother's work.
"My head feels awfully undressed without my curls, Mardie," she said. "I'm most afraid Fardie won't like the looks of me; do you think we ought to have asked him before we shingled me?—He does despise unpretty things so!"
"I think if we had asked him he would have said, 'Do as you think best.'"
"He always says that when he does n't care what you do," observed Sue, with one of her startling bursts of intuition. "Sister Martha has a printed card on the wall in the children's diningroom, and I've got to learn all the poetry on it because I need it worse than any of the others:—
"What we deem good order, we're willing to state, Eat hearty and decent, and clear out your plate; Be thankful to heaven for what we receive, And not make a mixture or compound to leave.
"We often find left on the same China dish, Meat, apple sauce, pickle, brown bread and minced fish: Another's replenished with butter and cheese, With pie, cake, and toast, perhaps, added to these."
"You say it very nicely," commended Susanna.
"Now if any virtue in this can be shown, By peasant, by lawyer, or king on the throne; We freely will forfeit whatever we've said, And call it a virtue to waste meat and bread.
"There's a great deal to learn when you're being a Shaker," sighed Sue, as she finished her rhyme.
"There's a great deal to learn everywhere," her mother answered. "What verse did Eldress Abby give you today?"
"For little tripping maids may follow God Along the ways that saintly feet have trod,"
quoted the child. "Am I a tripping maid, Mardie?" she continued.
"Yes, dear." "If I trip too much, might n't I fall?"
"Yes, I suppose so."
"Is tripping the same as skipping?"
"About the same."
"Is it polite to trip an' skip when you're following God?"
"It could n't be impolite if you meant to be good. A tripping maid means just a young one."
"What is a maid?"
"A little girl."
"When a maid grows up, what is she?"
"Why she's a maiden, I suppose."
"When a maiden grows up, what is she?"
"Just a woman, Sue."
"What is saintly feet?"
"Feet like those of Eldress Abby or Elder Gray; feet of people who have always tried to do right."
"Are Brother Ansel's feet saintly?"
"He's a good, kind, hardworking man."
"Is good, kind, hardworking, same as saintly?"
"Well, it's not so very different, perhaps. Now, Sue, I've asked you before, don't let your mind grope, and your little tongue wag, every instant; it is n't good for you, and it certainly is n't good for me!"
"All right; but 'less I gropeanwag sometimes, I don't see how I'll ever learn the things I 'specially want to know?" sighed Sue the insatiable.
"Shall I tell you a Shaker story, one that Eldress Abby told me last evening?"
"Oh, do, Mardie!" cried Sue, crossing her feet, folding her hands, and looking up into her mother's face expectantly.
"Once there was a very good Shaker named Elder Calvin Green, and some one wrote him a letter asking him to come a long distance and found a Settlement in the western part of New York State. He and some other Elders and Eldresses traveled five days, and stopped at the house of a certain Joseph Pelham to spend Sunday and hold a meeting. On Monday morning, very tired, and wondering where to stay and begin his preaching, the Elder went out into the woods to pray for guidance. When he rose from his knees, feeling stronger and lighter-hearted, a young quail came up to him so close that he picked it up. It was not a bit afraid, neither did the old parent birds who were standing near by show any sign of fear, though they are very timid creatures. The Elder smoothed the young bird's feathers a little while and then let it go, but he thought an angel seemed to say to him, 'The quail is a sign; you will know before night what it means, and before tomorrow people will be coming to you to learn the way to God.'
"Soon after, a flock of these shy little birds alighted on Joseph Pelham's house, and the Elders were glad, and thought it signified the flock of Believers that would gather in that place; for the Shakers see more in signs than other people. Just at night a young girl of twelve or thirteen knocked at the door and told Elder Calvin that she wanted to become a Shaker, and that her father and mother were willing.
"'Here is the little quail!' cried the Elder, and indeed she was the first who flocked to the meetings and joined the new Community.
"On their return to their old home across the state the Elders took the little quail girl with them. It was November then, and the canals through which they traveled were clogged with ice. One night, having been ferried across the Mohawk River, they took their baggage and walked for miles before they could find shelter. Finally, when they were within three miles of their home, Elder Calvin shortened the way by going across the open fields through the snow, up and down the hills and through the gullies and over fences, till they reached the house at midnight, safe and sound, the brave little quail girl having trudged beside them the whole distance, carrying her tin pail."
Sue was transported with interest, her lips parted, her eyes shining, her hands clasped. "Oh, I wish I could be a brave little quail girl, Mardie! What became of her?"
"Her name was Polly Reed, and when she grew up, she became a teacher of the Shaker school, then an Eldress, and even a preacher. I don't know what kind of a little quail girl you would make, Sue; do you think you could walk for miles through the ice and snow uncomplainingly?"
"I don' know's I could," sighed Sue; "but," she added hopefully, "perhaps I could teach or preach, and then I could gropeanwag as much as ever I liked." Then, after a lengthy pause, in which her mind worked feverishly, she said, "Mardie, I was just groping a little bit, but I won't do it any more tonight. If the old quail birds in the woods where Elder Calvin prayed, if those old birds had been Shaker birds, there would n't have been any little quail birds, would there, because Shakers don't have children, and then perhaps there would n't have been any little Polly Reed."
Susanna rose hurriedly from the list-bottomed chair and folded her work. "I'll go up and help you undress now," she said; "it's seven o'clock, and I must go to the family meeting."
VI. Susanna Speaks in Meeting
It was the Sabbath day and the Believers were gathered in the meetinghouse, Brethren and Sisters seated quietly on their separate benches, with the children by themselves in their own place. As the men entered the room they removed their hats and coats and hung them upon wooden pegs that lined the sides of the room, while the women took off their bonnets; then, after standing for a moment of perfect silence, they seated themselves.
In Susanna's time the Sunday costume for the men included trousers of deep blue cloth with a white line and a vest of darker blue, exposing a full-bosomed shirt that had a wide turned-down collar fastened with three buttons. The Sisters were in pure white dresses, with neck and shoulders covered with snowy kerchiefs, their heads crowned with their white net caps, and a large white pocket handkerchief hung over the left arm. Their feet were shod with curious pointed-toed cloth shoes of ultramarine blue—a fashion long since gone by.
Susanna had now become accustomed to the curious solemn march or dance in which of course none but the Believers ever joined, and found in her present exalted mood the songs and the exhortations strangely interesting and not unprofitable.
Tabitha, the most aged of the group of Albion Sisters, confessed that she missed the old times when visions were common, when the Spirit manifested itself in extraordinary ways, and the gift of tongues descended. Sometimes, in the Western Settlement where she was gathered in, the whole North Family would march into the highway in the fresh morning hours, and while singing some sacred hymn, would pass on to the Center Family, and together in solemn yet glad procession they would mount the hillside to "Jehovah's Chosen Square," there to sing and dance before the Lord.
"I wish we could do something like that now!" sighed Hetty Arnold, a pretty young creature who had moments of longing for the pomps and vanities. "If we have to give up all worldly pleasures, I think we might have more religious ones!"
"We were a younger church in those old times of which Sister Tabitha speaks," said Eldress Abby. "You must remember, Hetty, that we were children in faith, and needed signs and manifestations, pictures and object-lessons. We've been trained to think and reason now, and we've put away some of our picture-books. There have been revelations to tell us we needed movements and exercises to quicken our spiritual powers, and to give energy and unity to our worship, and there have been revelations telling us to give them up; revelations bidding us to sing more, revelations telling us to use wordless songs. Then anthems were given us, and so it has gone on, for we have been led of the Spirit."
"I'd like more picture-books," pouted Hetty under her breath.
Today the service began with a solemn song, followed by speaking and prayer from a visiting elder. Then, after a long and profound silence, the company rose and joined in a rhythmic dance which signified the onward travel of the soul to full redemption; the opening and closing of the hands meaning the scattering and gathering of blessing. There was no accompaniment, and both the music and the words were the artless expression of fervent devotion.
Susanna sat in her corner beside the aged Tabitha, who would never dance again before the Lord, though her quavering voice joined in the chorus. The spring floor rose and fell under the quick rhythmic tread of the worshipers, and with each revolution about the room the song gained in power and fervor.
I am never weary bringing my life unto God, I am never weary singing His way is good. With the voice of an angel with power from above, I would publish the blessing of soul-saving love.
The steps grew slower and more sedate, the voices died away, the arms sank slowly by the sides, and the hands ceased their movement.
Susanna rose to her feet, she knew not how or why. Her cheeks were flushed, her head bent.
"Dear friends," she said, "I have now been among you for nearly three months, sharing your life, your work, and your worship. You may well wish to know whether I have made up my mind to join this Community, and I can only say that although I have prayed for light, I cannot yet see my way clearly. I am happy here with you, and although I have been a church member for years, I have never before longed so ardently to present my body and soul as a sacrifice unto the Lord. I have tried not to be a burden to you. The small weekly sum that I put into the treasury I will not speak of, lest I seem to think that the 'gift of God may be purchased with money,' as the Scriptures say; but I have endeavored to be loyal to your rules and customs, your aims and ideals, and to the confidence you have reposed in me. Oh, my dear Sisters and Brothers, pray for me that I be enabled to see my duty more plainly. It is not the fleshpots that will call me back to the world; if I go, it will be because the duties I have left behind take such shape that they draw me out of his shelter in spite of myself. I thank you for the help you have given me these last weeks; God knows my gratitude can never be spoken in words."
Elder Gray's voice broke the silence that followed Susanna's speech. "I only echo the sentiments of the Family when I say that our Sister Susanna shall have such time as she requires before deciding to unite with this body of Believers. No pressure shall be brought to bear upon her, and she will be, as she ever has been, a welcome guest under our roof. She has been an inspiration to the children, a comfort and aid to the Sisters, an intelligent comrade to the Brethren, and a sincere and earnest student of the truth. May the Spirit draw her into the Virgin Church of the New Creation!"
"Yee and amen!" exclaimed Eldress Abby, devoutly: "'For thus saith the Lord of hosts: I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land; and I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come: and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of hosts.'"
"O Virgin Church, how great the light, What cloud can dim thy way?"
sang Martha from her place at the end of a bench; and all the voices took up the hymn softly as the company sat with bowed heads.
Then Brother Issachar rose from his corner, saying: "Jesus called upon his disciples to give up everything: houses, lands, relationships, and even the selfishness of their own lives. They could not call their lives their own. 'Lo! we have left all and followed thee,' said Peter; 'fathers, mothers, wives, children, houses, lands, and even our own lives also.' It is a great price to pay, but we buy Heaven with it!"
"Yee, we do," said Brother Thomas Scattergood, devoutly. "To him that overcometh shall the great prize be given."
"God help the weaker brethren!" murmured young Brother Nathan, in so low a voice that few could hear him. Moved by the same impulse, Tabitha, Abby, and Martha burst into one of the most triumphant of the Shaker songs, one that was never sung save when the meeting was "full of the Spirit":—
"I draw no blank nor miss the prize, I see the work, the sacrifice, And I'll be loyal, I'll be wise, A faithful overcomer!"
The company rose and began again to march in a circle around the center of the room, the Brethren two abreast leading the column, the Sisters following after. There was a waving movement of the hands by drawing inward as if gathering in spiritual good and storing it up for future need. In the marching and countermarching the worshipers frequently changed their positions, ultimately forming into four circles, symbolical of the four dispensations as expounded in Shakerism, the first from Adam to Abraham; the second from Abraham to Jesus; the third from Jesus to Mother Ann Lee; and the fourth the millennial era.
The marching grew livelier; the bodies of the singers swayed lightly with emotion, the faces glowed with feeling.
Over and over the hymn was sung, gathering strength and fullness as the Believers entered more and more into the spirit of their worship. Whenever the refrain came in with its militant fervor, crude, but sincere and effective, the singers seemed faith-intoxicated; and Sister Martha in particular might have been treading the heavenly streets instead of the meetinghouse floor, so complete was her absorption. The voices at length grew softer, and the movement slower, and after a few moments' reverent silence the company filed out of the room solemnly and without speech.
I am as sure that heav'n is mine As though my vision could define Or pencil draw the boundary line Where love and truth shall conquer.
"The Lord ain't shaken Susanna hard enough yet," thought Brother Ansel shrewdly from his place in the rear. "She ain't altogether gathered in, not by no manner o' means, because of that unregenerate son of Adam she's left behind; but there's the makin's of a pow'ful good Shaker in Susanna, if she finally takes holt!"
"What manner of life is my husband living, now that I have deserted him? Who is being a mother to Jack?" These were the thoughts that troubled Susanna Hathaway's soul as she crossed the grass to her own building.
VII. "The Lower Plane"
Brother Nathan Bennett was twenty years old and Sister Hetty Arnold was eighteen. They had been left with the Shakers by their respective parents ten years before, and, growing up in the faith, they formally joined the Community when they reached the age of discretion. Thus they had known each other from early childhood, never in the familiar way common to the children of the world, but with the cool, cheerful, casual, wholly impersonal attitude of Shaker friendship, a relation seemingly outside of and superior to sex, a relation more like that of two astral bodies than the more intimate one of a budding Adam and Eve.
When and where had this relationship changed its color and meaning? Neither Nathan nor Hetty could have told. For years Nathan had sat at his end of the young men's bench at the family or the public meeting, with Hetty exactly opposite him at the end of the girls' row, and for years they had looked across the dividing space at each other with unstirred pulses. The rows of Sisters sat in serene dignity, one bench behind another, and each Sister was like unto every other in Nathan's vague, dreamy, boyishly indifferent eyes. Some of them were seventy and some seventeen, but each modest figure sat in its place with quiet folded hands. The stiff caps hid the hair, whether it was silver or gold; the white surplices covered the shoulders and concealed beautiful curves as well as angular outlines; the throats were scarcely visible, whether they were yellow and wrinkled or young and white. The Sisters were simply sisters to fair-haired Nathan, and the Brothers were but brothers to little black-eyed Hetty.
Once—was it on a Sunday morning?—Nathan glanced across the separating space that is the very essence and sign of Shakerism. The dance had just ceased, and there was a long, solemn stillness when God indeed seemed to be in one of His holy temples and the earth was keeping silence before Him. Suddenly Hetty grew to be something more than one of the figures in a long row: she chained Nathan's eye and held it.
"Through her garments the grace of her glowed." He saw that, in spite of the way her hair had been cut and stretched back from the forehead, a short dusky tendril, softened and coaxed by the summer heat, had made its way mutinously beyond the confines of her cap. Her eyes were cast down, but the lashes that swept her round young cheek were quite different from any other lashes in the Sisters' row. Her breath came and went softly after the exertion of the rhythmic movements, stirring the white muslin folds that wrapped her from throat to waist. He looked and looked, until his body seemed to be all eyes, absolutely unaware of any change in himself; quite oblivious of the fact that he was regarding the girl in any new and dangerous way.
The silence continued, long and profound, until suddenly Hetty raised her beautiful lashes and met Nathan's gaze, the gaze of a boy just turned to man: ardent, warm, compelling. There was a startled moment of recognition, a tremulous approach, almost an embrace, of regard; each sent an electric current across the protective separating space, the two pairs of eyes met and said, "I love you," in such clear tones that Nathan and Hetty marveled that the Elder did not hear them. Somebody says that love, like a scarlet spider, can spin a thread between two hearts almost in an instant, so fine as to be almost invisible, yet it will hold with the tenacity of an iron chain. The thread had been spun; it was so delicate that neither Nathan nor Hetty had seen the scarlet spider spinning it, but the strength of both would not avail to snap the bond that held them together.
The moments passed. Hetty's kerchief rose and fell, rose and fell tumultuously, while her face was suffused with color. Nathan's knees quivered under him, and when the Elder rose, and they began the sacred march, the lad could hardly stand for trembling. He dreaded the moment when the lines of Believers would meet, and he and Hetty would walk the length of the long room almost beside each other. Could she hear his heart beating, Nathan wondered; while Hetty was palpitating with fear lest Nathan see her blushes and divine their meaning. Oh, the joy of it, the terror of it, the strange exhilaration and the sudden sensation of sin and remorse!
The meeting over, Nathan flung himself on the haymow in the great barn, while Hetty sat with her "Synopsis of Shaker Theology" at an open window of the girls' building, seeing nothing in the lines of print but visions that should not have been there. It was Nathan who felt most and suffered most and was most conscious of sin, for Hetty, at first, scarcely knew whither she was drifting.
She went into the herb-garden with Susanna one morning during the week that followed the fatal Sunday. Many of the plants to be used for seasoning—sage, summer savory, sweet marjoram, and the like—were quite ready for gathering. As the two women were busy at work, Susanna as full of her thoughts as Hetty of hers, the sound of a step was heard brushing the grass of the orchard. Hetty gave a nervous start; her cheeks grew so crimson and her breath so short that Susanna noticed the change.
"It will be Brother Ansel coming along to the grindstone," Hetty stammered, burying her head in the leaves.
"No," Susanna answered, "it is Nathan. He has a long pole with a saw on the end. He must be going to take the dead branches off the apple trees; I heard Ansel tell him yesterday to do it."
"Yee, that will be it," said Hetty, bending over the plants as if she were afraid to look elsewhere.
Nathan came nearer to the herb-garden. He was a tall, stalwart, handsome enough fellow, even in his quaint working garb. As the Sisters spun and wove the cloth as well as cut and made the men's garments, and as the Brothers themselves made the shoes, there was naturally no great air of fashion about the Shaker raiment; but Nathan carried it better than most. His skin was fair and rosy, the down on his upper lip showed dawning manhood, and when he took off his broad-brimmed straw hat and stretched to his full height to reach the upper branches of the apple trees, he made a picture of clean, wholesome, vigorous youth.
Suddenly Susanna raised her head and surprised Hetty looking at the lad with all her heart in her eyes. At the same moment Nathan turned, and before he could conceal the telltale ardor of his glance, it had sped to Hetty. With the instinct of self-preservation he stooped instantly as if to steady the saw on the pole, but it was too late to mend matters: his tale was told so far as Susanna was concerned; but it was better she should suspect than one of the Believers or Eldress Abby.
Susanna worked on in silent anxiety. The likelihood of such crises as this had sometimes crossed her mind, and knowing how frail human nature is, she often marveled that instances seemed so infrequent. Her instinct told her that in every Community the risk must exist, even though all were doubly warned and armed against the temptations that flesh is heir to; yet no hint of danger had showed itself during the months in which she had been a member of the Shaker family. She had heard the Elder's plea to the young converts to take up "a full cross against the flesh"; she had listened to Eldress Abby when she told them that the natural life, its thoughts, passions, feelings, and associations, must be turned against once and forever; but her heart melted in pity for the two poor young things struggling helplessly against instincts of which they hardly knew the meaning, so cloistered had been the life they lived. The kind, conscientious hands that had fed them would now seem hard and unrelenting; the place that had been home would turn to a prison; the life that Elder Gray preached, "the life of a purer godliness than can be attained by marriage," had seemed difficult, perhaps, but possible; and now how cold and hopeless it would appear to these two young, undisciplined, flaming hearts!
"Hetty dear, talk to me!" whispered Susanna, softly touching her shoulder, and wondering if she could somehow find a way to counsel the girl in her perplexity.
Hetty started rebelliously to her feet as Nathan moved away farther into the orchard. "If you say a single thing to me, or a word about me to Eldress Abby, I'll run away this very day. Nobody has any right to speak to me, and I just want to be let alone! It's all very well for you," she went on passionately. "What have you had to give up? Nothing but a husband you did n't love and a home you did n't want to stay in. Like as not you'll be a Shaker, and they'll take you for a saint; but anyway you'll have had your life."
"You are right, Hetty," said Susanna, quietly; "but oh! my dear, the world outside isn't such a Paradise for young girls like you, motherless and fatherless and penniless. You have a good home here; can't you learn to like it?"
"Out in the world people can do as they like and nobody thinks of calling them wicked!" sobbed Hetty, flinging herself down, and putting her head in Susanna's aproned lap. "Here you've got to live like an angel, and if you don't, you've got to confess every wrong thought you've had, when the time comes."
"Whatever you do, Hetty, be open and aboveboard; don't be hasty and foolish, or you may be sorry forever afterwards."
Hetty's mood changed again suddenly to one of mutiny, and she rose to her feet.
"You have n't got any right to interfere with me anyway, Susanna; and if you think it's your duty to tell tales, you'll only make matters worse"; and so saying she took her basket and fled across the fields like a hunted hare.
That evening, as Hetty left the infirmary, where she had been sent with a bottle of liniment for the nursing Sisters, she came upon Nathan standing gloomily under the spruce trees near the back of the building. It was eight o'clock and quite dark. It had been raining during the late afternoon and the trees were still dripping drearily. Hetty came upon Nathan so suddenly, that, although he had been in her thoughts, she gave a frightened little cry when he drew her peremptorily under the shadow of the branches. The rules that govern the Shaker Community are very strict, but in reality the true Believer never thinks of them as rules, nor is trammeled by them. They are fixed habits of the blood, as common, as natural, as sitting or standing, eating or drinking. No Brother is allowed to hold any lengthy interview with a Sister, nor to work, walk, or drive with her alone; but these protective customs, which all are bound in honor to keep, are too much a matter of everyday life to be strange or irksome.
"I must speak to you, Hetty," whispered Nathan. "I cannot bear it any longer alone. What shall we do?"
"Do?" echoed Hetty, trembling.
"Yes, do." There was no pretense of asking her if she loved or suffered, or lived in torture and suspense. They had not uttered a word to each other, but their eyes had "shed meanings."
"You know we can't go on like this," he continued rapidly. "We can't eat their food, stay alongside of them, pray their prayers and act a lie all the time, we can't!"
"Nay, we can't!" said Hetty. "Oh, Nathan, shall we confess all and see if they will help us to resist temptation? I know that's what Susanna would want me to do, but oh! I should dread it."
"Nay, it is too late," Nathan answered drearily. "They could not help us, and we should be held under suspicion forever after."
"I feel so wicked and miserable and unfaithful, I don't know what to do!" sobbed Hetty.
"Yee, so do I!" the lad answered. "And I feel bitter against my father, too. He brought me here to get rid of me, because he did n't dare leave me on somebody's doorstep. He ought to have come back when I was grown a man and asked me if I felt inclined to be a Shaker, and if I was good enough to be one!"
"And my stepfather would n't have me in the house, so my mother had to give me away; but they're both dead, and I'm alone in the world, though I've never felt it, because the Sisters are so kind. Now they will hate me—though they don't hate anybody."
"You've got me, Hetty! We must go away and be married. We'd better go tonight to the minister in Albion."
"What if he would n't do it?"
"Why should n't he? Shakers take no vows, though I feel bound, hand and foot, out of gratitude. If any other two young folks went to him, he would marry them; and if he refuses, there are two other ministers in Albion, besides two more in Buryfield, five miles farther. If they won't marry us tonight, I'll leave you in some safe home and we 'll walk to Portland tomorrow. I'm young and strong, and I know I can earn our living somehow."
"But we have n't the price of a lodging or a breakfast between us," Hetty said tearfully. "Would it be sinful to take some of my basketwork and send back the money next week?"
"Yee, it would be so," Nathan answered sternly. "The least we can do is to go away as empty-handed as we came. I can work for our breakfast."
"Oh, I can't bear to disappoint Eldress Abby," cried Hetty, breaking anew into tears. "She'll say we've run away to live on the lower plane after agreeing to crucify Nature and follow the angelic life!"
"I know; but there are five hundred people in Albion all living in marriage, and we shan't be the only sinners!" Nathan argued. "Oh, Sister Hetty, dear Hetty, keep up your spirits and trust to me!"
Nathan's hand stole out and met Hetty's in its warm clasp, the first hand touch that the two ignorant young creatures had ever felt. Nathan's knowledge of life had been a journey to the Canterbury Shakers in New Hampshire with Brother Issachar; Hetty's was limited to a few drives into Albion village, and half a dozen chats with the world's people who came to the Settlement to buy basketwork.
"I am not able to bear the Shaker life!" sighed Nathan. "Elder Gray allows there be such!"
"Nor I," murmured Hetty. "Eldress Harriet knows I am no saint!"
Hetty's head was now on Nathan's shoulder. The stiff Shaker cap had resisted bravely, but the girl's head had yielded to the sweet proximity. Youth called to youth triumphantly; the Spirit was unheard, and all the theories of celibacy and the angelic life that had been poured into their ears vanished into thin air. The thick shade of the spruce tree hid the kiss that would have been so innocent, had they not given themselves to the Virgin Church; the drip, drip, drip of the branches on their young heads passed unheeded.
Then, one following the other silently along the highroad, hurrying along in the shadows of the tall trees, stealing into the edge of the woods, or hiding behind a thicket of alders at the fancied sound of a footstep or the distant rumble of a wagon, Nathan and Hetty forsook the faith of Mother Ann and went out into the world as Adam and Eve left the garden, with the knowledge of good and evil implanted in their hearts. The voice of Eldress Abby pursued Hetty in her flight like the voice in a dream. She could hear its clear impassioned accents, saying, "The children of this world marry; but the children of the resurrection do not marry, for they are as the angels." The solemn tones grew fainter and fainter as Hetty's steps led her farther and farther away from the quiet Shaker village and its drab-clad Sisters, and at last they almost died into silence, because Nathan's voice was nearer and Nathan's voice was dearer.
VIII. Concerning Backsliders
There was no work in the herb-garden now, but there was never a moment from dawn till long after dusk when the busy fingers of the Shaker Sisters were still. When all else failed there was the knitting: socks for the Brothers and stockings for the Sisters and socks and stockings of every size for the children. One of the quaint sights of the Settlement to Susanna was the clump of young Sisters on the porch of the girls' building, knitting, knitting, in the afternoon sun. Even little Shaker Jane and Mary, Maria and Lucinda, had their socks in hand, and plied their short knitting-needles soberly and not unskillfully. The sight of their industry incited the impetuous Sue to effort, and under the patient tutelage of Sister Martha she mastered the gentle art. Susanna never forgot the hour when, coming from her work in the seed-room, she crossed the grass with a message to Martha, and saw the group of children and girls on the western porch, a place that caught every ray of afternoon sun, the last glint of twilight, and the first hint of sunset glow. Sister Martha had been reading the Sabbath-School lesson for the next day, and as Susanna neared the building, Martha's voice broke into a hymn. Falteringly the girls' voices followed the lead, uncertain at first of words or tune, but gaining courage and strength as they went on:—
"As the waves of the mighty ocean Gospel love we will circulate, And as we give, in due proportion, We of the heavenly life partake. Heavenly Life, Glorious Life, Resurrecting, Soul-Inspiring, Regenerating Gospel Life, It leadeth away from all sin and strife."
The clear, innocent treble sounded sweetly in the virgin stillness and solitude of the Settlement, and as Susanna drew closer she stopped under a tree to catch the picture—Sister Martha, grave, tall, discreet, singing with all her soul and marking time with her hands, so accustomed to the upward and downward movement of the daily service. The straight, plain dresses were as fresh and smooth as perfect washing could make them, and the round childlike faces looked quaint and sweet with the cropped hair tucked under the stiff little caps. Sue was seated with Mary and Jane on the steps, and Susanna saw with astonishment that her needles were moving to and fro and she was knitting as serenely and correctly as a mother in Israel; singing, too, in a delicate little treble that was like a skylark's morning note. Susanna could hear her distinctly as she delightedly flung out the long words so dear to her soul and so difficult to dull little Jane and Mary:—
"Resurrecting, Soul-Inspiring, Regenerating Gospel Life, It leadeth away from all sin and strife."
Jane's cap was slightly unsettled, causing its wearer to stop knitting now and then and pull it forward or push it back; and in one of these little feminine difficulties Susanna saw Sue reach forward and deftly transfer the cap to her own head. Jane was horrified, but rather slow to wrath and equally slow in ingenuity. Sue looked a delicious Shaker with her delicate face, her lovely eyes, and her yellow hair grown into soft rings; and quite intoxicated with her cap, her knitting, and the general air of holiness so unexpectedly emanating from her, she moved her little hands up and down, as the tune rose and fell, in a way that would have filled Eldress Abby with joy. Susanna's heart beat fast, and she wondered for a moment, as she went back to her room, whether she could ever give Sue a worldly childhood more free from danger than the life she was now living. She found letters from Aunt Louisa and Jack on reaching her room, and they lay in her lap under a pile of towels, to be read and reread while her busy needle flew over the coarse crash. Sue stole in quietly, kissed her mother's cheek, and sat down on her stool by the window, marveling, with every "under" of the needle and "over" of the yarn, that it was she, Sue Hathaway, who was making a real stocking.
Jack's pen was not that of an especially ready writer, but he had a practical way of conveying considerable news. His present contributions, when freed from their phonetic errors and spelled in Christian fashion, read somewhat as follows:
Father says I must write to you every week, even if I make him do without, so I will. I am well, and so is Aunt Louisa, and any boy that lives with her has to toe the mark, I tell you; but she is good and has fine things to eat every meal. What did Sue get for her birthday? I got a book from father and one from Aunt Louisa and the one from you that you told her to buy. It is queer that people will give a boy books when he has only one knife, and that a broken one. There's a book prize to be given at the school, and I am pretty afraid I will get that, too; it would be just my luck. Teachers think about nothing but books and what good they do, but I heard of a boy that had a grand knife with five sharp blades and a corkscrew, and in a shipwreck he cut all the ropes, so the sail came down that was carrying them on to the rocks, and then by boring a hole with his corkscrew all the water leaked out of the ship that had been threatening to sink the sailors. I could use a little pocket money, as Aunt Louisa keeps me short. ... I have been spending Sunday with father, and had a pretty good time, not so very. Father will take me about more when he stops going to the store, which will be next week for good. The kitchen floor is new painted, and Ellen says it sticks, and Aunt Louisa is going to make Ellen clean house in case you come home. Do you like where you are? Our teacher told the girls' teacher it seemed a long stay for any one who had a family, and the boys at school call me a half orphan and say my mother has left me and so my father has to board me in the country. My money is run out again. I sat down in a puddle this afternoon, but it dried up pretty quick and did n't hurt my clothes, so no more from your son
This was the sort of message that had been coming to Susanna of late, bringing up little pictures of home duties and responsibilities, homely tasks and trials. "John giving up the store for good"; what did that mean? Had he gone from bad to worse in the solitude that she had hoped might show him the gravity of his offenses, the error of his ways? In case she should die, what then would become of the children? Would Louisa accept the burden of Jack, for whom she had never cared? Would the Shakers take Sue? She would be safe; perhaps she would always be happy; but brother and sister would be divided and brought up as strangers. Would little Sue, grown to big Sue, say some time or other, "My mother renounced the world for herself, but what right had she to renounce it for me? Why did she rob me of the dreams of girlhood and the natural hopes of women, when I was too young to give consent?" These and other unanswerable questions continually drifted through Susanna's mind, disturbing its balance and leaving her like a shuttlecock bandied to and fro between conflicting blows.
"Mardie," came a soft little voice from across the room; "Mardie, what is a backslider?"
"Where did you hear that long word, Sue?" asked Susanna, rousing herself from her dream.
"'T is n't so long as 'regenerating' and more easier."
"Regenerating means 'making over,' you know."
"There'd ought to be children's words and grownup words,—that's what I think," said Sue, decisively; "but what does 'backslider' mean?"
"A backslider is one who has been climbing up a hill and suddenly begins to slip back."
"Does n't his feet take hold right, or why does he slip?"
"Perhaps he can't manage his feet;—perhaps they just won't climb." 295
"Yes, or p'raps he just does n't want to climb any more; but it must be frightensome, sliding backwards."
"I suppose it is."
"Is it wicked?"
"Why, yes, it is, generally; perhaps always."
"Brother Nathan and Sister Hetty were backsliders; Sister Tabitha said so. She told Jane never to speak their names again any more than if they was dead."
"Then you had better not speak of them, either."
"There's so many things better not to speak of in the world, sometimes I think 't would be nicer to be an angel."
"Nicer, perhaps, but one has to be very good to be an angel."
"Backsliders could n't be angels, I s'pose?"
"Not while they were backsliders; but perhaps they'd begin to climb again, and then in time they might grow to be angels."
"I should n't think likely," remarked Sue, decisively, clicking her needles as one who could settle most spiritual problems in a jiffy. "I think the sliding kind is diff'rent from the climbing kind, and they don't make easy angels."
A long pause followed this expression of opinion, this simple division of the human race, at the start, into sheep and goats. Then presently the untiring voice broke the stillness again.
"Nathan and Hetty slid back when they went away from here. Did we backslide when we left Fardie and Jack?"
"I'm not sure but that we did," said poor Susanna.
"There's children-Shakers, and brother-and-sister Shakers, but no father-and-mother Shakers?"
"No; they think they can do just as much good in the world without being mothers and fathers."
"Do you think so?"
"Ye-es, I believe I do."
"Well, are you a truly Shaker, or can't you be till you wear a cap?"
"I'm not a Shaker yet, Sue."
"You're just only a mother?"
"Yes, that's about all."
"Maybe we'd better go back to where there's not so many Sisters and more mothers, so you 'll have somebody to climb togedder with?"
"I could climb here, Sue, and so could you."
"Yes, but who'll Fardie and Jack climb with? I wish they'd come and see us. Brother Ansel would make Fardie laugh, and Jack would love farmwork, and we'd all be so happy. I miss Fardie awfully! He did n't speak to me much, but I liked to look at his curly hair and think how lovely it would be if he did take notice of me and play with me."
A sob from Susanna brought Sue, startled, to her side.
"You break my heart, Sue! You break it every day with the things you say. Don't you love me, Sue?"
"More'n tongue can tell!" cried Sue, throwing herself into her mother's arms. "Don't cry, darling Mardie! I won't talk any more, not for days and days! Let me wipe your poor eyes. Don't let Elder Gray see you crying, or he'll think I've been naughty. He's just going in downstairs to see Eldress Abby. Was it wrong what I said about backsliding, or what, Mardie? We'll help each udder climb, an' then we'll go home an' help poor lonesome Fardie; shall we?"
"Abby!" called Elder Gray, stepping into the entry of the Office Building.
"Yee, I'm coming," Eldress Abby answered from the stairway. "Go right out and sit down on the bench by the door, where I can catch a few minutes' more light for my darning; the days seem to be growing short all to once. Did Lemuel have a good sale of basket-work at the mountains? Rosetta has n't done so well for years at Old Orchard. We seem to be prospering in every material direction, Daniel, but my heart is heavy somehow, and I have to be instant in prayer to keep from discouragement."
"It has n't been an altogether good year with us spiritually," confessed Daniel; "perhaps we needed chastening."
"If we needed it, we've received it," Abby ejaculated, as she pushed her darning-ball into the foot of a stocking. "Nothing has happened since I came here thirty years ago that has troubled me like the running away of Nathan and Hetty. If they had been new converts, we should have thought the good seed had n't got fairly rooted, but those children were brought to us when Nathan was eleven and Hetty nine."
"I well remember, for the boy's father and the girl's mother came on the same train; a most unusual occurrence to receive two children in one day."
"I have cause to remember Hetty in her first month, for she was as wild as a young hawk. She laughed in meeting the first Sunclay, and when she came back, I told her to sit behind me in silence for half an hour while I was reading my Bible. 'Be still now, Hetty, and labor to repent,' I said. When the time was up, she said in a meek little mite of a voice, 'I think I'm least in the Kingdom now, Eldress Abby!' 'Then run outdoors,' I said. She kicked up her heels like a colt and was through the door in a second. Not long afterwards I put my hands behind me to tie my apron tighter, and if that child had n't taken my small scissors lying on the table and cut buttonholes all up and down my strings, hundreds of them, while she was 'laboring to repent.'"
Elder Gray smiled reminiscently, though he had often heard the story before. "Neither of the children came from godly families," he said, "but at least the parents never interfered with us nor came here putting false ideas into their children's heads."
"That's what I say," continued Abby; "and now, after ten years' training and discipline in the angelic life, Hetty being especially promising, to think of their going away together, and worse yet, being married in Albion village right at our very doors; I don't hardly dare to go to bed nights for fear of hearing in the morning that some of the other young folks have been led astray by this foolish performance of Hetty's; I know it was Hetty's fault; Nathan never had ingenuity enough to think and plan it all out."
"Nay, nay, Abby, don't be too hard on the girl; I've watched Nathan closely, and he has been in a dangerous and unstable state, even as long ago as his last confession; but this piece of backsliding, grievous as it is, does n't cause me as much sorrow as the fall of Brother Ephraim. To all appearance he had conquered his appetite, and for five years he has led a sober life. I had even great hopes of him for the ministry, and suddenly, like a great cloud in the blue sky, has come this terrible visitation, this reappearance of the old Adam. 'Ephraim has returned to his idols.'"
"How have you decided to deal with him, Daniel?"
"It is his first offense since he cast in his lot with us; we must rebuke, chastise, and forgive."
"Yee, yee, I agree to that; but how if he makes us the laughing-stock of the community and drags our sacred banner in the dust? We can't afford to have one of our order picked up in the streets by the world's people."
"Have the world's people found an infallible way to keep those of their order out of the gutters?" asked Elder Gray. "Ephraim seems repentant; if he is willing to try again, we must be willing to do as much."
"Yee, Daniel, you are right. Another matter that causes me anxiety is Susanna. I never yearned for a soul as I yearn for hers! She has had the advantage of more education and more reading than most of us have ever enjoyed; she's gifted in teaching and she wins the children. She's discreet and spiritually minded; her life in the world, even with the influence of her dissipated husband, has n't really stained, only humbled her; she would make such a Shaker, if she was once 'convinced,' as we have n't gathered in for years and years; but I fear she's slipping, slipping away, Daniel!"
"What makes you feel so now, particularly?"
"She's diff'rent as time goes on. She's had more letters from that place where her boy is; she cries nights, and though she does n't relax a mite with her work, she drags about sometimes like a bird with one wing."
Elder Daniel took off his broadbrimmed hat to cool his forehead and hair, lifting his eyes to the first pale stars that were trembling in the sky, hesitating in silver and then quietly deepening into gold.
Brother Ansel was a Believer because he had no particular love for the world and no great susceptibility to its temptations; but what had drawn Daniel Gray from the open sea into this quiet little backwater of a Shaker Settlement? After an adventurous early life, in which, as if youth-intoxicated, he had plunged from danger to danger, experience to experience, he suddenly found himself in a society of which he had never so much as heard, a company of celibate brothers and sisters holding all goods and possessions in common, and trying to live the "angelic life" on earth. Illness detained him for a month against his will, but at the end of that time he had joined the Community; and although it had been twenty-five years since his gathering in, he was still steadfast in the faith.
His character was of puritanical sternness; he was a strict disciplinarian, and insisted upon obedience to the rules of Shaker life, "the sacred laws of Zion," as he was wont to term them. He magnified his office, yet he was of a kindly disposition easily approached by children, and not without a quaint old-time humor.
There was a long pause while the two faithful leaders of the little flock were absorbed in thought; then the Elder said: "Susanna's all you say, and the child, well, if she could be purged of her dross, I never saw a creature better fitted to live the celestial life; but we must not harbor any divided hearts here. When the time comes, we must dismiss her with our blessing."
"Yee, I suppose so," said Eldress Abby, loyally, but it was with a sigh. Had she and Tabitha been left to their own instincts, they would have gone out into the highways and hedges, proselyting with the fervor of Mother Ann's day and generation.
"After all, Abby," said the Elder, rising to take his leave, still in a sort of mild trance, "after all, Abby, I suppose the Shakers don't own the whole of heaven. I'd like to think so, but I can't. It's a big place, and it belongs to God."
IX. Love Manifold
The woods on the shores of Massabesic Pond were stretches of tapestry, where every shade of green and gold, olive and brown, orange and scarlet, melted the one into the other. The somber pines made a deep-toned background; patches of sumach gave their flaming crimson; the goldenrod grew rank and tall in glorious profusion, and the maples outside the Office Building were balls of brilliant carmine. The air was like crystal, and the landscape might have been bathed in liquid amber, it was so saturated with October yellow.
Susanna caught her breath as she threw her chamber window wider open in the early morning; for the greater part of the picture had been painted during the frosty night.
"Throw your little cape round your shoulders and come quickly, Sue!" she exclaimed.
The child ran to her side. "Oh, what a goldy, goldy morning!" she cried.
One crimson leaf with a long heavy stem that acted as a sort of rudder, came down to the windowsill with a sidelong scooping flight, while two or three gayly painted ones, parted from the tree by the same breeze, floated airily along as if borne on unseen wings, finally alighting on Sue's head and shoulders like tropical birds.
"You cried in the night, Mardie!" said Sue. "I heard you snifferling and getting up for your hank'chief; but I did n't speak 'cause it's so dreadful to be catched crying."
"Kneel down beside me and give me part of your cape," her mother answered. "I'm going to let my sad heart fly right out of the window into those beautiful trees."
"And maybe a glad heart will fly right in!" the child suggested.
"Maybe. Oh! we must cuddle close and be still; Elder Gray's going to sit down under the great maple; and do you see, all the Brothers seem to be up early this morning, just as we are?"
"More love, Elder Gray!" called Issachar, on his way to the toolhouse.
"More love, Brother Issachar!"
"More love, Brother Ansel!"
"More love, Brother Calvin!"
"More love!.... More love!.... More love!" So the quaint but not uncommon Shaker greeting passed from Brother to Brother; and as Tabitha and Martha and Rosetta met on their way to dairy and laundry and seed-house, they, too, hearing the salutation, took up the refrain, and Susanna and Sue heard again from the women's voices that beautiful morning wish, "More love! More love!" speeding from heart to heart and lip to lip.
Mother and child were very quiet.
"More love, Sue!" said Susanna, clasping her closely.
"More love, Mardie!" whispered the child, smiling and entering into the spirit of the salutation. "Let's turn our heads Farnham way! I'll take Jack and you take Fardie, and we'll say togedder, 'More love'; shall we?"
"More love, John."
"More love, Jack."
The words floated out over the trees in the woman's trembling voice and the child's treble.
"Elder Gray looks tired though he's just got up," Sue continued.
"He is not strong," replied her mother, remembering Brother Ansel's statement that the Elder "wa'n't diseased anywheres, but did n't have no durability."
"The Elder would have a lovely lap," Sue remarked presently.
"A nice lap to sit in. Fardie has a nice lap, too, and Uncle Joel Atterbury, but not Aunt Louisa; she lets you slide right off; it's a bony, hard lap. I love Elder Gray, and I climbed on his lap one day. He put me right down, but I'm sure he likes children. I wish I could take right hold of his hand and walk all over the farm, but he would n't let me, I s'pose.— More love, Elder Gray!" she cried suddenly, bobbing up above the windowsill and shaking her fairy hand at him.
The Elder looked up at the sound of the glad voice. No human creature could have failed to smile back into the roguish face or have treated churlishly the sweet, confident little greeting. The heart of a real man must have an occasional throb of the father, and when Daniel Gray rose from his seat under the maple and called, "More love, child!" there was something strange and touching in his tone. He moved away from the tree to his morning labors with the consciousness of something new to conquer. Long, long ago he had risen victorious above many of the temptations that flesh is heir to. Women were his good friends, his comrades, his sisters; they no longer troubled the waters of his soul; but here was a child who stirred the depths; who awakened the potential father in him so suddenly and so strongly that he longed for the sweetness of a human tie that could bind him to her. But the current of the Elder's being was set towards sacrifice and holiness, and the common joys of human life he felt could never and must never be his; so he went to the daily round, the common task, only a little paler, a little soberer than was his wont.
"More love, Martha!" said Susanna when she met Martha a little later in the day.
"More love, Susanna!" Martha replied cheerily. "You heard our Shaker greeting, I see! It was the beautiful weather, the fine air and glorious colors, that brought the inspiration this morning, I guess! It took us all out of doors, and then it seemed to get into the blood. Besides, tomorrow's the Day of Sacrifice, and that takes us all on to the mountaintops of feeling. There have been times when I had to own up to a lack of love."
"You, Martha, who have such wonderful influence over the children, such patience, such affection!"
"It was n't always so. When I was first put in charge of the children, I did n't like the work. They did n't respond to me somehow, and when they were out of my sight they were ugly and disobedient. My natural mother, Maria Holmes, took care of the girls' clothing. One day she said to me, 'Martha, do you love the girls?'
"'Some of them are very unlovely,' I replied.
"'I know that,' she said, 'but you can never help them unless you love them.'
"I thought mother very critical, for I strove scrupulously to do my duty. A few days after this the Elder said to me: 'Martha, do you love the girls?' I responded, 'Not very much.'
"'You cannot save them unless you love them,' he said. Then I answered, 'I will labor for a gift of love.'
"When the work of the day was over, and the girls were in bed, I would take off my shoes and spend several hours of the night walking the floor, kneeling in prayer that I might obtain the coveted gift. For five weeks I did this without avail, when suddenly one night when the moon was full and I was kneeling by the window, a glory seemed to overshadow the crest of a high mountain in the distance. I thought I heard a voice say: 'Martha, I baptize you into the spirit of love!' I sat there trembling for more than an hour, and when I rose, I felt that I could love the meanest human being that ever walked the earth. I have never had any trouble with children since that night of the vision. They seem different to me, and I dare say I am different to them."
"I wish I could see visions!" exclaimed Susanna. "Oh, for a glory that would speak to me and teach me truth and duty! Life is all mist, whichever way I turn. I'd like to be lifted on to a high place where I could see clearly."
She leaned against the frame of the open kitchen door, her delicate face quivering with emotion and longing, her attitude simplicity and unconsciousness itself. The baldest of Shaker prose turned to purest poetry when Susanna dipped it in the alembic of her own imagination.
"Labor for the gift of sight!" said Martha, who believed implicitly in spirits and visions. "Labor this very night."
It must be said for Susanna that she had never ceased laboring in her own way for many days. The truth was that she felt herself turning from marriage. She had lived now so long in the society of men and women who regarded it as an institution not compatible with the highest spiritual development that unconsciously her point of view had changed; changed all the more because she had been so unhappy with the man she had chosen. Curiously enough, and unfortunately enough for Susanna Hathaway's peace of mind, the greater aversion she felt towards the burden of the old life, towards the irksomeness of guiding a weaker soul, towards the claims of husband on wife, the stronger those claims appeared. If they had never been assumed!—Ah, but they had; there was the rub! One sight of little Sue sleeping tranquilly beside her; one memory of rebellious, faulty Jack; one vision of John, either as needing or missing her, the rightful woman, or falling deeper in the wiles of the wrong one for very helplessness;—any of these changed Susanna the would-be saint, in an instant, into Susanna the wife and mother.
"Speak to me for Thy Compassion's sake," she prayed from the little book of Confessions that her mother had given her. "I will follow after Thy Voice!"
"Would you betray your trust?" asked conscience.
"No, not intentionally."
"Would you desert your post?"
"You have divided the family; taken a little quail bird out of the home-nest and left sorrow behind you. Would God justify you in that?"
For the first time Susanna's "No" rang clearly enough for her to hear it plainly; for the first time it was followed by no vague misgivings, no bewilderment, no unrest or indecision. "I turn hither and hither; Thy purposes are hid from me, but I commend my soul to Thee!"
Then a sentence from the dear old book came into her memory: "And thy dead things shall revive, and thy weak things shall be made whole."
She listened, laying hold of every word, till the nervous clenching of her hands subsided, her face relaxed into peace. Then she lay down beside Sue, creeping close to her for the warmth and comfort and healing of her innocent touch, and, closing her eyes serenely, knew no more till the morning broke, the Sabbath morning of Confession Day.
X. Brother and Sister
If Susanna's path had grown more difficult, more filled with anxieties, so had John Hathaway's. The protracted absence of his wife made the gossips conclude that the break was a final one. Jack was only half contented with his aunt, and would be fairly mutinous in the winter, while Louisa's general attitude was such as to show clearly that she only kept the boy for Susanna's sake.
Now and then there was a terrifying hint of winter in the air, and the days of Susanna's absence seemed eternal to John Hathaway. Yet he was a man about whom there would have been but one opinion: that when deprived of a rather superior and high-minded wife and the steadying influence of home and children, he would go completely "to the dogs," whither he seemed to be hurrying when Susanna's wifely courage failed. That he had done precisely the opposite and the unexpected thing, shows us perhaps that men are not on the whole as capable of estimating the forces of their fellow men as is God the maker of men, who probably expects something of the worst of them up to the very last.
It was at the end of a hopeless Sunday when John took his boy back to his aunt's towards night. He wondered drearily how a woman dealt with a ten-year-old boy who from sunrise to sunset had done every mortal thing he ought not to have done, and had left undone everything that he had been told to do; and, as if to carry out the very words of the church service, neither was there any health in him; for he had an inflamed throat and a whining, irritable, discontented temper that could be borne only by a mother, a father being wholly inadequate and apparently never destined for the purpose.
It was a mild evening late in October, and Louisa sat on the porch with her pepper-and-salt shawl on and a black wool "rigolette" tied over her head. Jack, very sulky and unresigned, was dispatched to bed under the care of the one servant, who was provided with a cupful of vinegar, salt, and water, for a gargle. John had more than an hour to wait for a returning train to Farnham, and although ordinarily he would have preferred to spend the time in the silent and unreproachful cemetery rather than in the society of his sister Louisa, he was too tired and hopeless to do anything but sit on the steps and smoke fitfully in the semidarkness. Louisa was much as usual. She well knew—who better?—her brother's changed course of life, but neither encouragement nor compliment were in her line. Why should a man be praised for living a respectable life? That John had really turned a sort of moral somersault and come up a different creature, she did not realize in the least, nor the difficulties surmounted in such a feat; but she did give him credit secretly for turning about face and behaving far more decently than she could ever have believed possible. She had no conception of his mental torture at the time, but if he kept on doing well, she privately intended to inform Susanna and at least give her a chance of trying him again, if absence had diminished her sense of injury. One thing that she did not know was that John was on the eve of losing his partnership. When Jack had said that his father was not going back to the store the next week, she thought it meant simply a vacation. Divided hearts, broken vows, ruined lives she could bear the sight of these with considerable philosophy, but a lost income was a very different, a very tangible thing. She almost lost her breath when her brother knocked the ashes from his meerschaum and curtly told her of the proposed change in his business relations.
"I don't know what I shall do yet," he said, "whether I shall set up for myself in a small way or take a position in another concern,—that is, if I can get one—my stock of popularity seems to be pretty low just now in Farnham. I'd move away tomorrow and cut the whole gossipy, deceitful, hypocritical lot of 'em if I was n't afraid of closing the house and so losing Susanna, if she should ever feel like coming back to us."
These words and the thought back of them were too much for John's self-control. The darkness helped him and his need of comfort was abject. Suddenly he burst out, "Oh, Louisa, for heaven's sake, give me a little crumb of comfort, if you have any! How can you stand like a stone all these months and see a man suffering as I have suffered, without giving him a word?"
"You brought it on yourself," said Louisa, in self-exculpation.
"Does that make it any easier to bear?" cried John. "Don't you suppose I remember it every hour, and curse myself the more? You know perfectly well that I'm a different man today. I don't know what made me change; it was as if something had been injected into my blood that turned me against everything I had liked best before. I hate the sight of the men and the women I used to go with, not because they are any worse, but because they remind me of what I have lost. I have reached the point now where I have got to have news of Susanna or go and shoot myself."
"That would be about the only piece of foolishness you have n't committed already!" replied Louisa, with a biting satire that would have made any man let go of the trigger in case he had gone so far as to begin pulling it.
"Where is she?" John went on, without anger at her sarcasm. "Where is she, how is she, what is she living on, is she well, is she just as bitter as she was at first, does she ever speak of coming back? Tell me something, tell me anything. I will know something. I say I will!"
Louisa's calm demeanor began to show a little agitation, for she was not used to the sight of emotion. "I can't tell you where Susanna is, for I made her a solemn promise I would n't unless you or Jack were in danger of some kind; but I don't mind telling you this much, that she's well and in the safest kind of a shelter, for she's been living from the first in a Shaker Settlement."
"Shaker Settlement!" cried John, starting up from his seat on the steps. "What's that? I know Shaker egg-beaters and garden-seeds and rocking-chairs and oh, yes, I remember their religion's against marriage. That's the worst thing you could have told me; that ends all hope; if they once get hold of a woman like Susanna, they'll never let go of her; if they don't believe in a woman's marrying a good man, they'd never let her go back to a bad one. Oh, if I had only known this before; if only you'd told me, Louisa, perhaps I could have done something. Maybe they take vows or sign contracts, and so I have lost her altogether."
"I don't know much about their beliefs, and Susanna never explained them," returned Louisa, nervously "but now that you've got something to offer her, why don't you write and ask her to come back to you? I'll send your letter to her."
"I don't dare, Louisa, I don't dare," groaned John, leaning his head against one of the pillars of the porch. "I can't tell you the fear I have of Susanna after the way I've neglected her this last year. If she should come in at the gate this minute, I could n't meet her eyes; if you'd read the letter she left me, you'd feel the same way. I deserved it, to the last word, but oh, it was like so many separate strokes of lightning, and every one of them burned. It was nothing but the truth, but it was cut in with a sharp sword. Unless she should come back to me of her own accord, and she never will, I have n't got the courage to ask her; just have n't got the courage, that's all there is to say about it." And here John buried his head in his hands.
A very queer thing happened to Louisa Banks at this moment. A half-second before she would have murmured:
"This rock shall fly From its firm base as soon as I!"
when all at once, and without warning, a strange something occurred in the organ which she had always regarded and her opinion had never yet been questioned as a good, tough, love-tight heart. First there was a flutter and a tremor running all along her spine; then her eyes filled; then a lump rose in her throat and choked her; then words trembled on her tongue and refused to be uttered; then something like a bird—could it have been the highly respectable good-as-new heart?—throbbed under her black silk Sunday waist; then she grew like wax from the crown of her head to the soles of her feet; then in a twinkling, and so unconsciously as to be unashamed of it, she became a sister.
You have seen a gray November morning melt into an Indian summer noon? Louisa Banks was like that, when, at the sight of a man in sore trouble, sympathy was born in her to soften the rockiness of her original makeup.
"There, there, John, don't be so downhearted," she stammered, drawing her chair closer and putting her hand on his shoulder. "We'll bring it round right, you see if we don't. You've done the most yourself already, for I'm proud of the way you've acted, stiffening right up like an honest man and showing you've got some good sensible Hathaway stuff in you, after all, and ain't ashamed to turn your back on your evil ways. Susanna ain't one to refuse forgiveness."
"She forgave for a long time, but she refused at last. Why should she change now?" John asked.
"You remember she has n't heard a single word from you, nor about you, in that out-of-the-way place where she's been living," said Louisa, consolingly. "She thinks you're the same as you were, or worse, maybe. Perhaps she's waiting for you to make some sign through me, for she don't know that you care anything about her, or are pining to have her back."
"Such a woman as Susanna must know better than that!" cried John. "She ought to know that when a man got used to living with anybody like her, he could never endure any other kind."
"How should she know all that? Jack's been writing to her and telling her the news for the last few weeks, though I have n't said a word about you because I did n't know how long your reformation was going to hold out; but I won't let the grass grow under my feet now, till I tell her just how things stand!"