"You're a good woman, Louisa; I don't see why I never noticed it before."
"It's because I've been concealing my goodness too much. Stay here with me tonight and don't go back to brood in that dismal, forsaken house. We'll see how Jack is in the morning, and if he's all right, take him along with you, so's to be all there together if Susanna comes back this week, as I kind of hope she will. Make Ellen have the house all nice and cheerful from top to bottom, with a good supper ready to put on the table the night she comes. You'd better pick your asters and take 'em in for the parlor, then I'll cut the chrysanthemums for you in the middle of the week. The day she comes I'll happen in, and stay to dinner if you find it's going to be mortifying for you; but if everything is as I expect it will be, and the way Susanna always did have things, I'll make for home and leave you to yourselves. Susanna ain't one to nag and hector and triumph over a man when he's repented."
John hugged Louisa, pepper-and-salt shawl, black rigolette, and all, when she finished this unprecedented speech; and when he went to sleep that night in the old north chamber, the one he and Louisa had been born in, the one his father and mother had died in, it was with a little smile of hope on his lips.
Set her place at hearth and board As it used to be!
These were the last words that crossed his waking thoughts. Before Louisa went to her own bed, she wrote one of her brief and characteristic epistles to Susanna, but it did not reach her, for the "hills of home" had called John's wife so insistently on that Sunday, that the next day found her on her way back to Farnham.
Dear Susanna [so the letter read], There's a new man in your house at Farnham. His name is John Hathaway, but he's made all over and it was high time. I say it's the hand of God! He won't own up that it is, but I'm letting him alone, for I've done quarreling, though I don't like to see a man get religion and deny it, for all the world like Peter in the New Testament. If you have n't used up the last one of your seventy-times-sevens, I think you'd better come back and forgive your husband. If you don't, you'd better send for your son. I'm willing to bear the burdens the Lord intends specially for me, but Jack belongs to you, and a good-sized heavy burden he is, too, for his age. I can't deny that, if he is a Hathaway. I think he's the kind of a boy that ought to be put in a barrel and fed through the bunghole till he grows up; but of course I'm not used to children's ways.
Be as easy with John at first as you can. I know you 'll say I never was with my husband, but he was different, he got to like a bracing treatment, Adlai did. Many's the time he said to me, "Louisa, when you make up our minds, I'm always contented." But John is n't made that way. He's a changed man; now, what we've got to do is to keep him changed. He does n't bear you any grudge for leaving him, so he won't reproach you.
Hoping to see you before long, I am,
Yours as usual,
XI. "The Open Door"
On the Saturday evening before the yearly Day of Sacrifice the spiritual heads of each Shaker family called upon all the Believers to enter heartily next day into the humiliations and blessings of open confession.
The Sabbath dawns upon an awed and solemn household. Footfalls are hushed, the children's chatter is stilled, and all go to the morning meal in silence. There is a strange quiet, but it is not sadness; it is a hush, as when in Israel's camp the silver trumpets sounded and the people stayed in their tents. "Then," Elder Gray explained to Susanna, "a summons comes to each Believer, for all have been searching the heart and scanning the life of the months past. Softly the one called goes to the door of the one appointed by the Divine Spirit, the human representative who is to receive the gift of the burdened soul. Woman confesses to woman, man to man; it is the open door that leads to God."
Susanna lifted Eldress Abby's latch and stood in her strong, patient presence; then all at once she knelt impulsively and looked up into her serene eyes.
"Do you come as a Believer, Susanna?" tremblingly asked the Eldress.
"No, Eldress Abby. I come as a child of the world who wants to go back to her duty, and hopes to do it better than she ever did before. She ought to be able to, because you have chastened her pride, taught her the lesson of patience, strengthened her will, purified her spirit, and cleansed her soul from bitterness and wrath. I waited till afternoon when all the confessions were over. May I speak now?"
Eldress Abby bowed, but she looked weak and stricken and old.
"I had something you would have called a vision last night, but I think of it as a dream, and I know just what led to it. You told me Polly Reed's story, and the little quail bird had such a charm for Sue that I've repeated it to her more than once. In my sleep I seemed to see a mother quail with a little one beside her. The two were always together, happily flying or hopping about under the trees; but every now and then I heard a sad little note, as of a deserted bird somewhere in the wood. I walked a short distance, and parting the branches, saw on the open ground another parent bird and a young one by its side darting hither and thither, as if lost; they seemed to be restlessly searching for something, and always they uttered the soft, sad note, as if the nest had disappeared and they had been parted from the little flock. Of course my brain had changed the very meaning of the Shaker story and translated it into different terms, but when I woke this morning, I could think of nothing but my husband and my boy. The two of them seemed to me to be needing me, searching for me in the dangerous open country, while I was hidden away in the safe shelter of the wood—I and the other little quail bird I had taken out of the nest."
"Do you think you could persuade your husband to unite with us?" asked Abby, wiping her eyes.
The tension of the situation was too tightly drawn for mirth, or Susanna could have smiled, but she answered soberly, "No; if John could develop the best in himself, he could be a good husband and father, a good neighbor and citizen, and an upright business man, but never a Shaker."
"Did n't he insult your wifely honor and disgrace your home?" "Yes, in the last few weeks before I left him. All his earlier offenses were more against himself than me, in a sense. I forgave him many a time, but I am not certain it was the seventy times seven that the Bible bids us. I am not free from blame myself. I was hard the last year, for I had lost hope and my pride was trailing in the dust. I left him a bitter letter, one without any love or hope or faith in it, just because at the moment I believed I ought, once in my life, to let him know how I felt toward him."
"How can you go back and live under his roof with that feeling? It's degradation."
"It has changed. I was morbid then, and so wounded and weak that I could not fight any longer. I am rested now, and calm. My pluck has come back, and my strength. I've learned a good deal here about casting out my own devils; now I am going home and help him to cast out his. Perhaps he won't be there; perhaps he does n't want me, though when he was his very best self he loved me dearly; but that was long, long ago!" sighed Susanna, drearily.
"Oh, this thing the world's people call love!" groaned Abby.
"There is love and love, even in the world outside; for if it is Adam's world it is God's, too, Abby! The love I gave my husband was good, I think, but it failed somewhere, and I am going back to try again. I am not any too happy in leaving you and taking up, perhaps, heavier burdens than those from which I escaped."
"Night after night I've prayed to be the means of leading you to the celestial life," said the Eldress, "but my plaint was not worthy to be heard. Oh, that God would increase our numbers and so revive our drooping faith! We work, we struggle, we sacrifice, we pray, we defy the world and deny the flesh, yet we fail to gather in Believers."
"Don't say you 've failed, dear, dear Abby!" cried Susanna, pressing the Eldress's work-stained hands to her lips. "God speaks to you in one voice, to me in another. Does it matter so much as long as we both hear Him? Surely it's the hearing and the obeying that counts most! Wish me well, dear friend, and help me to say goodbye to the Elder."
The two women found Elder Gray in the office, and Abby, still unresigned, laid Susanna's case before him.
"The Great Architect has need of many kinds of workmen in His building," said the Elder. "There are those who are willing to put aside the ties of flesh for the kingdom of heaven's sake; 'he that is able to receive it, let him receive it!'"
"There may also he those who are willing to take up the ties of the flesh for the kingdom of heaven's sake," answered Susanna, gently, but with a certain courage.
Her face glowed with emotion, her eyes shone, her lips were parted. It was a new thought. Abby and Daniel gazed at her for a moment without speaking, then Daniel said: "It's a terrible cross to some of the Brethren and Sisters to live here outside of the world, but maybe it's more of a cross for such as you to live in it, under such conditions as have surrounded you of late years. To pursue good and resist evil, to bear your cross cheerfully and to grow in grace and knowledge of truth while you're bearing it that's the lesson of life, I suppose. If you find you can't learn it outside, come back to us, Susanna."
"I will," she promised, "and no words can speak my gratitude for what you have all done for me. Many a time it will come back to me and keep me from faltering."
She looked back at him from the open doorway, timidly.
"Don't forget us, Sue and me, altogether," she said, her eyes filling with tears. "Come to Farnham, if you will, and see if I am a credit to Shaker teaching! I shall never be here again, perhaps, and somehow it seems to me as if you, Elder Gray, with your education and your gifts, ought to be leading a larger life than this."
"I've hunted in the wild Maine forests, in my young days; I've speared salmon in her rivers and shot rapids ill a birchbark canoe," said the Elder, looking up from the pine table that served as a desk. "I've been before the mast and seen strange countries; I've fought Indians; I've faced perils on land and sea; but this Shaker life is the greatest adventure of all!"
"Adventure?" echoed Susanna, uncomprehendingly.
"Adventure!" repeated the Elder, smiling at his own thoughts. "Whether I fail, or whether I succeed, it's a splendid adventure in ethics."
Abby and Daniel looked at each other when Susanna passed out of the office door.
"'They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us,'" he quoted quietly.
Abby wiped her eyes with her apron. "It's a hard road to travel sometimes, Daniel!" she said.
"Yee; but think where it leads, Abby, think where it leads! You're not going to complain of dust when you're treading the King's Highway!"
Susanna left the office with a drooping head, knowing the sadness that she had left behind. Brother Ansel sat under the trees near by, and his shrewd eye perceived the drift of coming events.
"Well, Susanna," he drawled, "you're goin' to leave us, like most o' the other 'jiners.' I can see that with one eye shut."
"Yes," she replied with a half smile; "but you see, Ansel, I 'jined' John Hathaway before I knew anything about Shaker doctrines."
"Yee; but what's to prevent your onjinin' him? They used to tie up married folks in the old times so't they could n't move an inch. When they read the constitution and bylaws over 'em they used to put in 'till death do us part.' That's the way my father was hitched to his three wives, but death did 'em part—fortunately for him!"
"'Till death us do part' is still in the marriage service," Susanna said, "and I think of it very often."
"I want to know if that's there yit!" exclaimed Ansel, with apparent surprise; "I thought they must be leavin' it out, there's so much onjinin' nowadays! Well, accordin' to my notions, if there is anything wuss 'n marriage, it's hevin' it hold till death, for then menfolks don't git any chance of a speritual life till afterwards. They certainly don't when they're being dragged down by women-folks an' young ones."
"I think the lasting part of the bargain makes it all the more solemn," Susanna argued.
"Oh, yes, it's solemn enough, but so's a prayer meetin', an' consid'able more elevatin' "; and here Ansel regarded the surrounding scenery with frowning disapproval, as if it left much to be desired.
"Don't you think that there are any agreeable and pleasant women, Ansel?" ventured Susanna.
"Land, yes; heaps of 'em; but they all wear Shaker bunnits!"
"I suppose you know more about the women in the outside world than most of the Brothers, on account of traveling so much?"
"I guess anybody 't drives a seed-cart or peddles stuff along the road knows enough o' women to keep clear of 'em. They 'll come out the kitchen door, choose their papers o' seasonin' an' bottles o' flavorin', worry you 'bout the price an' take the aidge off every dime, make up an' then onmake their minds 'bout what they want, ask if it's pure, an' when by good luck you git your cart out o' the yard, they come runnin' along the road after ye to git ye to swap a bottle o' vanilla for some spruce gum an' give 'em back the change."
Susanna could not help smiling at Ansel's arraignment of her sex. "Do you think they follow you for the pleasure of shopping, or the pleasure of your conversation, Ansel?" she asked slyly.
"A little o' both, mebbe; though the pleasure's all on their side," returned the unchivalrous Ansel. "But take them same women, cut their hair close to their heads (there's a heap o' foolishness in hair, somehow), purge 'em o' their vanity, so they won't be lookin' in the glass all the time, make 'em depend on one another for sassiety, so they won't crave no conversation with menfolks, an' you git an article that's 'bout as good and 'bout as stiddy as a man!"
"You never seem to remember that men are just as dangerous to women's happiness and goodness as women are to men's," said Susanna, courageously.
"It don't seem so to me! Never see a man, hardly, that could stick to the straight an' narrer if a woman wanted him to go the other way. Weak an' unstable as water, menfolks are, an' women are pow'ful strong."
"Have your own way, Ansel! I'm going back to the world, but no man shall ever say I hindered him from being good. You'll see women clearer in another world."
"There'll be precious few of 'em to see!" retorted Ansel. "You're about the best o' the lot, but even you have a kind of a managin' way with ye, besides fillin' us all full o' false hopes that we'd gathered in a useful Believer, one cal'lated to spread the doctrines o' Mother Ann!"
"I know, I know, Ansel, and oh, how sorry I am! You would never believe how I long to stay and help you, never believe how much you have helped me! Goodbye, Ansel; you've made me smile when my heart was breaking. I shan't forget you!"
XII. The Hills of Home
Susanna had found Sue in the upper chamber at the Office Building, and began to make the simple preparations for her homeward journey. It was the very hour when John Hathaway was saying:—
"Set her place at hearth and board As it used to be."
Sue interfered with the packing somewhat by darting to and fro, bringing her mother sacred souvenirs given her by the Shaker sisters and the children—needle-books, pin-balls, thimble-cases, packets of flower-seeds, polished pebbles, bottles of flavoring extract.
"This is for Fardie," she would say, "and this for Jack and this for Ellen and this for Aunt Louisa—the needle-book, 'cause she's so useful. Oh, I'm glad we're going home, Mardie, though I do love it here, and I was most ready to be a truly Shaker. It's kind of pityish to have your hair shingled and your stocking half-knitted and know how to say 'yee' and then have it all wasted."
Susanna dropped a tear on the dress she was folding. The child was going home, as she had come away from it, gay, irresponsible, and merry; it was only the mothers who hoped and feared and dreaded. The very universe was working toward Susanna's desire at that moment, but she was all unaware of the happiness that lay so near. She could not see the freshness of the house in Farnham, the new bits of furniture here and there; the autumn leaves in her own bedroom; her worktable full of the records of John's sorrowful summer; Jack handsomer and taller, and softer, also, in his welcoming mood; Ellen rosy and excited. She did not know that Joel Atterbury had said to John that day, "I take it all back, old man, and I hope you'll stay on in the firm!" nor that Aunt Louisa, who was putting stiff, short-stemmed chrysanthemums in cups and tumblers here and there through the house, was much more flexible and human than was natural to her; nor that John, alternating between hope and despair, was forever humming:
"Set her place at hearth and board As it used to be: Higher are the hills of home, Bluer is the sea!"
It is often so. They who go weeping to look for the dead body of a sorrow, find a vision of angels where the body has lain.
"I hope Fardie 'll be glad to see us and Ellen will have gingerbread," Sue chattered; then, pausing at the window, she added, "I'm sorry to leave the hills, 'cause I 'specially like them, don't you, Mardie?"
"We are leaving the Shaker hills, but we are going to the hills of home," her mother answered cheerily. "Don't you remember the Farnham hills, dear?"
"Yes, I remember," and Sue looked thoughtful; "they were farther off and covered with woods; these are smooth and gentle. And we shall miss the lake, Mardie."
"Yes; but we can look at the blue sea from your bedroom window, Sue!"
"And we'll tell Fardie about Polly Reed and the little quail bird, won't we?"
"Yes; but he and Jack will have a great deal to say to us, and we must n't talk all the time about the dear, kind Shakers, you know!"
"You're all 'buts,' Mardie!" at which Susanna smiled through her tears.
Twilight deepened into dusk, and dusk into dark, and then the moon rose over the poplar trees outside the window where Susanna and Sue were sleeping. The Shaker Brethren and Sisters were resting serenely after their day of confession. It was the aged Tabitha's last Sabbath on earth, but had she known, it would have made no difference; if ever a soul was ready for heaven, it was Tabitha's.
There was an Irish family at the foot of the long hill that lay between the Settlement and the village of Albion; father, mother, and children had prayed to the Virgin before they went to bed; and the gray-haired minister in the low-roofed parsonage was writing his communion sermon on a text sacred to the orthodox Christian world. The same moon shone over all, and over millions of others worshiping strange idols and holding strange beliefs in strange far lands, yet none of them owned the whole of heaven; for as Elder Gray said, "It is a big place and belongs to God."
Susanna Hathaway went back to John thinking it her plain duty, and to me it seems beautiful that she found waiting for her at the journey's end a new love that was better than the old; found a husband to whom she could say in that first sacred hour when they were alone together, "Never mind, John! Let's forget, and begin all over again."
When Susanna and Sue alighted at the little railway station at Farnham, and started to walk through the narrow streets that led to the suburbs, the mother's heart beat more and more tumultuously as she realized that the issues of four lives would be settled before nightfall.
Little did Sue reck of life issues, skipping like a young roe from one side of the road to the other. "There are the hills, not a bit changed, Mardie!" she cried; "and the sea is just where it was!... Here's the house with the parrot, do you remember? Now the place where the dog barks and snarls is coming next... P'raps he'll be dead.., or p'raps he'll be nicer... Keep close to me till we get past the gate... He did n't come out, so p'raps he is dead or gone a-visiting.... There's that 'specially lazy cow that's always lying down in the Buxtons' field.... I don't b'lieve she's moved since we came away.... Do you s'pose she stands up to be milked, Mardie? There's the old bridge over the brook, just the same, only the woodbine's red.... There's... There's... Oh, Mardie, look, look!... I do b'lieve it's our Jacky!"
Sue flew over the ground like a swallow, calling "Jack-y! Jack-y! It's me and Mardie come home!"
Jack extricated himself from his sister's strangling hug and settled his collar. "I'm awful glad to see you, Sukey," he said, "but I'm getting too big to be kissed. Besides, my pockets are full of angleworms and fishhooks."
"Are you too big to be kissed even by mother?" called Susanna, hurrying to her boy, who submitted to her embrace with better grace. "O Jack, Jack! say you're glad to see mother! Say it, say it; I can't wait, Jack!"
"'Course I'm glad! Why would n't I be? I tell you I'm tired of Aunt Louisa, though she's easier than she was. Time and again I've packed my lunch basket and started to run away, but I always made it a picnic and went back again, thinking they'd make such a row over me."
"Aunt Louisa is always kind when you're obedient," Susanna urged, "She ain't so stiff as she was. Ellen is real worried about her and thinks she's losing her strength, she's so easy to get along with."
"Better'n he was."
"Has n't he been well?"
"Not so very; always quiet and won't eat, nor play, nor anything. I'm home with him since Sunday."
"What is the matter with your clothes?" asked Susanna, casting a maternal eye over him while she pulled him down here and up there, with anxious disapproving glances. "You look so patched, and wrinkled, and grubby."
"Aunt Louisa and father make me keep my best to put on for you, if you should come. I clean up and dress every afternoon at train time, only I forgot today and came fishing."
"It's too cold to fish, sonny."
"It ain't too cold to fish, but it's too cold for 'em to bite," corrected Jack.
"Why were you expecting us just now?" asked Susanna. "I did n't write because... because, I thought... perhaps... it would be better to surprise you."
"Father's expecting you every day, not just this one," said Jack.
Susanna sank down on a stone at the end of the bridge, and leaning her head against the railing, burst into tears. In that moment the worst of her fears rolled away from her heart like the stone from the mouth of a sepulcher. If her husband had looked for her return, he must have missed her, regretted her, needed her, just a little. His disposition was sweet, even if it were thoughtless, and he might not meet her with reproaches after all. There might not be the cold greeting she had often feared—"Well, you've concluded to come back, have you? It was about time!" If only John were a little penitent, a little anxious to meet her on some common ground, she felt her task would be an easier one.
"Have you got a pain, Mardie?" cried Sue, anxiously bending over her mother.
"No, dear," she answered, smiling through her tears and stretching a hand to both children to help her to her feet. "No, dear, I've lost one!"
"I cry when anything aches, not when it stops," remarked Jack, as the three started again on their walk. "Say, Sukey, you look bigger and fatter than you did when you went away, and you've got short curls 'stead of long ones. Do you see how I've grown? Two inches!"
"I'm inches and inches bigger and taller," Sue boasted, standing on tiptoe and stretching herself proudly. "And I can knit, and pull maple candy, and say Yee, and sing 'O Virgin Church, how great thy light.'"
"Pooh," said Jack, "I can sing 'A sailor's life's the life for me, Yo ho, yo ho!' Step along faster, mummy dear; it's 'most supper time. Aunt Louisa won't scold if you're with me. There's the house, see? Father 'll be working in the garden covering up the asters, so they won't freeze before you come."
"There is no garden, Jack. What do you mean?" "Wait till you see if there's no garden! Hurrah! there's father at the window, side of Aunt Louisa. Won't he be pleased I met you halfway and brought you home!"
Oh! it was beautiful, the autumn twilight, the smoke of her own hearth-side rising through the brick chimneys! She thought she had left the way of peace behind her, but no, the way of peace was here, where her duty was, and her husband and children.
The sea was deep blue; the home hills rolled softly along the horizon; the little gate that Susanna had closed behind her in anger and misery stood wide open; shrubs, borders, young hedgerows, beds of late autumn flowers greeted her eyes and touched her heart. A foot sounded on the threshold; the home door opened and smiled a greeting; and then a voice choked with feeling, glad with welcome, called her name.
Light-footed Sue ran with a cry of joy into her father's outstretched arms, and then leaping down darted to Ellen, chattering like a magpie. Husband and wife looked at each other for one quivering moment, and then clasped each other close.
"Forgive! O Susanna, forgive!"
John's eyes and lips and arms made mute appeals, and it was then Susanna said, "Never mind, John! Let's forget, and begin all over again!"