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It was the end of May, when "spring goeth all in white." The apple trees were scattering their delicate petals on the ground, dropping them over the stone walls to the roadsides, where in the moist places of the shadows they fell on beds of snowy innocence. Here and there a single tree was tinged with pink, but so faintly, it was as if the white were blushing. Now and then a tiny white butterfly danced in the sun and pearly clouds strayed across the sky in fleecy flocks.
Everywhere the grass was of ethereal greenness, a greenness drenched with the pale yellow of spring sunshine. Looking from earth to sky and from blossom to blossom, the little world of the apple orchards, shedding its falling petals like fair-weather snow, seemed made of alabaster and porcelain, ivory and mother-of-pearl, all shimmering on a background of tender green.
After you pass Albion village, with its streets shaded by elms and maples and its outskirts embowered in blossoming orchards, you wind along a hilly country road that runs between grassy fields. Here the whiteweed is already budding, and there are pleasant pastures dotted with rocks and fringed with spruce and fir; stretches of woodland, too, where the road is lined with giant pines and you lift your face gratefully to catch the cool balsam breath of the forest. Coming from out this splendid shade, this silence too deep to be disturbed by light breezes or vagrant winds, you find yourself on the brow of a descending hill. The first thing that strikes the eye is a lake that might be a great blue sapphire dropped into the verdant hollow where it lies. When the eye reluctantly leaves the lake on the left, it turns to rest upon the little Shaker Settlement on the right--a dozen or so large comfortable white barns, sheds, and houses, standing in the wide orderly spaces of their own spreading acres of farm and timber land. There again the spring goeth all in white, for there is no spot to fleck the dazzling quality of Shaker paint, and their apple, plum, and pear trees are so well cared for that the snowy blossoms are fairly hiding the branches.
The place is very still, although there are signs of labor in all directions. From a window of the girls' building a quaint little gray-clad figure is beating a braided rug; a boy in homespun, with his hair slightly long in the back and cut in a straight line across the forehead, is carrying milk-cans from the dairy to one of the Sisters' Houses. Men in broad-brimmed hats, with clean-shaven, ascetic faces, are ploughing or harrowing here and there in the fields, while a group of Sisters is busy setting out plants and vines in some beds near a cluster of noble trees. That cluster of trees, did the eye of the stranger realize it, was the very starting-point of this Shaker Community, for in the year 1785, the valiant Father James Whittaker, one of Mother Ann Lee's earliest English converts, stopped near the village of Albion on his first visit to Maine. As he and his Elders alighted from their horses, they stuck into the ground the willow withes they had used as whips, and now, a hundred years later, the trees that had grown from these slender branches were nearly three feet in diameter.
From whatever angle you look upon the Settlement, the first and strongest impression is of quiet order, harmony, and a kind of austere plenty. Nowhere is the purity of the spring so apparent. Nothing is out of place; nowhere is any confusion, or appearance of loose ends, or neglected tasks. As you come nearer, you feel the more surely that here there has never been undue haste nor waste; no shirking, no putting off till the morrow what should have been done today. Whenever a shingle or a clapboard was needed it was put on, where paint was required it was used,--that is evident; and a look at the great barns stored with hay shows how the fields have been conscientiously educated into giving a full crop.
To such a spot as this might any tired or sinful heart come for rest; hoping somehow, in the midst of such frugality and thrift, such self-denying labor, such temperate use of God's good gifts, such shining cleanliness of outward things, to regain and wear "the white flower of a blameless life." The very air of the place breathed peace, so thought Susanna Hathaway; and little Sue, who skipped by her side, thought nothing at all save that she was with mother in the country; that it had been rather a sad journey, with mother so quiet and pale, and that she would be very glad to see supper, should it rise like a fairy banquet in the midst of these strange surroundings.
It was only a mile and a half from the railway station to the Shaker Settlement, and Susanna knew the road well, for she had driven over it more than once as child and girl. A boy would bring the little trunk that contained their simple necessities later on in the evening, so she and Sue would knock at the door of the house where visitors were admitted, and be undisturbed by any gossiping company while they were pleading their case.
"Are we most there, Mardie?" asked Sue for the twentieth time. "Look at me! I'm being a butterfly, or perhaps a white pigeon. No, I'd rather be a butterfly, and then I can skim along faster and move my wings!"
The airy little figure, all lightness and brightness, danced along the road, the white cotton dress rising and falling, the white-stockinged legs much in evidence, the arms outstretched as if in flight, straw hat falling off yellow hair, and a little wisp of swans down scarf floating out behind like the drapery of a baby Mercury.
"We are almost there," her mother answered. "You can see the buildings now, if you will stop being a butterfly. Don't you like them?"
"Yes, I 'specially like them all so white. Is it a town, Mardie?"
"It is a village, but not quite like other villages. I have told you often about the Shaker Settlement, where your grandmother brought me once when I was just your age. There was a thunder-storm; they kept us all night, and were so kind that I never forgot them. Then your grandmother and I stopped off once when we were going to Boston. I was ten then, and I remember more about it. The same sweet Eldress was there both times."
"What is an El-der-ess, Mardie?"
"A kind of everybody's mother, she seemed to be," Susanna responded, with a catch in her breath.
"I'd 'specially like her; will she be there now, Mardie?"
"I'm hoping so, but it is eighteen years ago. I was ten and she was about forty, I should think."
"Then o' course she'll be dead," said Sue, cheerfully, "or either she'll have no teeth or hair."
"People don't always die before they are sixty, Sue."
"Do they die when they want to, or when they must?"
"Always when they must; never, never when they want to," answered Sue's mother.
"But o' course they wouldn't ever want to if they had any little girls to be togedder with, like you and me, Mardie?" And Sue looked up with eyes that were always like two interrogation points, eager by turns and by turns wistful, but never satisfied.
"No," Susanna replied brokenly, "of course they wouldn't, unless sometimes they were wicked for a minute or two and forgot."
"Do the Shakers shake all the time, Mardie, or just once in a while? And shall I see them do it?"
"Sue, dear, I can't explain everything in the world to you while you are so little; you really must wait until you're more grown up. The Shakers don't shake and the Quakers don't quake, and when you're older, I'll try to make you understand why they were called so and why they kept the name."
"Maybe the El-der-ess can make me understand right off now; I'd 'specially like it." And Sue ran breathlessly along to the gate where the North Family House stood in its stately, white-and-green austerity.
Susanna followed, and as she caught up with the impetuous Sue, the front door of the house opened and a figure appeared on the threshold. Mother and child quickened their pace and went up the steps, Susanna with a hopeless burden of fear and embarrassment clogging her tongue and dragging at her feet; Sue so expectant of new disclosures and fresh experiences that her face beamed like a full moon.
Eldress Abby (for it was Eldress Abby) had indeed survived the heavy weight of her fifty-five or sixty summers, and looked as if she might reach a yet greater age. She wore the simple Shaker afternoon dress of drab alpaca; an irreproachable muslin surplice encircled her straight, spare shoulders, while her hair was almost entirely concealed by the stiffly wired, transparent white-net cap that served as a frame to the tranquil face. The face itself was a network of delicate, fine wrinkles; but every wrinkle must have been as lovely in God's sight as it was in poor unhappy Susanna Hathaway's. Some of them were graven by self-denial and hard work; others perhaps meant the giving up of home, of parents and brothers or sisters; perhaps some worldly love, the love that Father Adam bequeathed to the human family, had been slain in Abby's youth, and the scars still remained to show the body's suffering and the spirit's triumph. At all events, whatever foes had menaced her purity or her tranquillity had been conquered, and she exhaled serenity as the rose sheds fragrance.
"Do you remember the little Nelson girl and her mother that stayed here all night, years ago?" asked Susanna, putting out her hand timidly.
"Why, seems to me I do," assented Eldress Abby, genially. "So many comes and goes it's hard to remember all. Didn't you come once in a thunder-storm?"
"Yes, one of your barns was struck by lightning and we sat up all night." "Yee, yee.(1) I remember well! Your mother was a beautiful spirit. I couldn't forget her."
(1)"Yea" is always thus pronounced by the Shakers.
"And we came once again, mother and I, and spent the afternoon with you, and went strawberrying in the pasture."
"Yee, yee, so we did; I hope your mother continues in health."
"She died the very next year," Susanna answered in a trembling voice, for the time of explanation was near at hand and her heart failed her.
"Won't you come into the sittingroom and rest a while? You must be tired walking from the deepot."
"No, thank you, not just yet. I'll step into the front entry a minute.--Sue, run and sit in that rocking-chair on the porch and watch the cows going into the big barn.--Do you remember, Eldress Abby, the second time I came, how you sat me down in the kitchen with a bowl of wild strawberries to hull for supper? They were very small and ripe; I did my best, for I never meant to be careless, but the bowl slipped and fell, my legs were too short to reach the floor, and I couldn't make a lap, so in trying to pick up the berries I spilled juice on nay dress, and on the white apron you had tied on for me. Then my fingers were stained and wet and the hulls kept falling in with the soft berries, and when you came in and saw me you held up your hands and said, 'Dear, dear! you have made a mess of your work!' Oh, Eldress Abby, they've come back to me all day, those words. I've tried hard to be good, but somehow I've made just such a mess of my life as I made of hulling the berries. The bowl is broken, I haven't much fruit to show, and I am all stained and draggled. I shouldn't have come to Albion on the five o'clock train--that was an accident; I meant to come at noon, when you could turn me away if you wanted to."
"Nay, that is not the Shaker habit," remonstrated Abby. "You and the child can sleep in one of the spare chambers at the Office Building and be welcome."
"But I want much more than that," said Susanna, tearfully. "I want to come and live here, where there is no marrying nor giving in marriage. I am so tired with my disappointments and discouragements and failures that it is no use to try any longer. I am Mrs. Hathaway, and Sue is my child, but I have left my husband for good and all, and I only want to spend the rest of my days here in peace and bring up Sue to a more tranquil life than I have ever had. I have a little money, so that I shall not be a burden to you, and I will work from morning to night at any task you set me."
"I will talk to the Family," said Eldress Abby gravely; "but there are a good many things to settle before we can say yee to all you ask."
"Let me confess everything freely and fully," pleaded Susanna, "and if you think I'm to blame, I will go away at once."
"Nay, this is no time for that. It is our duty to receive all and try all; then if you should be gathered in, you would unburden your heart to God through the Sister appointed to receive your confession."
"Will Sue have to sleep in the children's building away from me?"
"Nay, not now; you are company, not a Shaker, and anyway you could keep the child with you till she is a little older; that's not forbidden at first, though there comes a time when the ties of the flesh must be broken! All you've got to do now's to be 'pure and peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated, and without hypocrisy.' That's about all there is to the Shaker creed, and that's enough to keep us all busy."
Sue ran in from the porch excitedly and caught her mother's hand.
"The cows have all gone into the barn," she chattered; "and the Shaker gentlemen are milking them, and not one of them is shaking the least bit, for I 'specially noticed; and I looked in through the porch window, and there is nice supper on a table--bread and butter and milk and dried apple sauce and gingerbread and cottage cheese. Is it for us, Mardie?"
Susanna's lip was trembling and her face was pale. She lifted her swimming eyes to the Sister's and asked, "Is it for us, Eldress Abby?"
"Yee, it's for you," she answered; "there's always a Shaker supper on the table for all who want to leave the husks and share the feast. Come right in and help yourselves. I will sit down with you."
* * * * * * *
Supper was over, and Susanna and Sue were lying in a little upper chamber under the stars. It was the very one that Susanna had slept in as a child, or that she had been put to bed in, for there was little sleep that night for any one. She had leaned on the windowsill with her mother and watched the pillar of flame and smoke ascend from the burning barn; and once in the early morning she had stolen out of bed, and, kneeling by the open window, had watched the two silent Shaker brothers who were guarding the smouldering ruins, fearful lest the wind should rise and bear any spark to the roofs of the precious buildings they had labored so hard to save.
The chamber was spotless and devoid of ornament. The paint was robin's egg blue and of a satin gloss. The shining floor was of the same color, and neat braided rugs covered exposed places near the bureau, washstand, and bed. Various useful articles of Shaker manufacture interested Sue greatly: the exquisite straw-work that covered the whisk-broom; the mending-basket, pincushion, needle-book, spool-and watch-cases, hair-receivers, pin-trays, might all have been put together by fairy fingers.
Sue's prayers had been fervent, but a trifle disjointed, covering all subjects from Jack and Fardie, to Grandma in heaven and Aunt Louisa at the farm, with special references to El-der-ess Abby and the Shaker cows, and petitions that the next day be fair so that she could see them milked. Excitement at her strange, unaccustomed surroundings had put the child's mind in a very whirl, and she had astonished her mother with a very new and disturbing version of the Lord's Prayer, ending: "God give us our debts and help us to forget our debtors and theirs shall be the glory, Amen." Now she lay quietly on the wall side of the clean, narrow bed, while her mother listened to hear the regular breathing that would mean that she was off for the land of dreams. The child's sleep would leave the mother free to slip out of bed and look at the stars; free to pray and long and wonder and suffer and repent, not wholly, but in part, for she was really at peace in all but the innermost citadel of her conscience. She had left her husband, and for the moment, at all events, she was fiercely glad; but she had left her boy, and Jack was only ten. Jack was not the helpless, clinging sort; he was a little piece of his father, and his favorite. Aunt Louisa would surely take him, and Jack would scarcely feel the difference, for he had never shown any special affection for anybody. Still he was her child, nobody could possibly get around that fact, and it was a stumbling-block in the way of forgetfulness or ease of mind. Oh, but for that, what unspeakable content she could feel in this quiet haven, this self-respecting solitude! To have her thoughts, her emotions, her words, her self, to herself once more, as she had had them before she was married at seventeen. To go to sleep in peace, without listening for a step she had once heard with gladness, but that now sometimes stumbled unsteadily on the stair; or to dream as happy women dreamed, without being roused by the voice of the present John, a voice so different from that of the past John that it made the heart ache to listen to it.
Sue's voice broke the stillness: "How long are we going to stay here, Mardie?"
"I don't know, Sue; I think perhaps as long as they'll let us."
"Will Fardie come and see us?"
"I don't expect him."
"Who'll take care of Jack, Mardie?"
"Your Aunt Louisa."
"She'll scold him awfully, but he never cries; he just says, 'Pooh! what do I care?' Oh, I forgot to pray for that very nicest Shaker gentleman that said he'd let me help him feed the calves! Hadn't I better get out of bed and do it? I'd 'specially like to."
"Very well, Sue; and then go to sleep."
Safely in bed again, there was a long pause, and then the eager little voice began, "Who'll take care of Fardie now?"
"He's a big man; he doesn't need anybody."
"What if he's sick?"
"We must go back to him, I suppose."
" Tomorrow 's Sunday; what if he needs us tomorrow, Mardie?"
"I don't know, I don't know! Oh, Sue, Sue, don't ask your wretched mother any more questions, for she cannot bear them tonight. Cuddle up close to her; love her and forgive her and help her to know what's right."
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