Homespun Tales HTML version

7. "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