Homespun Tales by Kate Douglas Wiggin - HTML preview
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11. "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 workstained 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!'"
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.
"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!"