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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesSusanna And Sue - Chapter 5. The Little Quail Bird
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Susanna And Sue - Chapter 5. The Little Quail Bird Post by :redman34 Category :Long Stories Author :Kate Douglas Wiggin Date :May 2012 Read :753

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Susanna And Sue - Chapter 5. 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.

"There's more:--

"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 tripanskip 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."

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