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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesSusanna And Sue - Chapter 8. Concerning Backsliders
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Susanna And Sue - Chapter 8. Concerning Backsliders Post by :hayrik Category :Long Stories Author :Kate Douglas Wiggin Date :May 2012 Read :2680

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Susanna And Sue - Chapter 8. Concerning Backsliders


There was no work in the herb-garden now, but there was never a moment from dawn till long after dusk when the busy fingers of the Shaker Sisters were still. When all else failed there was the knitting: socks for the Brothers and stockings for the Sisters and socks and stockings of every size for the children. One of the quaint sights of the Settlement to Susanna was the clump of young Sisters on the porch of the girls' building, knitting, knitting, in the afternoon sun. Even little Shaker Jane and Mary, Maria and Lucinda, had their socks in hand, and plied their short knitting-needles soberly and not unskillfully. The sight of their industry incited the impetuous Sue to effort, and under the patient tutelage of Sister Martha she mastered the gentle art. Susanna never forgot the hour when, coming from her work in the seed-room, she crossed the grass with a message to Martha, and saw the group of children and girls on the western porch, a place that caught every ray of afternoon sun, the last glint of twilight, and the first hint of sunset glow. Sister Martha had been reading the Sabbath-School lesson for the next day, and as Susanna neared the building, Martha's voice broke into a hymn. Falteringly the girls' voices followed the lead, uncertain at first of words or tune, but gaining courage and strength as they went on:--

"As the waves of the mighty ocean
Gospel love we will circulate,
And as we give, in due proportion,
We of the heavenly life partake.
Heavenly Life, Glorious Life,
Resurrecting, Soul-Inspiring,
Regenerating Gospel Life,
It leadeth away from all sin and strife."

The clear, innocent treble sounded sweetly in the virgin stillness and solitude of the Settlement, and as Susanna drew closer she stopped under a tree to catch the picture--Sister Martha, grave, tall, discreet, singing with all her soul and marking time with her hands, so accustomed to the upward and downward movement of the daily service. The straight, plain dresses were as fresh and smooth as perfect washing could make them, and the round childlike faces looked quaint and sweet with the cropped hair tucked under the stiff little caps. Sue was seated with Mary and Jane on the steps, and Susanna saw with astonishment that her needles were moving to and fro and she was knitting as serenely and correctly as a mother in Israel; singing, too, in a delicate little treble that was like a skylark's morning note. Susanna could hear her distinctly as she delightedly flung out the long words so dear to her soul and so difficult to dull little Jane and Mary:--

"Resurrecting, Soul-Inspiring,
Regenerating Gospel Life,
It leadeth away from all sin and strife."

Jane's cap was slightly unsettled, causing its wearer to stop knitting now and then and pull it forward or push it back; and in one of these little feminine difficulties Susanna saw Sue reach forward and deftly transfer the cap to her own head. Jane was horrified, but rather slow to wrath and equally slow in ingenuity. Sue looked a delicious Shaker with her delicate face, her lovely eyes, and her yellow hair grown into soft rings; and quite intoxicated with her cap, her knitting, and the general air of holiness so unexpectedly emanating from her, she moved her little hands up and down, as the tune rose and fell, in a way that would have filled Eldress Abby with joy. Susanna's heart beat fast, and she wondered for a moment, as she went back to her room, whether she could ever give Sue a worldly childhood more free from danger than the life she was now living. She found letters from Aunt Louisa and Jack on reaching her room, and they lay in her lap under a pile of towels, to be read and reread while her busy needle flew over the coarse crash. Sue stole in quietly, kissed her mother's cheek, and sat down on her stool by the window, marveling, with every "under" of the needle and "over" of the yarn, that it was she, Sue Hathaway, who was making a real stocking.

Jack's pen was not that of an especially ready writer, but he had a practical way of conveying considerable news. His present contributions, when freed from their phonetic errors and spelled in Christian fashion, read somewhat as follows:

Father says I must write to you every week, even if I make him do without, so I will. I am well, and so is Aunt Louisa, and any boy that lives with her has to toe the mark, I tell you; but she is good and has fine things to eat every meal. What did Sue get for her birthday? I got a book from father and one from Aunt Louisa and the one from you that you told her to buy. It is queer that people will give a boy books when he has only one knife, and that a broken one. There's a book prize to be given at the school, and I am pretty afraid I will get that, too; it would be just my luck. Teachers think about nothing but books and what good they do, but I heard of a boy that had a grand knife with five sharp blades and a corkscrew, and in a shipwreck he cut all the ropes, so the sail came down that was carrying them on to the rocks, and then by boring a hole with his corkscrew all the water leaked out of the ship that had been threatening to sink the sailors. I could use a little pocket money, as Aunt Louisa keeps me short. ... I have been spending Sunday with father, and had a pretty good time, not so very. Father will take me about more when he stops going to the store, which will be next week for good. The kitchen floor is new painted, and Ellen says it sticks, and Aunt Louisa is going to make Ellen clean house in case you come home. Do you like where you are? Our teacher told the girls' teacher it seemed a long stay for any one who had a family, and the boys at school call me a half orphan and say my mother has left me and so my father has to board me in the country. My money is run out again. I sat down in a puddle this afternoon, but it dried up pretty quick and did n't hurt my clothes, so no more from your son JACK.

This was the sort of message that had been coming to Susanna of late, bringing up little pictures of home duties and responsibilities, homely tasks and trials. "John giving up the store for good"; what did that mean? Had he gone from bad to worse in the solitude that she had hoped might show him the gravity of his offenses, the error of his ways? In case she should die, what then would become of the children? Would Louisa accept the burden of Jack, for whom she had never cared? Would the Shakers take Sue? She would be safe; perhaps she would always be happy; but brother and sister would be divided and brought up as strangers. Would little Sue, grown to big Sue, say some time or other, "My mother renounced the world for herself, but what right had she to renounce it for me? Why did she rob me of the dreams of girlhood and the natural hopes of women, when I was too young to give consent?" These and other unanswerable questions continually drifted through Susanna's mind, disturbing its balance and leaving her like a shuttlecock bandied to and fro between conflicting blows.

"Mardie," came a soft little voice from across the room; "Mardie, what is a backslider?"

"Where did you hear that long word, Sue?" asked Susanna, rousing herself from her dream.

"'T is n't so long as 'regenerating' and more easier."

"Regenerating means 'making over,' you know."

"There'd ought to be children's words and grownup words,--that's what I think," said Sue, decisively; "but what does 'backslider' mean?"

"A backslider is one who has been climbing up a hill and suddenly begins to slip back."

"Does n't his feet take hold right, or why does he slip?"

"Perhaps he can't manage his feet;--perhaps they just won't climb." 295

"Yes, or p'raps he just does n't want to climb any more; but it must be frightensome, sliding backwards."

"I suppose it is."

"Is it wicked?"

"Why, yes, it is, generally; perhaps always."

"Brother Nathan and Sister Hetty were backsliders; Sister Tabitha said so. She told Jane never to speak their names again any more than if they was dead."

"Then you had better not speak of them, either."

"There's so many things better not to speak of in the world, sometimes I think 't would be nicer to be an angel."

"Nicer, perhaps, but one has to be very good to be an angel."

"Backsliders could n't be angels, I s'pose?"

"Not while they were backsliders; but perhaps they'd begin to climb again, and then in time they might grow to be angels."

"I should n't think likely," remarked Sue, decisively, clicking her needles as one who could settle most spiritual problems in a jiffy. "I think the sliding kind is diff'rent from the climbing kind, and they don't make easy angels."

A long pause followed this expression of opinion, this simple division of the human race, at the start, into sheep and goats. Then presently the untiring voice broke the stillness again.

"Nathan and Hetty slid back when they went away from here. Did we backslide when we left Fardie and Jack?"

"I'm not sure but that we did," said poor Susanna.

"There's children-Shakers, and brother-and-sister Shakers, but no father-and- mother Shakers?"

"No; they think they can do just as much good in the world without being mothers and fathers."

"Do you think so?"

"Ye-es, I believe I do."

"Well, are you a truly Shaker, or can't you be till you wear a cap?"

"I'm not a Shaker yet, Sue."

"You're just only a mother?"

"Yes, that's about all."

"Maybe we'd better go back to where there's not so many Sisters and more mothers, so you 'll have somebody to climb togedder with?"

"I could climb here, Sue, and so could you."

"Yes, but who'll Fardie and Jack climb with? I wish they'd come and see us. Brother Ansel would make Fardie laugh, and Jack would love farmwork, and we'd all be so happy. I miss Fardie awfully! He did n't speak to me much, but I liked to look at his curly hair and think how lovely it would be if he did take notice of me and play with me."

A sob from Susanna brought Sue, startled, to her side.

"You break my heart, Sue! You break it every day with the things you say. Don't you love me, Sue?"

"More'n tongue can tell!" cried Sue, throwing herself into her mother's arms. "Don't cry, darling Mardie! I won't talk any more, not for days and days! Let me wipe your poor eyes. Don't let Elder Gray see you crying, or he'll think I've been naughty. He's just going in downstairs to see Eldress Abby. Was it wrong what I said about backsliding, or what, Mardie? We'll help each udder climb, an' then we'll go home an' help poor lonesome Fardie; shall we?"

"Abby!" called Elder Gray, stepping into the entry of the Office Building.

"Yee, I'm coming," Eldress Abby answered from the stairway. "Go right out and sit down on the bench by the door, where I can catch a few minutes' more light for my darning; the days seem to be growing short all to once. Did Lemuel have a good sale of basket-work at the mountains? Rosetta has n't done so well for years at Old Orchard. We seem to be prospering in every material direction, Daniel, but my heart is heavy somehow, and I have to be instant in prayer to keep from discouragement."

"It has n't been an altogether good year with us spiritually," confessed Daniel; "perhaps we needed chastening."

"If we needed it, we've received it," Abby ejaculated, as she pushed her darning-ball into the foot of a stocking. "Nothing has happened since I came here thirty years ago that has troubled me like the running away of Nathan and Hetty. If they had been new converts, we should have thought the good seed had n't got fairly rooted, but those children were brought to us when Nathan was eleven and Hetty nine."

"I well remember, for the boy's father and the girl's mother came on the same train; a most unusual occurrence to receive two children in one day."

"I have cause to remember Hetty in her first month, for she was as wild as a young hawk. She laughed in meeting the first Sunclay, and when she came back, I told her to sit behind me in silence for half an hour while I was reading my Bible. 'Be still now, Hetty, and labor to repent,' I said. When the time was up, she said in a meek little mite of a voice, 'I think I'm least in the Kingdom now, Eldress Abby!' 'Then run outdoors,' I said. She kicked up her heels like a colt and was through the door in a second. Not long afterwards I put my hands behind me to tie my apron tighter, and if that child had n't taken my small scissors lying on the table and cut buttonholes all up and down my strings, hundreds of them, while she was 'laboring to repent.'"

Elder Gray smiled reminiscently, though he had often heard the story before. "Neither of the children came from godly families," he said, "but at least the parents never interfered with us nor came here putting false ideas into their children's heads."

"That's what I say," continued Abby; "and now, after ten years' training and discipline in the angelic life, Hetty being especially promising, to think of their going away together, and worse yet, being married in Albion village right at our very doors; I don't hardly dare to go to bed nights for fear of hearing in the morning that some of the other young folks have been led astray by this foolish performance of Hetty's; I know it was Hetty's fault; Nathan never had ingenuity enough to think and plan it all out."

"Nay, nay, Abby, don't be too hard on the girl; I've watched Nathan closely, and he has been in a dangerous and unstable state, even as long ago as his last confession; but this piece of backsliding, grievous as it is, does n't cause me as much sorrow as the fall of Brother Ephraim. To all appearance he had conquered his appetite, and for five years he has led a sober life. I had even great hopes of him for the ministry, and suddenly, like a great cloud in the blue sky, has come this terrible visitation, this reappearance of the old Adam. 'Ephraim has returned to his idols.'"

"How have you decided to deal with him, Daniel?"

"It is his first offense since he cast in his lot with us; we must rebuke, chastise, and forgive."

"Yee, yee, I agree to that; but how if he makes us the laughing-stock of the community and drags our sacred banner in the dust? We can't afford to have one of our order picked up in the streets by the world's people."

"Have the world's people found an infallible way to keep those of their order out of the gutters?" asked Elder Gray. "Ephraim seems repentant; if he is willing to try again, we must be willing to do as much."

"Yee, Daniel, you are right. Another matter that causes me anxiety is Susanna. I never yearned for a soul as I yearn for hers! She has had the advantage of more education and more reading than most of us have ever enjoyed; she's gifted in teaching and she wins the children. She's discreet and spiritually minded; her life in the world, even with the influence of her dissipated husband, has n't really stained, only humbled her; she would make such a Shaker, if she was once 'convinced,' as we have n't gathered in for years and years; but I fear she's slipping, slipping away, Daniel!"

"What makes you feel so now, particularly?"

"She's diff'rent as time goes on. She's had more letters from that place where her boy is; she cries nights, and though she does n't relax a mite with her work, she drags about sometimes like a bird with one wing."

Elder Daniel took off his broadbrimmed hat to cool his forehead and hair, lifting his eyes to the first pale stars that were trembling in the sky, hesitating in silver and then quietly deepening into gold.

Brother Ansel was a Believer because he had no particular love for the world and no great susceptibility to its temptations; but what had drawn Daniel Gray from the open sea into this quiet little backwater of a Shaker Settlement? After an adventurous early life, in which, as if youth-intoxicated, he had plunged from danger to danger, experience to experience, he suddenly found himself in a society of which he had never so much as heard, a company of celibate brothers and sisters holding all goods and possessions in common, and trying to live the "angelic life" on earth. Illness detained him for a month against his will, but at the end of that time he had joined the Community; and although it had been twenty-five years since his gathering in, he was still steadfast in the faith.

His character was of puritanical sternness; he was a strict disciplinarian, and insisted upon obedience to the rules of Shaker life, "the sacred laws of Zion," as he was wont to term them. He magnified his office, yet he was of a kindly disposition easily approached by children, and not without a quaint old-time humor.

There was a long pause while the two faithful leaders of the little flock were absorbed in thought; then the Elder said: "Susanna's all you say, and the child, well, if she could be purged of her dross, I never saw a creature better fitted to live the celestial life; but we must not harbor any divided hearts here. When the time comes, we must dismiss her with our blessing."

"Yee, I suppose so," said Eldress Abby, loyally, but it was with a sigh. Had she and Tabitha been left to their own instincts, they would have gone out into the highways and hedges, proselyting with the fervor of Mother Ann's day and generation.

"After all, Abby," said the Elder, rising to take his leave, still in a sort of mild trance,"after all, Abby, I suppose the Shakers don't own the whole of heaven. I'd like to think so, but I can't. It's a big place, and it belongs to God."

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