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Excerpt for Gift by , available in its entirety at Smashwords








GIFT


by


James C. Harmon


Copyright 2018 James Christopher Harmon


Smashwords Edition

























PART I




After church on Sundays during that fall of 1825 Catherine led Lucy by the hand across the covered bridge to look at the progress being made with the building of the new weaving mill. It had three floors instead of the two of the spinning mill, where Catherine and her mother worked, and its walls were New England fieldstone – massive, odd-shaped pieces, blue-gray with some pale gold pieces, laid side by side, and squared off at the building’s corners and window openings. The new building stood sixty feet high, twenty feet higher than the white clapboard-sided spinning mill, and it had no roof yet. It was twenty feet wider and forty feet longer than the old mill and made all the other buildings clustered around the dam, which was built fifteen years ago across the Hoosic River in 1810, look like shacks in need of gentle repair.

The girls played a game that started when they walked under the bridge’s roof. Softly cooing pigeons lived in the rafters, hidden in darkness, while afternoon sunlight glittered at the far end. Lucy would ask “Catherine, what if a big wave comes while we’re in here and washes the bridge away?”

Catherine would answer, “We’ll be safe. We’ll float to the top of Purple Mountain and stay there till the water drains away.” Purple Mountain was the long ridge that hung over the Hoosic River Valley and each day put it into the shade two hours before sunset.

“Like Noah’s ark,” Lucy would say.

“Yes, Noah ark, only with just the two of us.”

The new mill under construction was a beehive of activity during the week. Men climbed like insects up and down ladders attached to rickety wooden scaffolding that clung like a leafless vine to the rock walls. Wagons, pulled by long eared mules and fly-plagued horses, rolled up loaded with cut boulders or stacks of planks and fat beams, sawn and dried in a mill a few miles upstream. Workers unloaded everything and piled it in an open area beside the rising walls just beyond the freshly dug headrace, wheel pit, and tailrace coming in from the river above the dam before it rejoined it down below. Then the empty wagons trundled off to go get more. A foreman and architect occasionally came out from a white canvas tent near the tailrace and holding a large drawing between them pointed to things and talked. The clang of sledges on chisels hitting stone and the thwack of hammers striking pegs and nails made background music.


Catherine watched it all from a window of the old mill where she worked. She barely heard the hammering over the shop’s own noise – the clatter of the belts and pulleys suspended from a long steel shaft up near the ceiling that ran the length of the room and the whirr of the spindles on the rows of machines that together made the wooden floor and white plaster walls vibrate steadily throughout the day. The glass panes of the eight foot high windows were mottled. They were always closed, leaving a cloud of cotton flakes floating midair in the gray light. Catherine had to steal her looks out the windows. Her job was watching the never-ending winding/unwinding of fibers coming down from the whirling bobbins overhead through a series of rollers to the whirling spindles with bobbins driven by small belts down below – seventy two of them altogether – that all interwove the skeins of yarn to make cotton thread. She spotted breaks in the threads and deftly tied the dangling ends together. Also, when a lower bobbin was filled with new-made thread, she lifted it off, dropped it into a nearby wooden box on wheels, and replaced it with an empty one. When an upper bobbin was empty she replaced it with a full one taken from another box. She worked twelve hour days with thirty minutes for lunch and took off Wednesdays and Saturdays to attend school.


The Hoosic River mill sold its product to weavers working in their homes in the surrounding Massachusetts hill country.



While progress on the new construction always held her interest, one part of it really caught her attention: the building of the new wheel pit.

A few Sundays ago, James Slattery, the spinning mill’s new foreman and fixer of everything from broken spindles to the chipped teeth of gear wheels, happened to glance up from the just completed board breast at the bottom of the new mill’s wheel pit where he was inspecting the iron spokes emanating from the foot and half thick, solid steel drive shaft of two massive iron wheels (each rimmed with iron paddles) and saw two pale faces peering down at him. The younger one grinned at him, but the eyes of the elder, whom he remembered seeing on the second floor spinning room, met his with an acuity that made him pause. He nodded at them and went back to work

The new mill’s pit was twice the depth and three times the width of the old mill’s pit. The old mill’s wheel, unlike the wheels of the new one, was an overshot, meaning the water flowed in from above to turn it and the shaft at its center which ran into the cellar where, through a series of bevel gears, it drove the mill’s main vertical power shaft that went up into the attic and in route turned other gears on each floor to move the room-length shafts suspended from their ceilings. Leather belts ran down from those ceiling shafts to wheels on the floor to turn shafts powering the mill’s machines. The new pit, however, had two water wheels turning the main shaft. Each one was twenty four feet across and part of an undershot system, meaning the water would pour down into the board breast to turn the wheels from the bottom.

It was then Slattery heard her voice, thin but clear, echoing down to him: “With two wheels turning the main shaft instead of one like in the spinning mill and with each of them twice the size of that single wheel, you should get four times the power. Maybe more.”

He stared up at her.

“That’s right,” he said. “A little more.”

“But wouldn’t the water coming in from the top be simpler to run the wheels? Why did you change that?”

“You’re right. With one wheel the overshot system works best. With two wheels, though, it’s easier to feed them water running underneath.”

“Oh,” she said. Then the two faces were gone.

That night Slattery described Catherine to his wife, who taught the school.

“Her name is Catherine,” his wife said. “She helps me teach the others their numbers.”

“How far along is she?”

“I don’t know. She knows everything I give her, though that’s impossible for someone like her.”

He thought for a minute then walked to a shelf holding a dozen math and engineering books over his desk. He pulled out a Euclid’s Geometry and handed it to her. “Give this to her. See what she makes of it.”

#

Mama’s family, the Clarks, had been townspeople. Her father had owned a feed store up in Bennington where she and her sister Asenath had grown up in one of the town’s larger houses. The girls seemed destined for town marriages, but it didn’t pan out that way in either case. Asenath, while visiting relatives in Albany in the summer of 1808 when she was seventeen, drove out with the family one Sunday to nearby New Lebanon to see a Shaker service. Mother Lucy Wright, the leader of the Believers’ nineteen village communities spread out from Maine to Kentucky, preached and Asenath felt like she was talking right at her when she said that there were two worlds – the one of the flesh and the other of the spirit - and that every man and woman had to choose between them. And Asenath made her choice. By late fall she was back at New Lebanon and moved in with the North family where all the newcomers stayed.

Then the following year Mama met Catherine’s and Lucy’s father. She first noticed him loading feed from the storage shed onto a wagon. What caught her attention was the frightened neighing of the young man’s mare who started backing up and causing mayhem in a yard filled with wagons and beasts. He got hold of the horse’s bridle, brought her ear down close to his face and whispered something that calmed her. Next month when the young man came, Mama spoke to him. When Mama was eighteen, they married and she moved out onto his hundred twenty acre farm where she bore him two daughters. Later on, the inheritance from her father and mother paid off the farm’s back taxes, but then the young man who calmed mares was killed in a tree felling accident when Catherine was eight and Lucy five. That left Mama alone with a farm the bank eventually took. In 1820 the three of them moved south to Hoosic Falls, just over the line in Massachusetts, to work in the new spinning mill.

For the first three years they fared well at subsistence level, living a quarter mile away from the mill in the attic of a cottage belonging to a family of weavers, the O’Riordans, Irish immigrants who had six children with whom Catherine and Lucy became friends, especially because Catherine helped them all with school. Things went fine till Mama fell sick. She got what people called “mill cough.” Gradually she had to cut back on her days at work to stay in bed, and there she coughed her lungs out. Catherine stopped school altogether and worked six days to keep food on the table and pay Mrs. O’Riordan rent.

#

Slattery had married his wife-when she was twenty one. After he had gotten his foreman’s job, she set up a school for the children of mill workers and weaver families. She taught in the lower rooms of the Slattery house five mornings a week. It was no accident that Slattery got his job in the first place because his wife was the daughter of the mill’s owner, Andrew Whaley, who also owned a flour mill and dry goods store in Williamstown, three miles south of Hoosic Falls, where he’d amassed a small fortune before starting the spinning mill – enough to attract capital from a Boston bank. But he also got the money because of the young, capable and ambitious Slattery, an immigrant from the mill towns of the English Midlands where he’d worked in the shops and memorized the workings of their machines before emigrating to New England. When he’d arrived in Williamstown, he fell in with Whaley and also noticed his daughter.

Whaley was not just a doer. He also liked reading and he’d stumbled on some journals that made him reflect about the practical in a general way. He also formed an unusual friendship with a scholar who worked at nearby Williams College. This man got Whaley to read Adam Smith and occasionally the two of them would spend long evenings together in front of Whaley’s fireplace in the grand new home he’d just built discussing Smith’s ideas on free trade and mulling over their political and social implications -ideas like less government was always better and how a few gifted individuals, once given free rein, could create enough wealth for all. One thing they both sensed and agreed on very strongly: the world was on the verge of cataclysmic change for the better and Massachusetts could be in the forefront.

#

One morning, a week from the day that Mrs. Slattery had handed Catherine the Euclid, the girl reappeared at the Slattery door before the mill had opened its doors for the day or the other students had arrived. Slattery had left for work. Catherine stood in the lane before the door looking up at the wife and holding out the book. She looked plain and wan but the blue eyes showed intelligence. She wore a tattered, drab colored cloak too thin for the weather - the water in the road’s ruts behind her were already frozen white. So the woman invited her in to the stove-warmed room, but she shook her head no because, she said, she was due at work. Then before turning away she came out with this: “I liked Book Three on circles. Book Twelve on the cones and cylinders was the best though. It helped me understand how the new mill works.”

“You finished this?”

“Yes.”

Mrs. Slattery, incredulous, stared down at the girl who simply turned and left.

Later that evening, after his wife had told him what Catherine had said, Slattery questioned her about the child, but she had very few answers.

#

Aaron Freidman, who’d graduated Harvard in June of 1825, one of six Jews in his class, was the son of Judah Freidman, who was the owner of the largest dry goods store in Brattleboro, Vermont and also the town’s only rabbi for its two dozen Jews.

“Disillusionment,” as Aaron put it to himself, spawned by the world’s hypocrisy and brutality, which he’d only begun to glimpse, had led him not just to reject his father’s Judaism but also to shun careers in academe, the law, or banking. The last was offered by his father’s friend, Joshua Lawrence, whom Aaron had known since his boyhood. But Lawrence did, however, come up with something Aaron was willing to try - reporting for the Boston Recorder whose editor, after breaking him in with obituaries and marriages for the first few months, assigned him to watching the progress of the new mills sprouting up across Massachusetts. Next, Aaron’s boss, thanks again to Lawrence who was financing many of the mills and hoped to get some publicity for them, included Aaron among a cadre of Boston reporters for whom Lawrence had gained entrée at places like Lowell, where the industry had gotten its start. This roused Aaron’s interest. He’d read Robert Owen’s book on the New Lanark mill, built by Owen, where an eight hour work day was the rule and workers received the best treatment anywhere. He liked Owen’s argument against the Bible’s story of man’s sin as the origin of all the evil in the world. People, Owen wrote, when treated well, acted well and New Lanark was built to prove it.

Three other journalists from Boston went with Aaron on the tour. They all took the stage down and travelled four days altogether with a layover at Lowell on the first day and another at the Williamstown Inn for the second from where they saw the Hoosic River mill on the third. There they also met with Lawrence who was dining and sleeping at Whaley’s home.

Aaron’s companions were old hands with the news, all in the their late thirties and early forties – broken in yet still vigorous. They were unkempt – hats with bent rims, shirt fronts with tobacco-stains, threadbare coats and they all had paunches. The spitting and drinking started at supper each night and continued up till bedtime at around twelve or one. The loud story telling centered on three things: corrupt politics in Boston, stupidity and haplessness among workers, and greed and indifference to suffering among owners. They tried to include Aaron, but after picking up on his bourgeois fastidiousness, they grinned at him and winked at one another and let him alone. He retired each night to read Rousseau’s Emile, or On Education, but when he tried to do that during the day while in the stage and sharing a bench seat with two others who squished him up against the window it didn’t work, so he took to riding outside on top with the driver and escaped the inside air reeking with tobacco slurry, vitriolic political talk, and lascivious remarks when Lawrence wasn’t there.

Lawrence had expected some amount of genteel behavior from Aaron, who, after all, was the son of his father, one of the best educated men Lawrence knew, but there was some condescension about the boy that he didn’t like. This would shortly come out.

It happened the next day. Lawrence had spent time after dinner the night before with Whaley talking over the future of the Hoosic Mill and that of the New England textile business in general. What bothered them the most was the real possibility that the crude, business-ignorant plantation master Andrew Jackson might get elected and that he’d kill the U.S. Bank just as he was threatening to do.



The next morning Whaley took them all on a tour of the mill. Slattery went along. At the start of the whole venture Whaley had told Lawrence that this young man was the smartest person he’d ever met because he’d reproduced all the mill’s machinery blueprints from memory, and those prints were the main reason Lawrence and his board members had taken shares in Whaley’s weaving mill.

Bott, the overseer, trailed behind them.

But Whaley’s spinning mill proved to be a few cuts below what they’d seen at Lowell. Its white washed interior walls were blackened near the shadowy ceiling where two turning drive shafts drove the massive leather belts which were attached to the other shafts turning the spindles down below. The vast space was lit by yellowish pyramids of dim light descending from oil lamps hung above. Their smoke blackened the ceilings. Gray light came in through panes of tall, nailed-shut windows running down either side of the long, narrow room. There was no ventilation and a miasma of cotton fibers filled the air with an occasional full thread drifting lazily by.

Aaron’s colleagues had liked the scene at Lowell, their first stop outside of Boston, the way they enjoyed food, drink, and tobacco. Former farm girls, now “mill girls” all in their teens, well-scrubbed and bright-eyed in colored factory smocks, had tended the machines there. Aaron hadn’t even guessed what they’d been saying about the girls when he wasn’t there, but occasionally he’d caught an exchange of sly smirks during the tour.

So now, at the Hoosic mill, Aaron remained aloof, trailing the others. Lawrence saw him constantly writing things down with pencil on pad wherever they walked.

Suddenly they came upon a girl, not yet a teen, standing before a spinning machine. Her faded blue smock was grease-stained, her face long and pale, and her eyes, when they caught Lawrence’s, startled him so that he stopped, which made Whaley, who was walking next to him, stop as well and interrupt his reply, shouted out over the din of whirling gears, belts, and spindles to a tobacco-chewer’s cheeky query about the disparity between the mill owners’ return on investment and the wages of those working for him.

Whaley’s face reddened as he yelled out his answer and he gesticulated broadly for emphasis, “In comparing the lives of girls and women on the local farms with my mill girls, I am induced to believe that nine out of ten enjoy better health in this place than they would in any other employment requiring the same number of work hours each day.”

“And how many is that?” a reporter shouted back.

“Twelve. Six days a week.”

That was when Aaron jumped in – at the same instant Lawrence noticed the girl. “What are their ages?”

“Twelve up to one who has just turned thirty. But they’re usually married and back on the farm by twenty. The work isn’t hard. In fact, it’s easier than the games they play.”

“This isn’t exactly a playground,” Aaron shot back.

Whaley stared at him. “An astute observation, sir.” He half turned so the others could hear as well, but kept his eyes on Amos and continued, “Each year 400,000 pounds of cotton enter our doors and a million yards of yarn go out. Factories like this are the modern world’s answer to the cathedral. They are bringing mankind closer to heaven – a heaven on earth where no material need exists. These girls are its builders.”

“Girls like this one?” Amos asked. He stepped aside and pointed toward the end of Catherine’s machine. They all turned to see Lucy, squatting on her haunches with her posteriors poised a few inches above the wooden floor layered thick with mill dust and cotton fibers. She was half hidden by the spinner’s great cast iron legs, but they could see her face, greased-stained, with her blonde hair bunched into a knot to one side and her wide blue eyes staring up at them. All at once her features dissolved into a simpleton’s grin revealing crooked teeth. Catherine stepped between Amos and Lucy and stared up at him. Lawrence saw him react to the eyes the same way he had.

“Bott!” Whaley shouted, face reddening.

Cap in hand, Bott stuck his head out from behind the group. “Yes sir, Mr. Whaley?”

“What is this child doing here?”

“The girls’ mother is deathly sick, sir. The older one is working a full week and there’s no one to look after the younger one, who’s a bit simple and can’t be on her own at the school.”

Amos interjected, “Wouldn’t it be better if they were both in school?”

“Necessity dictates their lot in life, sir, not I,” Whaley shot back at him.

Amos took out his pad and pencil. “May I quote you, sir?”

“You may. You may also note that neither the individual nor the race is improved by almsgiving.” Whaley said, and turning to the first tobacco chewer who’d mentioned the uneven distribution of profits continued, “The talented among us will always tend to accumulate more than the rest. But it is only in the last decade that the accumulation of capital has enabled us to launch this tremendous leap forward. It would be insanity to hobble it now in mid-flight by taking the wealth out of the hands of those who’ve just created it before they can finish the task.”

The effort to make his words understood over the cacophony of his machinery made him stop to breathe. He signaled them to move on. The group followed except for Amos who was busy scribbling on his pad. When Lawrence glanced back near the door at the other end of the room, he saw Amos pocket his pad and pencil, reach into his other pocket to pull out several coins, and hand them to Catherine.

#

By seven PM and the end of Catherine’s shift three inches of freshly fallen snow lay on the ground. Long blocks of yellow light from the mill’s windows lit it on the road down which Catherine led Lucy by the hand toward home. They passed the stone cottage where the Slatterys lived, which also served as the schoolhouse, and several small wooden buildings, one of which was the inn where the journalists were just sitting down to a comfortable evening of food and drink in a stove-warmed room while Amos ate cold chicken and barley bread with water alone in an unheated garret while transcribing the day’s pencil notes into steel-quilled ink text.

Lawrence had travelled back to Williamstown with Whaley. His feelings for the man were in something of a muddle. Earlier, during the late afternoon while they were walking away from the new mill construction site and after having left the reporters, Slattery had told Whaley and himself about the unusual case of the girl machine operator with the younger sister and dying mother how she’d grasped Euclid.

“She should be in school,” Whaley responded.

“The mother’s dying from mill cough,” Slattery answered.

“I know that,” he snapped. “I want her in the school.”

They were standing before the covered bridge while the last gray light darkened and snow began to fall, powdering their top hats, thick-coated shoulders and Whaley’s curly blonde side whiskers. Talk and laughter from the journalists stepping off the other end of the bridge echoed back through the darkness. Whaley silently looked down at the ground and absently traced something in the snow powder with his boot. The other two waited. He went on, more calmly, “I’ll pay you and Mrs. Slattery to take them in. The older one can assist in the school.”

“I spoke with the mother two days ago.” Slattery said. “She wants us to send them to her sister.”

“Oh. Where’s the sister then?”

“Bethany. Just across the border into New Hampshire.”

The name roused Lawrence’s memory. “Someone…that’s where that group has a place.”

“What group?” Whaley looked at him.

“The Shakers. She’s a Shaker,” Slattery said.

“Good heavens!” Whaley looked at him. “Like the bunch down in Hancock, those fanatics?”

Slattery nodded.

“They take in orphans and treat them well. Or so it’s said,” Lawrence put in.

Whaley snorted, “And fill their small heads with stuff and nonsense.”

Each of them looked away.

Finally Whaley said, “I recollect the mother now. Our oldest worker. Has Dr. Rieux seen her?”

Slattery nodded. “She’s got a few days at most.”

Later, as Lawrence travelled back to Williamstown with Whaley in the one-horse shay, which kept jolting them up against one another as its high wheels rolled in and out of icy ruts along a road barely visible with snow falling in the darkness, he broke the silence with a reflection that he felt prompted to say after he’d heard how his friend wanted to provide for the girls’ future out of his own pocket: “Maybe it all could all be done a little more gently.”

“What?” Whaley asked.

“The business. So it’d be easier on people like this dying woman.”

Whaley said nothing for a minute. Lawrence took that as assent. It engendered the return of some sympathetic feeling for the other man, which he’d been losing since Amos had challenged him about the mill’s workers.

But that disappeared when Whaley said, “If we were the first, you and I, to put money into things that do not keep us competitive, how long do you think we’d last in a field where the others do not?”

Lawrence had no answer to that. He pictured the face of Amos’s father, the rabbi, pondering the same question for an instant, but then it disappeared when the shay took another jolt and Whaley’s shoulder hit up against his own.

#

Their mama had already passed away when the girls reached home. Catherine knew something was wrong because though the O’Riordan’s cottage was all lit up as always there was none of the usual uproar of children’s voices coming from it to warm the night along the darkened road and rising into the woods covering the hill behind. When they opened the door and stepped inside there stood Mrs. O’Riordan, a big woman with red cheeks and blue eyes, and beside her Dr. Rieux, diminutive, skinny, older. They’d been standing in front of the hearth next to the big loom (at which the O’Riordan adults spent their days) watching the door after hearing the running exchange between Catherine and Lucy as they’d turned in from the road and mounted the two icy front steps. As her eyes met Catherine’s, Mrs. O’Riordan’s started brimming over. Catherine knew why at once, but was distracted from her own feelings, as usual, because Lucy never caught anything and things, as usual, had to be explained.

“What’s the matter, Catherine?” the voice at her elbow asked.

“It’s Mama. She’s not here anymore.”

“Where did she go?”

She turned to Lucy, a foot or so shorter, and, with her eyes still fixed on Mrs. O’Riordan, drew the top of her cap-covered head toward her flat chest and said, “Mama’s dead.”

#

Slattery had proposed to Whaley the next day that they ignore the dead woman’s request so that he and Mrs. Slattery could bring them up. Whaley agreed, promising to contribute funds, but then Mrs. O’Riordan came to them and showed them the letter she’d gotten from the dead woman’s sister. The return address was under the name “Sister Asenath Clark” and she said how she wanted them sent to her, as their next of kin, in Bethany, New Hampshire in the event of their mother’s passing. She also said that two Shaker men could meet them in Williamstown within a week after she’d received notification.

Seeing no alternative, Slattery sent the woman a letter telling of her sister’s death and how he himself could bring the girls to the inn at Williamstown two Saturdays from that day to hand them over to the men she would send. He’d await her letter of confirmation. It came a week after he’d sent his and set up 7 AM on Saturday, December 3 as the time and date for the handover at the inn. Slattery guessed that they planned to make the sixty mile run by coach and four back to New Hampshire in one day.

During the two weeks that they waited the girls saw their mother buried in the yard of the Williamstown Congregational Church, sat in the warmth of the Slatterys’ school house/home every morning, and helped out afternoons and evenings around the O’Riordans’ bringing in firewood, cleaning cooking pots and emptying chamber pots, and running errands to the mill store while the wood frame machinery of the room sized loom rhythmically clacked away, like a massive insect, turning Hoosic Mill yarn into cotton cloth and Mrs. O’Riordan splitting shifts with her husband and Teresa, their eldest. No one mentioned the deceased woman. Mrs. O’Riordan left the metal frame bed of the girls’ mother, which was tucked into the angle of the room where the roof’s rafters ran down to the floor boards and made with fresh sheets and a clean comforter, the mother’s bed clothing having all been burned, unoccupied for two nights after the burial, as if the dead woman were expected back. The girls’ smaller wood frame bed stood opposite it and up against rafters. On the third night Teresa appeared with her two spare dresses, which she hung from two nails in the ridge board, and a red wooden box full of other things which she slid under their mother’s bed. Then she sat down, looked across at them, and grinned. At night she told them stories from the old country. The one that got Lucy’s attention, so that she talked about it to Catherine all the next day, was will-o-the wisp who one foggy night outside Derryroe, the village of the O’Riordan clan, had tricked Teresa’s father, headed home from another cottage, with a light like that of home to lead him around the countryside over fields and bogs until morning’s light some nine hours later.

For most of each day the girls were too busy and watched over to either grieve for their mother’s disappearance or to fret about their future, but at night these things closed in. When Mama was with them they’d slept on their rope bed with its corn-husk mattress on their sides and Lucy snuggled against Catherine’s back. On the second night after the burial a quiet mewling sound awakened Catherine. She turned onto her back and tucked her sister’s head under her arm and stroked her hair. Slowly the whimpering stopped and sleep returned. But not for Catherine. She stared at a less dark place around a small window near the top of the gable at the far end of the garret for several hours. They were all alone. O’Riordans and the Slatterys had their own worlds to which they’d return. Slattery had told her about their aunt in New Hampshire, but the most she remembered about her was the two letters Mama had gotten over the years. While her parents had never said anything bad about her, they’d never said much of anything either, outside of some wistful recollections about a childhood in Bennington. Aunt Asenath might as well be from another planet.

#

Lockup came early to the Berkshires that winter, so there was no surprise when it snowed steadily for the three days before December 3 and there were four foot drifts which were over the heads of the girls in places. So there was no coach and four on the cleared street below the verandah of the Williams Inn on the morning of the day of departure. Instead there was a four-seat sleigh drawn by two muscled bay mares with sleek black tails and manes and whose nostrils shot out plumes of vapor while they shook their belled harnesses and stamped their hooves against the hard pack. A small boy sat on the driver’s bench and held their reins. Lucy tried to gawk at the huge beasts, pointing at them, but Catherine pulled her along to keep up with Slattery as he ascended the wide front steps of the Inn. Two men, dressed oddly, watched him. The older one’s eyes skipped past him to take in the girls and an involuntary smile pulled at the corners of his mouth and made his eyes narrow. The strangers’ hats were the first thing Catherine noticed: the crowns were shorter and the brims wider than Slattery’s. Their coats were shapeless, only reached to the knee, were a drab brown color, and had one row of white bone buttons. Slattery’s was black, stylishly cinched in at the waist, reached to his ankles, and had two rows of brass buttons running down the front with braid edging the cuffs; and Slattery was a modest man.

“Mr. Slattery?” The older addressed him without extending his hand. “I’m Elder James and this is Brother Jonas.”

Catherine liked the older man’s face; the other’s was an opaque mask.

“Good morning,” Slattery began as he ascended to the verandah. He turned to introduce the girls who had halted before the bottom step. He signaled to them to come up. “This is Catherine and this is Lucy.”

“Good morning, little sisters,” James smiled down at them while Catherine stared solemnly back up at him.

Lucy, as usual, took liberties, and pointing to his hat said, “Funny hat.”

James smiled and answered, “Yea, little sister, there are many who think it is.”

Slattery inquired about whether they had stayed last night at the Inn, to which James replied that they’d stopped at Hancock, the Shaker village about a dozen miles south of Williamstown, and then Slattery asked where they intended to try for today, to which James answered, “home.” Slattery raised his eyebrows, turned to look at the two magnificent horses and nodded.

“If Whitcomb Hill’s passable, that is,” James added. “If not, we’ll pass the day in North Adams and try it tomorrow or the next,” Bethany was fifty miles away and the dark would be on them by five at the latest.

Slattery said his farewells to the girls (he’d earlier given Catherine her final pay of two Williamstown Bank dollars and his address written on a paper which Mrs. Slattery had pinned to Catherine’s underwear, telling her to find a safe place to keep them once she arrived at her new home from where she was to write and tell them how she and Lucy were faring). Then Brother Jonas settled them in the sleigh beneath layers of wool blankets, paid the boy who’d watched the horses, and sat himself on the driver’s bench all set to leave. Slattery finished with James by saying about the girls, “The little one’s a bit simple, but the elder…” He paused here so that James glanced at him, waiting, until he finished, “Well, try her with numbers sometime.”

“She has a gift?” James asked.

Slattery nodded. “You might say that.”

As the sleigh lurched forward with a slap of the reins and a jingle of bells Catherine and Lucy sat in the back with James facing them. Slattery watched from the porch until they were nearly out of sight, when Catherine suddenly turned to look for him and he raised his hand to wave until they turned a corner and were gone.

They stopped at North Adams less than an hour later to rest and water the horses and made inquiries at the feed store where two farmers who’d come down the mountain in sleighs that morning said that the snow was two feet high near the summit, so they decided to wait on one of them to finish his chores so they could follow him back up. The mares made the 1400 foot, eight mile ascent in the tracks of his sleigh along a fifteen foot wide cut up the steep slope covered by boulders and a forest of bare beech, ash, and birch in two hours, which was very good time. On the steeper and longer runs, always just before one of three hairpin turns, the four of them climbed down and walked behind the horses, whose snorts echoed over the wooded silence. Twice they stopped to give the animals a breather in places where they could all look down at North Adams far below, its streets lined with small box-like buildings and the town surrounded by rolling fields laid out like neat blankets bordered by lines of black trees and an occasional farmhouse and its red barn, and they’d wonder at the beauty of it all until James would say, “Praise God,” or “Glory be,” shake his head, catch the girls’ eyes, and grin at them until Lucy would laugh.

They made the descent to Charlemont, which was on the other side of the mountain from North Adams, arriving just before eleven. They rested the horses, sipped some hot soup while standing before the inn’s fieldstone hearth, then pushed on for Greenfield, another twenty miles farther, but over a well-travelled, graded road running down the valley along the frozen Deerfield River and over which the horses made easy time. At Greenfield they quickly finished off a larger lunch of bread and hot beef stew and were back on the road until crossing the frozen Connecticut River at Millers Falls around half past two and from there they turned north for the final thirty mile run to Bethany, lying just over the Massachusetts border in New Hampshire. This is very different country from the Hoosic River mill’s, sited as it is in the shadow of steep, dark-wooded hills. The heights in this country are softer, barely a few hundred feet in elevation, more like rises, and most of them have hay fields running up and over their ridge lines. The few forested lots, maples, beech, and ash with only a scattering of pines and birch, stand on the steepest hillsides, few in number, and everywhere you look neatly heaped rock walls section off the fields. At least one house with its barn and two or three outbuildings, painted white, yellow, or red, is always in sight.

When James was not reading and neither of the girls was sleeping, they talked. It started on the downward run from Whitcomb Summit into Charlemont when there was a lot less stress on the two mares. James looked at Lucy and asked, “How old are you, little sister?”

Lucy smiled dumbly at him and Catherine answered, “She’s nine.”

That broke the ice so James could ask about life at the mill and with the O’Riordans and before that back on their parents’ farm. Catherine did all the talking, as usual, while Lucy occasionally diverted them all to point out a beautiful landscape, always with the same two words: “Pretty, Catherine.”

And Catherine would say, “Yes.”

And James began adding, “Indeed it is, little sister, yes it is, praise the Lord.”

Brother Jonah, seated above them on the bench, kept his back to them the whole time, a non-person, only breaking his silence to tell them to disembark when they were climbing the mountain or to ask James where and when he wanted to stop, and this he did without turning around so that he acted as if the girls were not even there.



The last town in Massachusetts was Northfield. It had a red brick weaving mill, easily the size of the one being built at Hoosic Falls, that had a wheel using water diverted from the Connecticut River. There were twenty or so working girls, many Catherine’s age, walking out the door onto the turnpike as they drove past heading north to Bethany. “It won’t be long now,” James said to the girls. “Seven more miles.”

They knew when they were approaching the Shaker neighborhood because things suddenly looked different; the land, the buildings, and the animals were all better cared for, even on the tenant farms such as the one rented by Esau Kane lying astride the Northfield/Bethany Turnpike. He and his twelve year old daughter Esther were walking from the lean-to beside the barn to the house, arms loaded with wood, when the jingling of bells caused them both to look up and see the girls’ sleigh rapidly descending the dip in the road, now in shadow with the setting sun just disappeared behind the brow of a low hill, limning it with a flush of crimson. Brother Jonah curtly nodded to them while below and behind him in the carriage, neatly tucked in beneath a white wool comforter, were two small faces, rosy cheeked, who stared back at them.

James caught sight of the father and daughter, lifted his arm, waved his hand, and shouted to them, “Good day, Brother Esau and Sister Esther.”

They called back, “Good day, Father James,” then paused to watch till the sleigh made the brow of the next hill, topped it, and then disappeared.

Esau turned back to the house and, with Esther overhearing, muttered, “World’s children. The village is overrun with orphans.”

Once the sleigh was out of sight and earshot of the tenant farm Brother Jonah started his first conversation of the day, only half turning his head to be heard, “Brother Esau is far behind in his rent.”

A crease appeared on James’s brow above the bridge of his nose as he frowned for the first time that day and he called up over his shoulder toward the bench, “They must have dire need.”

A moment passed before Brother Jonah said, “And his need becomes our need.”

Which made the furrow grow deeper and Father James retorted, “Well thank the Lord that we have the means.”

Which seemed to put an end to it so that the furrow disappeared and his habitual good humor started to draw at the corners of his mouth when from Jonah came, “Yea, but for how long? How am I to balance expenditures against no income in the accounts?”

James’s bushy gray eyebrows shot up and while looking directly at Catherine he grinned and shot back, “Debit it to the Lord, Brother Jonah. Debit it to the Lord.”

And just then, from a small rise onto which the road had climbed, Catherine and Lucy got their first sight of Bethany Shaker village, where some 250 people lived, worked, and worshipped, spreading out on either side of the turnpike, with eighty odd buildings, mostly sided with clapboard painted green, blue, and yellow and roofed with blackened tin. The buildings ranged in size from small, three-sided woodsheds, to the two largest: the Church family’s three story, T-shaped, ochre painted dwelling house topped with a large cupola housing a bell and roofed with red-painted tin; and its dairy barn, sided with brown-stained cedar shakes and roofed with blackened tin. Neat, straight, snow-shoveled paths connected everything. Thin columns of white smoke, reflecting the sun’s last rays from the west, drifted straight upwards into the still, early evening air from the chimneys of the larger buildings. It made Catherine think of Euclid. Lucy said, “Beautiful, Catherine.”

“Yes,” Catherine answered.

#

Mother Therese was a tall, thin woman, lean faced, large-nosed, and in her mid-fifties. Her gray hair, parted severely in the middle, formed a neat border between the edge of her white Shaker cap and the top of her high forehead. She was the very first one to see the two girls enter Bethany Shaker village that day. At the music of harness bells rising from the road, which passed fifty yards below at the bottom of the meadow that spread out beneath the small, twenty four foot square, Cape Cod farmhouse with a gently sagging roof line, formerly the Burdick farm and the first property the Shakers had purchased in Bethany back in 1803, she’d glanced up out the window from her seed-package cutting and pasting work and saw the two tiny figures buried beneath blankets in the back of the passing sleigh. A brother (she only saw his hat) sat opposite. She watched the sleigh glide down into the village, already lying in evening shadow, until it passed out of sight and the jingling bells faded. She looked at the clock, steadily ticking away on the wall (the brothers had replaced the warped and rotting wall boards of the old place with newly varnished pine ones). Four thirty – time for her late afternoon psalms. She covered the glue pot, pushed it and a two foot thick ream of printed seed packet paper, enough for several more afternoons’ work, a boxful of newly made, waiting-to-be-filled two and one half by four inch packages, and the scissors to one side of the table and rose and walked to a corner of the room where a wooden lectern stood with a hand copied, large letter psalter on it opened to Psalm 32. Folding her hands over her flat stomach beneath the pointed tip of the white bertha that covered her shoulders, breasts, and back, she stood in silence, eyes closed, facing the wall. It was still light enough to see without igniting the oil lamp hanging by a chain from the ceiling. She bowed until her forehead nearly touched the lectern, held the position for a moment, then straightening up opened her eyes and began reciting aloud from the text, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” Most of the words were on the same pitch until the last two, which went down a note, and the same for the next verse. This made a rhythm- like chant. The only other sound was the soft cackle of the stove’s fire mid-room. The brothers had bricked up the old fireplace taking up the north wall before she’d moved in last August because it was more of a nuisance than a reliable source of heat before bringing in the stove, made in the village’s metal shop, which was identical to the stoves in each room of the dwelling, the shops, and the meeting house. She and Mother Ruth had lived in an apartment over the meeting room for twelve years before she’d started her life as a solitary.

“Thou art my hiding place; thou shalt preserve me from trouble,” she chanted.

When exactly the idea had first come into her head to move in permanently to the Burdick house overlooking the village, she couldn’t say. No one in any of the other eighteen Shaker villages spread out from Maine to Kentucky had ever conceived of such a thing, at least no one whom she could name; no one, that is, except Mother Lucy herself, the head of the whole Society of Believers until her death four years ago, and who, on several occasions eight or nine years ago, had confided to Therese, then the eldress of the Church family in New Lebanon, how she longed for solitude, hungered for it, and had been tormented by a wild, irrepressible desire to experience it that reminded her of an attraction she’d had for one of the brothers for three long years when they were in their twenties (she never told Therese the Brother’s name). In her last years Mother Lucy continually fantasized about being alone. “Listening” she phrased it to herself (but listening to whom? Could she be sure it was the Lord who was calling?). She did this while involved in the daily round of discussions with elders and eldresses from different villages, some of whom had travelled weeks to get to her, or while reading reports of trustees and deacons who ran the financial empire that the Society had become, or while hearing thorny cases of rule breakers, or while consulting lawyers from the world (hired to protect the Society from the suits of angry apostates, from libelous articles in the press accusing the Society of everything from kidnapping children to the grossest immoralities, and from periodic attacks by various state legislatures against the right of the Society to even exist within their borders), or while listening to mind openings (confessions) and giving spiritual counsel, or while doing her share of the manual work – she repaired shirts for the brethren - or even, and most confusing of all, while partaking in the Shakers’ communal worship, which was supposed to meet all the needs of her spiritual life because if it didn’t in the case she knew best, her own, then how could she recommend it as the way for anyone else?

But Therese had had no idea that first time Mother Lucy had opened her mind to her exactly what she was talking about. While Mother’s words had confused her, they’d also planted a seed in her thoughts, a seed that had been covered over and buried beneath the business of managing the Society, especially after Mother Lucy had asked her to take on the job of eldress for the village of Bethany six years ago so that the distance between them put an end to their intimacy. That was until four years ago, when, while Mother was on her death bed, she’d asked to see Therese who got the message and then had travelled the ninety miles to New Lebanon to hear Mother’s last words, spoken to her alone: “The silence. Leave the rest. He’s there.”

And not long after that Therese’s trials had begun. They began with her losing focus on the goings on around her, proceeded to fainting fits, and culminated in seizures. She’d experienced something similar as a teenager, in the years just before she’d joined the Society. Those fits began with a feeling of detachment from everything around her. Fully conscious, she would suddenly feel certain that everything happening at the moment had happened to her before and that she knew exactly what would happen next - as if time did not exist. It was a little disorienting, but not so bad when she was a teen. But then, as a woman in her mid-to-late prime, that sense of timelessness arose from a more terrifying sensation: she suddenly forgot where she was and how she’d gotten there, or who the people were around her. Once when she was a teen the out-of-time sensation led to a fainting fit and a complete loss of consciousness. People who witnessed it later told her that her body was wracked by convulsions while she bit her lips and her tongue until blood dribbled out of the corners of her mouth while her hands, balled into fists, rhythmically pounded her chest. And then it simply stopped, as abruptly as it had begun. She’d relaxed into a comatose state for anywhere from a few minutes to an hour. Anyway, by the time she was twenty the fainting fits had stopped even though the partial zone outs had continued. In fact, what had attracted Therese to the Shakers from the start was that the first time she’d seen one of their worship services she’d seen several of them seized by a spirit that made them do weird things like whirl for nearly an hour in one spot, or jerk spasmodically, or run around on all fours barking like a dog, or speak an unknown language. But outside of the meeting room, she later learned, these things rarely happened. Shaker lives were strikingly sober and productive. In fact, they had a motto: “hands to work and hearts to God.” So she gave them a try, and within months of joining the Society her symptoms ceased altogether. For the first time in her life her head was totally clear – there were absolutely no otherworldly feelings. And instead she experienced a peace and tranquility, which she equated with what the Shakers called “simplicity.” And like them, she attributed it to the grace of God and Mother Ann’s goodness. There was no more fear or anxious seeking or doubt, for there was only one thing to be careful about in the Society: obedience. If she did as she was told, obeyed people like Mother Lucy, whose goodness and kindness were so obvious to all who met her, then she’d would remain free of her affliction. It was an unarticulated pact she’d made with Mother Ann.

And so it went for Therese’s first twenty four years in the Society and until those confusing last words of Mother on her deathbed. But those words ended up pointing back toward what she’d left behind when she’d first come to the Society - that other world. And that frightening nowhere, devoid of the boundaries set by time and space, only showed itself after the symptoms of her pre-Shaker youth returned. They arrived “like a consuming fire,” as she put it to herself later, using the psalmist’s description of God’s presence.

The troubles began a few months after Mother Lucy’s death, twenty eight years after Therese’s entry into the Society. They started one autumn day when the village was aflame with color under a bright sun in a blue sky. The reds and yellows of the village’s maples that lined the gravel esplanade leading up from the turnpike to the gambrel-roofed meeting house caught her attention from where she sat in the upstairs office staring out a window. Mother Ruth, Father James, and Father Simeon, who governed the village with her, sat around a table listening to the Church family’s two elders and two eldresses, for whom Mother Paulina was the spokesperson, seated opposite. Whether or not to make Brother Jonah the Church family’s deacon and the village trustee was the question. All of them had doubts about the man. He’d been with the Society for only six years and had originally shown up at Bethany a few months after losing his wife, two children, and a building supplies business during the Connecticut River’s flood of the century that had swept through Brattleboro, a Vermont town not too far east of Bethany, with an apocalyptic fury. Father James, then an elder of the North Family where new arrivals and those who had not yet signed the covenant lived, had taken the man under his wing and slowly led him out of his melancholy until Brother Jonah showed his abilities and did things like proposing, planning, and supervising the building of the grist mill and its adjoining pond from the local creek and with the start-up of a finished-lumber business that put the family out of the red and into the black for which Father James became very grateful to him and which led him to recommend Brother Jonah as the man to set the Church family, the largest of the village’s three families (with over 100 of Bethany’s 230 residents) and lying at the heart of the community, on the right track as well. Mother Paulina had showed her support for the candidate, but Therese mentally dismissed that because Paulina always backed whatever James wanted. The two had known one another for at least as long as Therese had been in the Society and they’d lived at Bethany all that time. She’d always thought it interesting that two such different types had found enough in common for a friendship except to explain it by saying that they “complemented one another.” James, an intuitive, mild, spiritual man capable of sharp insight into someone’s character yet at other times a little too kind and ready to give the benefit of the doubt to govern efficiently. Somewhat, Therese like to phrase it to herself, like God the Father who allowed evil to happen so that a greater good might come about. So if James was the glue that held village together spiritually, Paulina, who let nothing slip past, was the glue that kept the buildings standing. She virtually ruled the Church family herself, though she often deferred to James’s judgment, as she obviously did in the case of Brother Jonah.


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