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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Vision of Peace

By Horace Elisha Scudder (1838–1902)

[From “A House of Entertainment.”—Stories and Romances. 1880.]

IT was not long before the regular movements of the stranger attracted the attention of the villagers, and it was easily surmised that he was the Alden Holcroft who had bought the old tavern. But the people had a lazy curiosity; the few advances made by one and another failing to elicit anything, he was looked upon simply as an odd stick, and left to himself. He managed to keep an entire independence of his neighbors, and it was nearly two years after he had taken possession of his house before he formed even the most trivial association with them. He had then completed the more important changes, and was mainly occupied with lighter matters of decoration and furnishing. There were therefore idler moments than he had known, and something of the old restlessness came back, repressed as it had been by his occupation. One Sunday morning, tasting the fresh life of a June day, he locked the door upon the outside, and walked along a road which he had occasionally taken on his way to or from the railway station, less direct than the customary road. It passed through a small settlement of the people known as Shakers, who had established themselves upon the slope of a hill which overlooked the river valley. Their houses and barns and outhouses had the air of keeping up a continual conflict with nature, as if a strong resolution was maintained not to suffer them to harmonize with the landscape. A prodigious barn, long unpainted, and by the lapse of time subdued to a russet hue, which diminished its proportions and made it look almost as if it had grown through generations, like the trees about it, had recently been clapboarded and painted white; so that now it put nature out, and shone in the midst of the greenery with a blank immensity which was the very triumph of ungovernable order. In this settlement Holcroft was always reminded of monasteries in their prime: the gardens were so rich; the slow-moving men, with their broad hats and sombre garments, led so monotonous and regular a life; the bell tolled at intervals; and he could fancy the brothers, with their few books of devotion and their petty duties mingling religion and worldly comfort by that subtle combination which produced almost a new order of life. Only the Yankee thrift and barrenness of æsthetic predilection gave to the whole a hopelessly modern look, as if by no lapse of time could the buildings and family ever become picturesque.

It is true, the comparison with a monastery failed again in an important point: that the family held a goodly number of sisters, young and old; for their faces were at the windows—there always seemed to be one or two whose business was to keep watch of passers-by—and figures of women could be seen moving about between the houses and through the fields. The poke-bonnets which they wore reduced them all to one undistinguishable age and condition, and they seemed to Holcroft, when he casually passed them, scarcely more human than the stacks of beans which he saw in their fields in autumn. Once, crossing a corn-field in the early summer, he had come upon a scarecrow made with grim pleasantry out of the ordinary dress of a Shaker sister. It is true, they could hardly be supposed to have any other clothes to put to such a use, but the sight gave him a queer start, as if he had come upon one gone to seed; and he wondered besides if the crows would really be afraid of anything so harmless and patient.

As he drew near the village this morning he heard the toll of a bell, and was surprised by the sight of a procession crossing the road from one of the houses to the plain meeting-house opposite. He stopped in admiration. Two and two the women walked, carrying music-books in their hands, and dressed now in quiet-colored, delicate gowns which hung in straight folds, but were rendered singularly beautiful by the addition of the soft silk handkerchief about the neck; while the head was enclosed in a snug cap, which could not be called lovely in itself, yet had an undeniable harmony with the rest of the dress. The placid manners and quiet dignity of the little procession moving under the blue sky brought a singular sense of quiet to him, and as they entered the meeting-house he suddenly resolved to follow them and see what their service was like. Some wagons and carriages stood near by, and strangers—world’s people—were moving into the little building. He followed through the men’s door, and seated himself upon one of the benches set apart for outsiders. The whole company of men and women were standing in opposite rows and singing, a few holding music-books, but most familiar with music and words. The hymn sung was introductory to the service, which began with the reading of a chapter from the New Testament by one of the elders. The chief part of the service, however, was in the combined music and marching, or dancing, as it might sometimes be called. By some understanding the company quietly formed, eight young men and women occupying the centre of the room in an oval figure, the remainder disposed in two circles outside the smaller one; this small circle was stationary, and seemed to form a choir; the song was started by it and the two circles began moving round it, the inner in an opposite direction to that taken by the outer. The choir members held their hands before them with uplifted palms, and gently let them rise and fall to the cadences of the music. So also did the two circles of marchers, and the singing was carried on not only by the choir, but by so many of the marchers as were possessed of musical powers; while those who could not sing moved their lips with the words of the song and seemed thus to share in the singing. When the song was ended, the double procession stopped, each member in place, and all, choir and marchers, swept their hands downward, and by a gesture, appeared to arrest the music. Then, after a pause, either new singing with a resumption of the marching would begin, or some one would speak a few words of thanksgiving or exhortation.

It was the first time that Holcroft had ever been within the Shaker meeting-house, and he was surprised into a spirit of reverence. Whatever of the grotesque had been associated with the service in his mind, from the descriptions he had heard, disappeared in the actual presence of these sincere men and women. It is true that now and then he had to repress a smile, as some peculiar earnestness of expression turned its odd side toward him, and he thought also that he detected certain sleepy and perfunctory movements on the part of some, as if their minds were on some remote occupation, perchance the gathering of roses for the distilled rose-water to be made shortly, or some like innocent occupation in their unexciting life; but the congregation doubtless had its range of devotion, like other congregations. The main effect was of a simple-minded and single-hearted people, who threw into this service a fervor which expressed the ideal of their life. To be neat and practical was not the whole of their religion; for them also were aspirations and anticipations; and sometimes, as they marched to the singing of a hymn which spoke of them as pilgrims on their way to a heavenly home, their faces were turned up with an eager, joyous look, their feet seemed only to touch the floor, and their hands pushed back the sordid world with an energetic gesture. It was at such times that Holcroft was thrilled with a sympathetic emotion. The rude singing and the quick movements of the marchers blended harmoniously, and his soul was fanned as it were by a breath from some distant sea. There were, besides, other times when the gestures, changing their meaning with the varying hymn, swept the world away and brought back heavenly presences, and the refrain was repeated again and again, so that the meaning was driven in upon one with renewed waves of feeling; and finally, by a sudden movement, the inner circle of singers was itself transformed into a moving circle, making three rings of worshippers, passing and repassing each other with rhythmic tread, and singing joyfully a triumphant song. Holcroft half closed his eyes, and the moving bodies before him seemed almost resolved into a cloud of witnesses, wavering under a divine power which swept it backward and forward across the heavenly field.

There was doubtless in Holcroft a sensitiveness to subtle influences which made him easily affected by the spectacle. It was the visible and frank manifestation of emotions which he shared with others, but was rarely permitted to witness, because in most cases one needs first to express like emotions, and Holcroft by his constitutional shyness was prevented from soliciting or sharing in any exhibition of feeling. Besides, the humorous was not strongly developed in him, and very simple sentiment, from his long brooding in solitude, had come to have an elemental force likely to be overlooked by persons more familiar with the process of expression and repression. In the scene before him he thought he was looking into the depths of the human heart, just as in hearing a few chords of music he might believe himself listening to spheral harmonies. Perhaps it was because he was so sympathetic and responsive that the faces of the men and women were hallowed by a light not ordinarily seen by him. Be this as it may, it is certain that his eye rested with peculiar reverence upon one of the worshippers who was in the outer circle, and in face, manner, and dress seemed to hold and give forth the perfume, as it were, of the religious ceremony. There were all ages present, from young children to old men and women; but the beauty of devotion never appears so fair as when residing in a girl who is heiress to all that the world can give, yet reaches upward for more enduring delights.

As the circles moved round the room, Holcroft had caught sight of a maiden, dressed like others of her age, in a fabric which was neither clear white nor gray, but of a soft pearly tint, which symbolized the innocence of youth and the ripening wisdom of older years. Her dark hair was closely confined beneath the stiff cap which all wore, but in the dance a single lock had escaped, unknown to the wearer, and peeped forth in a half-timid, half-daring manner. A snow-white kerchief was folded over her shoulders and bosom, and her carriage was so erect, her movements so lithe, that as she came stepping lightly forward, her little hands rising and falling before her, or moving tremulously at her side, she seemed the soul of the whole body, pulsating visibly there before the reverent Holcroft. Once, in a pause of the dance, she stood directly before him, and he found it impossible to raise his eyes to her face, while a deep blush spread over his own. But when the dance began again, his eyes followed her, as she passed beyond and then returned, still with the sweet grace and unconscious purity which made the whole worship centre in her.

The dancing ceased finally, and the worshippers took their places on the wooden benches, which had been placed on one side. There were addresses made by one and another, passages from book, pamphlet, or paper were read, and then they all rose to sing once more; this over, an elder came forward, added a few words, and said, “The meeting is closed,” when the outside attendants took their leave and stood in knots by the meeting-house watching the Shakers as they came out after them and passed into the several houses where they belonged. Holcroft, standing apart, watched for the young girl who had so attracted him, and saw her cross the road and enter one of the houses of the community. Then he turned and walked toward his own house.