One day, in the sick-chamber of Father Ephraim, who had been forty years the presiding elder over the Shaker settlement at Goshen, there was an assemblage of several of the chief men of the sect. Individuals had come from the rich establishment at Lebanon, from Canterbury, Harvard and Alfred, and from all the other localities where this strange people have fertilized the rugged hills of New England by their systematic industry. An elder was likewise there who had made a pilgrimage of a thousand miles from a village of the faithful in Kentucky to visit his spiritual kindred the children of the sainted Mother Ann. He had partaken of the homely abundance of their tables, had quaffed the far-famed Shaker cider, and had joined in the sacred dance every step of which is believed to alienate the enthusiast from earth and bear him onward to heavenly purity and bliss. His brethren of the North had now courteously invited him to be present on an occasion when the concurrence of every eminent member of their community was peculiarly desirable.
The venerable Father Ephraim sat in his easy-chair, not only hoary-headed and infirm with age, but worn down by a lingering disease which it was evident would very soon transfer his patriarchal staff to other hands. At his footstool stood a man and woman, both clad in the Shaker garb.
"My brethren," said Father Ephraim to the surrounding elders, feebly exerting himself to utter these few words, "here are the son and daughter to whom I would commit the trust of which Providence is about to lighten my weary shoulders. Read their faces, I pray you, and say whether the inward movement of the spirit hath guided my choice aright."
Accordingly, each elder looked at the two candidates with a most scrutinizing gaze. The man--whose name was Adam Colburn--had a face sunburnt with labor in the fields, yet intelligent, thoughtful and traced with cares enough for a whole lifetime, though he had barely reached middle age. There was something severe in his aspect and a rigidity throughout his person--characteristics that caused him generally to be taken for a schoolmaster; which vocation, in fact, he had formerly exercised for several years. The woman, Martha Pierson, was somewhat above thirty, thin and pale, as a Shaker sister almost invariably is, and not entirely free from that corpse-like appearance which the garb of the sisterhood is so well calculated to impart.
"This pair are still in the summer of their years," observed the elder from Harvard, a shrewd old man. "I would like better to see the hoar-frost of autumn on their heads. Methinks, also, they will be exposed to peculiar temptations on account of the carnal desires which have heretofore subsisted between them."
"Nay, brother," said the elder from Canterbury; "the hoar-frost and the black frost hath done its work on Brother Adam and Sister Martha, even as we sometimes discern its traces in our cornfields while they are yet green. And why should we question the wisdom of our venerable Father's purpose, although this pair in their early youth have loved one another as the world's people love? Are there not many brethren and sisters among us who have lived long together in wedlock, yet, adopting our faith, find their hearts purified from all but spiritual affection?"
Whether or no the early loves of Adam and Martha had rendered it inexpedient that they should now preside together over a Shaker village, it was certainly most singular that such should be the final result of many warm and tender hopes. Children of neighboring families, their affection was older even than their school-days; it seemed an innate principle interfused among all their sentiments and feelings, and not so much a distinct remembrance as connected with their whole volume of remembrances. But just as they reached a proper age for their union misfortunes had fallen heavily on both and made it necessary that they should resort to personal labor for a bare subsistence. Even under these circumstances Martha Pierson would probably have consented to unite her fate with Adam Colburn's, and, secure of the bliss of mutual love, would patiently have awaited the less important gifts of Fortune. But Adam, being of a calm and cautious character, was loth to relinquish the advantages which a single man possesses for raising himself in the world. Year after year, therefore, their marriage had been deferred.
Adam Colburn had followed many vocations, had travelled far and seen much of the world and of life. Martha had earned her bread sometimes as a sempstress, sometimes as help to a farmer's wife, sometimes as schoolmistress of the village children, sometimes as a nurse or watcher of the sick, thus acquiring a varied experience the ultimate use of which she little anticipated. But nothing had gone prosperously with either of the lovers; at no subsequent moment would matrimony have been so prudent a measure as when they had first parted, in the opening bloom of life, to seek a better fortune. Still, they had held fast their mutual faith. Martha might have been the wife of a man who sat among the senators of his native State, and Adam could have won the hand, as he had unintentionally won the heart, of a rich and comely widow. But neither of them desired good-fortune save to share it with the other.
At length that calm despair which occurs only in a strong and somewhat stubborn character and yields to no second spring of hope settled down on the spirit of Adam Colburn. He sought an interview with Martha and proposed that they should join the Society of Shakers. The converts of this sect are oftener driven within its hospitable gates by worldly misfortune than drawn thither by fanaticism, and are received without inquisition as to their motives. Martha, faithful still, had placed her hand in that of her lover and accompanied him to the Shaker village. Here the natural capacity of each, cultivated and strengthened by the difficulties of their previous lives, had soon gained them an important rank in the society, whose members are generally below the ordinary standard of intelligence. Their faith and feelings had in some degree become assimilated to those of their fellow-worshippers. Adam Colburn gradually acquired reputation not only in the management of the temporal affairs of the society, but as a clear and efficient preacher of their doctrines. Martha was not less distinguished in the duties proper to her sex. Finally, when the infirmities of Father Ephraim had admonished him to seek a successor in his patriarchal office, he thought of Adam and Martha, and proposed to renew in their persons the primitive form of Shaker government as established by Mother Ann. They were to be the father and mother of the village. The simple ceremony which would constitute them such was now to be performed.
"Son Adam and daughter Martha," said the venerable Father Ephraim, fixing his aged eyes piercingly upon them, "if ye can conscientiously undertake this charge, speak, that the brethren may not doubt of your fitness."
"Father," replied Adam, speaking with the calmness of his character, "I came to your village a disappointed man, weary of the world, worn out with continual trouble, seeking only a security against evil fortune, as I had no hope of good. Even my wishes of worldly success were almost dead within me. I came hither as a man might come to a tomb willing to lie down in its gloom and coldness for the sake of its peace and quiet. There was but one earthly affection in my breast, and it had grown calmer since my youth; so that I was satisfied to bring Martha to be my sister in our new abode. We are brother and sister, nor would I have it otherwise. And in this peaceful village I have found all that I hope for--all that I desire. I will strive with my best strength for the spiritual and temporal good of our community. My conscience is not doubtful in this matter. I am ready to receive the trust."
"Thou hast spoken well, son Adam," said the father. "God will bless thee in the office which I am about to resign."
"But our sister," observed the elder from Harvard. "Hath she not likewise a gift to declare her sentiments?"
Martha started and moved her lips as if she would have made a formal reply to this appeal. But, had she attempted it, perhaps the old recollections, the long-repressed feelings of childhood, youth and womanhood, might have gushed from her heart in words that it would have been profanation to utter there.
"Adam has spoken," said she, hurriedly; "his sentiments are likewise mine."
But while speaking these few words Martha grew so pale that she looked fitter to be laid in her coffin than to stand in the presence of Father Ephraim and the elders; she shuddered, also, as if there were something awful or horrible in her situation and destiny. It required, indeed, a more than feminine strength of nerve to sustain the fixed observance of men so exalted and famous throughout the Beet as these were. They had overcome their natural sympathy with human frailties and affections. One, when he joined the society, had brought with him his wife and children, but never from that hour had spoken a fond word to the former or taken his best-loved child upon his knee. Another, whose family refused to follow him, had been enabled--such was his gift of holy fortitude--to leave them to the mercy of the world. The youngest of the elders, a man of about fifty, had been bred from infancy in a Shaker village, and was said never to have clasped a woman's hand in his own, and to have no conception of a closer tie than the cold fraternal one of the sect. Old Father Ephraim was the most awful character of all. In his youth he had been a dissolute libertine, but was converted by Mother Ann herself, and had partaken of the wild fanaticism of the early Shakers. Tradition whispered at the firesides of the village that Mother Ann had been compelled to sear his heart of flesh with a red-hot iron before it could be purified from earthly passions.
However that might be, poor Martha had a woman's heart, and a tender one, and it quailed within her as she looked round at those strange old men, and from them to the calm features of Adam Colburn. But, perceiving that the elders eyed her doubtfully, she gasped for breath and again spoke.
"With what strength is left me by my many troubles," said she, "I am ready to undertake this charge, and to do my best in it."
"My children, join your hands," said Father Ephraim.
They did so. The elders stood up around, and the father feebly raised himself to a more erect position, but continued sitting in his great chair.
"I have bidden you to join your hands," said he, "not in earthly affection, for ye have cast off its chains for ever, but as brother and sister in spiritual love and helpers of one another in your allotted task. Teach unto others the faith which ye have received. Open wide your gates--I deliver you the keys thereof--open them wide to all who will give up the iniquities of the world and come hither to lead lives of purity and peace. Receive the weary ones who have known the vanity of earth; receive the little children, that they may never learn that miserable lesson. And a blessing be upon your labors; so that the time may hasten on when the mission of Mother Ann shall have wrought its full effect, when children shall no more be born and die, and the last survivor of mortal race--some old and weary man like me--shall see the sun go down nevermore to rise on a world of sin and sorrow."
The aged father sank back exhausted, and the surrounding elders deemed, with good reason, that the hour was come when the new heads of the village must enter on their patriarchal duties. In their attention to Father Ephraim their eyes were turned from Martha Pierson, who grew paler and paler, unnoticed even by Adam Colburn. He, indeed, had withdrawn his hand from hers and folded his arms with a sense of satisfied ambition. But paler and paler grew Martha by his side, till, like a corpse in its burial-clothes, she sank down at the feet of her early lover; for, after many trials firmly borne, her heart could endure the weight of its desolate agony no longer.