An Island Plant: In Three Parts
WHEN Nantucket town was called Sherburne, the houses of the first settlement at Maddeket were left isolated upon the western end of the island. There they stood staring, with the chagrined expression of things conscious of having been left; toned at length into apparent resignation and sereneness by a soft washing-in of gray; and brought finally to complete agreement with their setting of sea and sand by being propped up here and eked out there with the remnants of wrecks.
Most isolated, most lonely of all these was the abode of Phebe Nichols; yet more apart than the house itself was the soul within it. Daniel and Eunice Nichols, following the lead of other persecuted Quakers, had come to Nantucket, seeking peace and pursuing it. There they brought Phebe, their sole offspring, the child of their middle life, to womanhood, and left her for the eternal peace; left her to evolve such a case as she might from the conditions of more than a century ago on the Maddeket plains.
Though she knew nothing of sacraments, there was, in truth, something of the sacredness and solemnity of a sacrament in those mute observances by which Phebe took up her inheritance,— accepted her loneness with her patrimony. Loneness, indeed, was by far the more considerable portion; for, beside their Bible, “a few strong instincts and a few plain rules,” Daniel and Eunice had brought hardly more than their pewter mugs and platters from the mainland. On the sands and poverty grass of Nantucket, where their humility of desire agreed with nature’s grudging moods, they had gathered together only such appointments as would protect and support their lives of duty, and, departing, had left these concretions of their virtues to bind Phebe to a hallowed spot.
In the rectitude and sincerity of her cherished furniture her father still expressed himself, for it was the work of his own hands. Her neat, sweet bedding, her mats of husks, and even her brooms of beach grass were the results of her mother’s patient industry; and in a pieced “comforter ” and a braided woolen mat Phebe treasured the relinquished garments of both her parents. There was hardly a suggestion of beauty in all her precious store, yet Phebe feared there was too much splendor of adornment in some baskets of stained withes, and woven ribbons of thinlysplit soft wood, which she herself had achieved by barter with the Indians.
The indefinite matter of happiness can hardly be entered upon an inventory of Phebe’s possessions, but there was something akin to it in her unconsciousness of the tediousness and poverty of her life. She was unaware, for example, that she lacked diversion, for she had never heard of the singular cases of persons who expected to be diverted. To her understanding, the daughter of Herodias pleased Herod by the skillful execution of some rarely difficult work.
On sunny days, Phebe knew the hour by the marks her father had made on the window-sill ; on cloudy days, she guessed it; and the variations of dividing her monotony into portions or accepting it entire were her vicissitudes. She could not know that she needed a change when, after a week of storm, the sun came out, and she saw that it was twelve o ’ clock!
Now and then some matron of Sherburne gave her spinning and weaving or quilting to do ; in spring she gathered herbs, in summer berries, to take to town with her more regular merchandise of eggs and chickens; but there were times when all her resources failed to consume the many hours of the long days of her still young life. When the great storms had come ; when her linen and worsted were spun and woven and fashioned into sheaths for her body; when her stockings were knitted, her fish dried,her pork pickled, the autumn’s little harvest and her medicinal herbs gathered in; when she had fed herself and her hens, and so arranged matters that life would continue to go on, Phebe would often have sat idle, with folded hands, but that she remembered the final account she must give for every moment during which she sat gazing dreamily into the fire.
Her only means of devoting these remnants of time to duty was that of spelling a few paragraphs in the old sheepskin - covered Bible, which had been a parting gift to her grandfather from one of the martyrs to their common opinions, in those bitter days when the Quakers were sorely hated in Plymouth colony. Because these words were slowly spelled and separately considered, they were well remembered. Sometimes they vaguely pleased, sometimes they puzzled and alarmed, the girl; for the Friends left these matters to be interpreted by the Spirit, and poor Phebe, waiting in silence for the voice of the Spirit, perceived only the literal word. It is true that she might have given her thought to such portions of it as were plain and comforting. Ah, it is precisely what might have been, and was not, which is mournfully conspicuous in the lot of Phebe Nichols. In the multiplicity of her needs, she needed somebody to tell her what she needed ; but everybody’s duty was systematically planned and performed on the island of Nantucket, without reference to Phebe Nichols or her needs.
Clearly, Phebe was a woman without a vocation; but she had had her little aspiration. She had timidly dreamed it would be happiness to be loved of the herb-doctor’s youngest son. But such a thought in regard to her had perhaps never occurred to the herb-doctor’s son, whose destiny was otherwise fixed; so that eventually this one dream of the little wild-eyed Quakeress was raised to the height of sacred experience by the magical power of three words. These words were “lost at sea. ”
Other sons of Nantucket came from time to time wooing Phebe: one from town, one from the North Shore, and one from the Head of the Plains. But that which had been lost in the sea, the unattainable, made it impossible to satisfy those rudiments of poetic imagination which appear to have been a rather useless and inconvenient adjunct to Phebe’s mind; so the young men from town, from the North Shore, and from the Head of the Plains went their ways, and Phebe lived on alone.
That is, to use a common form of speech; but who does live alone ? “This body in which we journey across the isthmus between the two oceans, ” says Dr. Holmes, “is not a private carriage, but an omnibus.”
They feel their multiple identity more than others, these solitaires, and so they have a habit of speaking out, called “talking to themselves.” To Phebe Nichols this esoteric comradeship was not all. The longer she maintained her apparent solitude, the more populous were her borders. Not only her rigid father and meek, submissive mother seemed more actually there, in their old, sober, silent habitudes, than they were in their unmarked graves, but there were, moreover, less homely and welcome indwellers and visitants. What was it that cried to her out of the night, what besides the wind ? What stealthy forms were those that came across the plains from the foot of Trot’s Hills, on the margin of Long Pond, in the gray of the morning? What busy feet and whispering voices waked her when the nights were cold and still ?
Strange are the creatures that crowd upon mortals in moral solitude! Unseen and unheard where humanity draws together, how they press upon and startle helpless beings who are alone!
When Phebe sat up to the little round deal table of an evening, with her Bible and her tallow dip, and spelled out those visions of the Apocalypse to which she always turned, it was to add still another element to the mixed assembly which thronged upon her fancy. Her finger moved slowly, often tremulously, from word to word. Her vivid face, absorbing the wavering light, was a rare commentary upon the text. Gradually all things were colored, and just beyond the simple scenery of her world, bounding it closely, like a lurid atmosphere, was the wondrous phantasm of creatures full of eyes and terrible with horns; a beast that made fire to come down upon the earth; awful vials poured out to scorch men ; and especially a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, whose tail swept a third part of the stars down upon the earth, who stood ready to devour a child at its birth.
There was no kindly counsel to dispel her confusions and illusions. “Be still, and know that I am God, ” was the invariable and only answer vouchsafed to perplexity by the Quakers of those days. But Phebe could not be still. The neighborly visitor from a mile or two away paused, before reaching her threshold, to listen to a voice raised to a clear note of subdued intensity, or dropped to a murmurous undertone; broken into short, incisive phrases, or running smoothly on in an eager stream of words. If the visitor advanced, and, perceiving the leathern latchstring outside, lifted the latch and entered without knocking, in the custom of the time and place, Phebe was found to be quite alone, or with no visible auditor, her hands perhaps outstretched in an attitude of exhortation or pleading; or, it might be, quietly and thoughtfully bunching up her yarrow and motherwort, her archangel and “sparemint,” for drying; or simply standing upon the hearthstone, erect and slim, giving a turn to her bit of pork that hung roasting before the fire, and speaking or responding as in friendly conversation, so low that one could plainly hear the boiling of the sap in the burning logs. Or perchance she would be stooping to put her paste of salted meal and water into the baking-kettle, and heaping upon the kettle’s lid the live coals that gave a flush to her white cheek, and intensified the startled look which she turned upon the incomer.
But sometimes those who paused to listen to the earnest voice looked suspiciously upon the desolate dwelling, which stood sidewise, in an evasive, ungracious attitude, with its thin coil of smoke writhing away like a mystical kind of serpent,—an unblessed-looking house, with no tree, no flower, in its company, but only the wind-bitten, reluctant herbage of the desert to save the naked poverty of the sands from exposure. They looked suspiciously, and turned away. The neighborly visits ceased, and strange things began to be whispered of Phebe and her invisible communicants.
That, however, was Nantucket, not Salem; the eighteenth, not the seventeenth century: so, instead of hanging or burning Phebe, they left her to the “daily dying ” prescribed by the Quaker discipline.
Some relief there was from this condition of things. There were the First Day and Fifth Day meetings, when Phebe sat among the living, looked upon human faces and listened to human voices. There, Phebe was simply herself to the simple meeting-folk. Nothing in her life was so sweet as the pressure of those warm, friendly hands, and the “How ’s thee do, Phebe? ” — nothing so comfortable to look at as the clustered bonnets nodding at each other in the doorway of the little meeting-house after meeting, unless the appearance of those same bonnets within her own walls, which occasionally happened ; for the Friends are conscientious in their attendance upon the needs of their lonely and sick and poor; yet it is not given to them — it is not given to human insight — to know all the needs of the simplest mortal life. With them, to whom silence and loneness of spirit were duties, there seemed nothing calling for relief in those conditions clearly arranged by the Divine Will.
But there were other occasions of contact with her fellow-beings less welcome than those visits of the friendly nodding bonnets. These came of the necessity of carrying her herbs and berries, her chickens and eggs, to town, and bringing back the small requirements of her incomprehensible life; for life is a premise that must be supported to some kind of a conclusion.
Phebe shrank like a young doe from entering the precincts of man ; for man himself is so fearless, and looks under a white sunbonnet, or even a brown Quaker bonnet, with such freedom. The old men thought of their lost youth, at the sight of her comely, intense face and slender, swaying form; the young men looked at her tender, unkissed lips with longing, — lips that moved with a sensitive quiver under that ordeal of eyes. Even the involuntary glance that roved beyond the steelyards, when Josiah Coffin weighed her out two pounds of dark brown sugar, and the regard he fixed upon her instead of the two shillings she laid on the molasses barrel, or the sixpence he returned to her shrinking palm, were painful experiences to Phebe. Her light feet moved quickly as she retreated up the crooked street, and out upon the paths that led to her lair on the Maddeket plains.
It was in one of these retreats that fate followed and fixed new conditions for her. She was moving with the smooth buoyancy of slender, unfettered wild creatures, and swaying like a young palm-tree in the wind. Her face, which bore the mark of solitary living in its intensified sensibility, was bent downward; her tawny eyelids drooped; their heavy lashes hid the dark line of weariness beneath them; her long fingers, clasping one another upon the handle of her basket, made sudden convulsive starts without unclasping; her thin, sweetly-curved lips moved incessantly, or trembled with the oncoming tide of words.
“It may be, for so it hath been from the beginning, ” she was saying; and her language had a touch of nobleness which she had caught from the sublime book. “Some he will help, and some he willeth not to help, as he hath said in his word, —‘ I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.’ ” And after a pause, with a shuddering moan, “It may be true, what these evil beings whisper to me, — that I am of those upon whom he will not have mercy; for why should he have respect unto me ?" The buffeting wind, driving her faster, seemed only to consent with her distracted impulse to hurry away. The bristling heads of everlasting, the rusted yarrow, and the bleached goldenrod of November, that had moved with agitated shivers when she passed on her way to town, were bending headlong, with frantic strain, south and westward, and straightening themselves for more determined plunges, like enchanted sprites vainly struggling to break the spell which held them rooted. The commotion in the air blended with Phebe’s own disturbance, and was lost to her. She neither heard nor saw with her physical senses, until at length, pausing abruptly, her thin nostrils dilated with deep breathing, her dark eyes kindling like smouldering embers in a sudden blast, she turned as if to face some invisible pursuer, her hands outstretched to appeal once more.
But no words came. Phebe stood dumb before the strange appearance of things. There was a diffusion of dull redness, which, having its source in the heavens, immersed the plain and the low hillsides, changing the mournful browns and withered drabs of the hitherto murky, monotoned scene to a solemn pageant of color under smothered light.
To a mind perpetually overwrought and verging closely upon madness, which saw sinister and mysterious appearances in the commonest things, that sudden angry flush was not without its portent. There were strange meanings always, to Phebe, on sea and sky; the very ground beneath her was solid and secure only by some temporary armistice with the powers of evil. It was as if she had discovered a hidden and horrible significance in things, and, daring not to reveal it, bore the awful weight in her single, isolated soul.
She pushed on, however, panting and palpitating, until she reached the height above and beyond Maxey’s Pond, — the topmost point of the island, probably, from which the eye can sweep the almost unbroken horizon, follow the island’s outlines, and travel far over its surrounding waters. There she recoiled with a low cry from the majesty of the spectacle which burst upon her. Across the sky, from south to north and down to the western sea, stupendous sweeps of angry red trailed from limit to limit of the horizon zone; and the sea was a field of blood, bounded by a far-away outer gloom, — a purple gloom, as of the death coincident with fields of blood. It was no common gorgeousness of sunset, but a monstrous phenomenon, to be remembered during a lifetime, which neither painting nor language can portray.
The girl stood paralyzed, gazing upon the solemn splendor, her scant garments pressed and moulded upon her long, slight limbs by the wind, her bonnet blown back, the dark locks lifted from her brow, enhancing its breadth and pallor. Such an exposed and defenseless figure, so raised and sharply vignetted upon the awful sky, could not have been overlooked by the maleficent spirits of the air.
In Phebe’s distorted mind, this appearance of sea and sky had its indubitable explanation. It was the second advent of the red dragon; a new revelation of the “great mountain burning with fire, ’ which “was cast into the sea; and the third part of the sea became blood; and the third part of the creatures which were in the sea, and had life, died; and the third part of the ships were destroyed.” She made no doubt that the invincible monster was there, wallowing in the waters, which he suffused with his color, and that those mighty sweeps of sullen red were the result of those same lashings which had swept the stars from the sky. She heard, indeed, his horrible roar, sounding and resounding over land and sea, and, drowned in awe and dismay, sank down upon the field moss, and covered her head with her cloak.
Time marked by suffocating heartthrobs has an exaggerated standard of computation, and Phebe awaited the dubious possibilities during long, nameless periods, soul and body bowed together in mutual sufferance. She dreaded with a capacity which admits no comparison with the cause of her dread, though that might well have overwhelmed the coolest philosopher with awe. But at length, emboldened or numbed to indifference by the delay of doom, she lifted her piteous face. Behold, the red dragon was innocently retiring. Far down the western slope of the heavens, and on the utmost border of the visible sea, his latter portion was sliding away, — dropping over the confines of the earth back into the nether pit again, — and the stain of his touch was already being wiped out of the sky.
Completely down upon the sparsely covered sand, prostrate, Phebe drooped then, like a bird overwearied by too great a flight, and there were hard, dry sobs among the sounds flung along by the gale. With all else, in the weakness of the moment, the desolation of her separated life presented itself boldly to her recognition, like a skeleton unmasking.
It is not the fact of loneness, but the realization of it, which is appalling. This sudden perception came to Phebe, as she lay cold, forlorn, strengthless and defenseless, watching the home lights shine out here and there in the dusk of the plain. They seemed to her as the lights on shore to one who perishes at sea. She pressed in fancy, eager and trembling, to firesides where men and women were allied, and so, fearless; where one soul was born of another, and eye met eye with the satisfaction and assurance of kinship. She thought, with a new longing, of that sweet community of human interests which makes families and homes.
But in answer to that pain of loneness and longing there followed the taunting recollection of one and another and another who would have placed her in the bosom of a home like those which bestarred the plain. She remembered Simeon Coleman, the farrier’s son, who had such a tender heart. She thought of Ira Paddack, with the laughing blue eyes, who battled with whales, and would have fought the red dragon for her sake ; and of the grave and manly young farmer and miller, Philip Foulger. He was wise. He owned five books, and had read them all. He would have led her safely. That was his light in the farmhouse below; but it was another woman who sat by it, offering Philip his steaming tea, or laying his baby in its cradle.
Her empty home at Maddeket — empty save for those invisible, unearthly intruders — became suddenly a place of dread to her, as she rose at last, feebly, to go to it, in the deepening dusk. To rest there upon the hillside, in sight of warm human homes, seemed better. She turned towards Maddeket, and, wavering, returned to the home lights. Shivering, tossed and driven, she sank upon the mossy turf again, and gazed upon the lost Eden, — an exile, self-betrayed and self-banished, —her lips pressing each other closer and closer in the generation of resolve, as the remorseful delusion dawned upon her that, since hitherto she had not accepted her allotment of mercy, she was of those to whom mercy was denied.
“But,” she murmured, in the humble, tremulous tone of a punished child promising obedience, “I would not say nay again. I was not clear; but now I see it was for me to take what the Lord sent me. I will not say nay again, whoever is sent.”
It was, to her, a vow. She repeated it, — “ I will not say nay again, ” — a vow as irrevocable to her as Jephthah’s vow to him ; for she was a Quaker maiden of more than a hundred years ago, with a conscience that laid a measure to every thought and word.
The wind-storm was increasing. It held its breath to press more cruelly upon her. She was driven down under the lee of the hill for shelter. In a quiet hollow she paused to rest, and was again startled by a sea bird, blowing across the broad neck of the island, which dropped into this refuge, too, and flapped away before the wind again with sharp, anxious cries.
Across the plain came a human cry; and presently a tall white object revealed itself, approaching slowly. It wavered, sank, and disappeared. This was no mystery to Phebe. It was, indeed, a familiar sight to everybody on the island, and Phebe welcomed it.
“There comes James Newbegin,”she said. “I’ll ask him to take me home. ”
The white object was the sail with which James rigged his two-wheeled cart when voyaging across the island, navigating the land with as much attention to the wind as if his cart had been a schooner; luffing and keeping off, jibing and tacking and reefing, as he changed his course. The severity of the wind obliged him to take in sail altogether, and scud under bare poles, if such a hyperbolical verb may be made to refer to the remaining motor power, an old and self-willed animal, over which James flourished a harmless whip with great appearance of violent intent, shouting, “Come, come, come! Dum thee! I’ll hit thee!’ But the good-natured, simple fellow had, in fact, never struck a blow upon anything in his life, unless we except the useful blows of his hammer and hatchet. The sight of him was a solace to Phebe. He never gazed at her with the offensive eagerness of the younger men, but simply as he looked at all things, with his amiably foolish smile. “Only James Newbegin ” was what she thought; yet it was a human being, whom she dreaded as little as if he had been a friendly old woman, and it would seem more cheerful and comfortable to go home in his company.
Still trembling and tottering, still shuddering from the nearness of the awful possibilities she had escaped, she went on to meet him, for fear he should leave her and veer off into some farther one of the straggling tracks that rutted the plains in every direction which the varying purposes or caprices of the islanders had determined. He saw her coming, and Phebe could hear the peculiar laugh with which he celebrated an agreeable impression. It came to her with the roar of the wind, and she tasted the salt which the wind had also brought to her, crystallized upon her lips, and thought of the tears of her childhood.
That laugh of James’s, one short note with a downward inflection, — “Huh! huh!”—to the unaccustomed sense needed the accompaniment of his expanded visage, to be understood as a laugh. It sounded strange and incongruous, like the ill-timed entrance of a buffo into an act of tragedy; and following it, a piping, clownish voice called, “Whoy, Tim’thy! Why, Phebe, thee ain’t goin’ to town to-night, em thee? ”
“I was going home, and turned back to ask thee to let me ride with thee, James, if thee’s going over to Maddeket, ” answered Phebe.
“Certain, certain. Give me thy basket. Now hop in. Heave-yo! Up she comes ! There, now, set thee down here behind the canvas, out o’ the wind. Hei-gh, Tim’thy! ”
Phebe crept in behind the shelter of the sail, and resigned herself thankfully to the floor of the jerking cart. With such power of wishing as remained, she wished to forget the awful hour upon the hilltop, yet almost as much longed to ease her soul of its burden by speaking out to some partaker with her in the terrors and dangers of mortality — and immortality.
Two singular beings they were: that intense, half-mad young creature, — a soul of pent-up flame, — and the ruddy, middle-aged simpleton, white-eyed, comfortable, invertebrate, the resources of whose nature were invested in inane kindliness and unreasoning impulse, — just the germ of a soul, a mere register of dim sensations.
“Cur’ous sky, wa’n’t it, Phebe?” drawled the shrill harlequin voice, — “like stewed blackberries; black, thee knows, with red juice over ’em. Huh! I wished it was stewed blackberry, an’ I could reach it.”
Phebe shuddered. “Thee don’t understand, ” she murmured, her voice deep with the awe of her own stupendous conception.
“No, I dun know’s I do, Phebe. I don’t und’stand what ’t is I don’t und’stand. ”
“Thee ’s read in the word of God, James ” —
“Stop a bit! I can’t read.”
Then Phebe, with eyes solemnly closed, uttered her first annunciation to human ears. She used her opportunity to pour out all the stored-up results of her strange conceptions and lonely imaginings, and James listened to the overwhelming recital, half aroused, half stunned.
“Thee don’t say so, Phebe! I wan’ ter know! ” he reiterated, in a confusion of childish interest and dismay; and when Phebe had finished, and sat trembling with the intense agitation of that unique abandon, and the effect upon herself of her own graphic delineations, — of seeing that she had a hearer, and of hearing the mystical words of the Apocalypse (which she quoted with slow impressiveness, even in her excitement) taken up and borne grandly on by the bold wind, — he turned upon her a look of purblind wonder mixed with dull but kindly pity. “I’m sorry for thee, Phebe,” he said. “I be, truly. Ain’t it lunsome for thee, livin’ alone out there to Maddeket ? It comes to me to ask thee to marry me, an’ come ” —
“No — no — don’t, don’t ask it, James! ” Phebe interrupted, with a repressed shriek, the very repression of Quaker habit giving strength to the passion of her prayer.
“Wait a bit, wait a bit,” James responded, with unruffled moderation. ‘“It’s give’ me to ask it, an’ I must foller the leadin’. Thee ain’t forced to say yes, if thee ain’t clear about it, but thee ain’t right to hender the leadin’. Will thee”—
“Don’t say it! James, James Newbegin, don’t thee ask me that!
With this outcry, Phebe rose upon her knees, her outspread, outstretched palms upraised as if to defend herself.
“There, there; thee keep quiet, Phebe,” said James, with stolid fixity of purpose. “I ’m a-goin’ to foller the leadin’, an’ then thee can say no as soon as thee likes. Will thee stand up in meetin’ with me ” —
“James Newbegin, I tell thee don’t thee dare to ask me that! ”
“Will thee stand up in meetin’ with me next Fifth Day, an’ marry me, Phebe? There! I ’ve said it, an’ thee’s only to answer no.”
But Phebe answered nothing. The great cry that could not escape her stiffened lips rang through desolate inner chambers, and only died away with years, — “I am of those upon whom he will not have mercy! ”
Mary Catherine Lee.