SOMEWHERE Emily Dickinson has said that she could never hear the word ‘escape’ without a fluttering of wings. Ann Eversole could understand this; only for her the master-word, which stirred that secret poignant throb, was ‘pilgrimage.’ To come upon it in her reading, to say it over to herself, to visualize its color and shape, — for certain sounds possessed color and form for her, — opened a sudden door in her heart giving upon release and freedom.
Once she caught a swallow, which had flown down the chimney, and out in the room was flinging itself violently against the windows in a mad panic of terror; and carrying it out to the porch, had opened her hands, giving it a little toss into the air. Never, as long as she lived, could she forget the bird’s leap into space. How it flew, and flew! Frightened at first, and then, realizing its release, drunk with the ecstasy of freedom. Nothing that she had ever done for anyone had brought such intensity of delight. She used to think whimsically that probably, in the next world, her crown, supposing she had one, would be wrought, not from all her careful goodness, but just from that little gift of freedom to the swallow, together with similar favors that she had bestowed upon dejected wasps, and brown butterflies, which, drifting indoors, had been imprisoned on the window-panes; for she had a conviction that freedom was a big gift, even if its recipients were only birds and insects.
It was something of that swallow’s leap into the air that the word pilgrimage brought to her. It had wooed her for some time, opening itself before her with a delicate insistence; but the summer that she was twenty-eight it became much more than a vague allurement — it seemed a deep spiritual necessity, a gateway toward which she was being impelled, and through which she must pass if she were ever to find — To find what? Well, put crudely and simply, she desired to find God, if haply He were to be found; and of this she was not sure. Yet it seemed to her that she was more likely to find Him if she might escape for a space from all her accustomed routine, and go on a pilgrimage to some sacred spot. Not that the place really mattered. She knew that God is to be worshiped neither in Jerusalem nor in the mountain, but rather in spirit and in truth. Yet the attitude seemed easier to obtain, if one might go away to some place that was accustomed to prayer and meditation.
To go away! Oh, to go away! How the wings of her heart lifted and quivered at the thought! Indeed, she must get away! Her everyday life was falling into chaos, and becoming dim and unreal. She had always had an enormous appetite for existence, but now all the vitality seemed to be going out of everything. Life for her had become like a tree withered at its roots. It might still stand for a while, but all its greenness and sap was gradually drying up. All that seemed real to her any more was this, at times, violent craving of something within herself for a Something without. It assailed her occasionally with such intensity as to be almost terrifying. There was, for instance, the afternoon when she and Patty drove over to Webster, to do some shopping. The accustomed meetings with friends, the little details of their errands, and the drive home, — all of which in the past would have been full of zest, — now drove her frantic; and torn this way and that by the world without and the world within, on the way home she was startlingly cross to Patty.
‘I think,’ Patty said, flicking softly at Billy’s flea-bitten gray sides with the whip, ‘I shall certainly get that blue dimity instead of the organdy.’
This was the third time that Patty had commented on her possible purchase. As they turned from the village street into the dusty highway, she had said that that organdy was a lovely shade of pink, but Mr. Smiley could n’t make her believe it would hold its color. Again she mentioned it as they passed the old Stone Church; and now she spoke of it for the third time as they paused in the ford to let Billy drink, and just when Ann was finding a little peace in watching Billy’s velvet nose meet the water, and in his tranquil acceptance of the brook’s gift, and thinking that, if she might have just a little respite in which to be still and look and look into the heart of clear water, all that strained seeking in her might snap, and she be free.
‘Oh, do be still!’ she broke out sharply, to her sister’s last announcement.
Patty withdrew her dreamy eyes swiftly from the silver ripples, hurt and startled, and ready to snap back; but the misery on the other’s face arrested her.
‘What is the matter, Ann?’ she demanded with concern.
Ann suffered a stab of contrition. How sweet Patty was! But fast in the clutch of that terrible inner absorption, she could not voice it.
‘Oh, do let us get home!’ she said breathlessly. ‘Billy stopped drinking long ago. He’s just pretending now, and every time he stamps at a fly, he splashes me all over.’
When they reached home, after helping Patty out with their bundles, Ann hitched Billy to the apple tree, and bringing in the robe, folded it up and put the whip away, while she answered her mother’s questions as to their expedition.
But at last she was free to escape to her own room. There she locked the door fast, and throwing off her hat, sank down on her knees by the bed. ‘O God!' she whispered desperately. It seemed to her truly that she might go crazy if she could not find what she was seeking, or what sought her.
What had given birth to this tremendous craving and restlessness? Certain books she had read had no doubt fostered it, but they had not originated it. It was the craving, indeed, that had driven her to the books. In them — they were the lives and meditations of some of the world’s great spiritual geniuses — she found the same struggles, the same hunger and seeking, that she herself knew in a lesser degree. They seemed her spiritual kin, however distantly related; and the experiences of a St. Paul, of a Ruysbroeck or a Kabir, were of infinitely more interest to her than all the conquests of a Cæsar or the discoveries of a Columbus. Perhaps it was because she found in herself a deep desire to get at the foundations of life; and here were people who steadily refused all surface-allurements until they should be anchored on the ground of their being. Then, too, their splendid recklessness, willing to fling away all that paler, less vivid men valued, for the sake of what they sought , thrilled her. Also, they seemed to her the freest people of the world, gloriously independent of either time or circumstances; so that to use a whole life in the pursuit of their Kingdom of Heaven, and perhaps then not more than brush the hem of its garment, was no tragedy. They were citizens of eternity, and so could well afford to be spendthrifts of time. But —
Here her meditations were interrupted by a tap at her door. It was Patty.
‘ Please go away, Patty!' Ann begged.
‘Just let me in one minute — one little minute,’ Patty’s voice pleaded.
Holding herself together as best she could, Ann rose and unlocked the door.
‘I only want to put my hat in your deep drawer; it’s just too big for mine,’ Patty explained, slipping in past her, and standing beseechingly, with her big black hat held against the yellow ruffles of her summer frock.
Her fragile beauty, delicate and vivid, was usually a deep delight to Ann; but now, though she saw it, there was no emotion in her to respond. She was conscious once more of the terrifying unreality of the world she lived in. She said nothing, but stood rigidly holding the door open while Patty tucked her hat away.
Patty lingered maddeningly.
‘Are you at work on a new story, Ann?’ she asked.
‘No — no! I’m not. I have n’t written anything for months,’ Ann protested.
Still Patty would not go. She was frightened and worried, but she would not ask again what the trouble was. Instead, she treated it with an oblique tenderness. With a little caress on the other’s shoulder, she said, ‘I like your hair done that way.’
‘Patty,’ Ann burst out, ‘if you don’t go and leave me alone I — I — ’
With a last frightened look, Patty fled; and locking the door fast again, Ann sat down and cried.
She was as frightened about herself as Patty looked. All her hitherto happy outside world seemed to be withdrawn from her, and nothing given in return. Oh, if she might only get away just for a little while, to find herself!
After a space, she dried her eyes, and drawing her chair to the window, rested her head against the frame and gazed across the valley to the Jewett Mountains opposite. There was a great peace and restfulness in looking and looking at the mountains, with their clear outlines sharp against the evening sky, and with the deep shadows in the hollows. There was also the sense of a dim response, a feeling that, if she looked long enough, a veil might be lifted, and something strange and new come suddenly forth. Was it a vague groping for this response that had bred in her all that restless dissatisfaction with everyday life?
The thought brought back to her a remembrance of her little-girlhood. At that time there had lain in the spare bedroom, tucked away in a bureau drawer, a photograph of one of the well-known paintings of Christ. A terrible picture — the head thorn-crowned, drops of blood and sweat on the brow, with the black arms of the cross in the background. Terrible, and yet serene in that supreme moment above all terribleness. The picture became for her a secret of the spirit. Time and again she stole into the spare room, and locking the door, — which was something of a feat of courage in itself, for at that time she was subject to a terror of being locked into places, — she would go over to the bureau, and with the deep excitement of one who unveils the sanctuary, draw forth the picture and gaze and gaze upon it. What it did to her she never knew, but she gave herself to it completely, knowing that she was in the presence of something transcendent, something bigger than she could ever touch, and yet which touched the biggest thing in herself. And for all its supreme moment, and a world’s agony, the Face seemed not unmindful of a little girl’s deep surrender.
Surely, that response must have been there, or a happy child who went rabbit-hunting, rode horseback, and played three-old-cat with the boys, would never have been drawn back again and again to this secret encounter. Either that, or else something in her was deeply satisfied by a complete consecration to the biggest thing she knew. With a wise sobriety, she did not go very often, fearing that too great frequency might dim that intoxication of the spirit. Perhaps it was this experience of long ago that had sown the seed of the desire which appeared now to be coming to a violent fruition.
‘Ann! Ann, are you there? Please come down and show ’Hontas about the salad-dressing for supper. I’m afraid it may go back on her if she tries it alone.’
It was her mother’s voice calling up to her from the garden. Ann rose at once in response, but she was conscious of a wild revulsion of feeling. Was she never to have one moment in which to possess her own soul free from blue dimities, hats, and salad-dressing?
It was while she instructed ’Hontas — whose whole name was Pocahontas, but who graciously said they might call her Pokey or ’Hontas, whichever they liked — in the art of salad-making, that Ann definitely made up her mind that she must go away. But how was it to be managed?
She might easily have achieved a few hours’ seclusion every day, without going away, if she had simply announced that she wished it for her writing. She had already written several stories, and had even published one novel; so that time for that would be understood and respected. But she was not writing, — the zest even for that seemed to be withdrawn, as it was from all her other activities, — and to pretend that she was, required more deception than she was capable of practising. To confess what she really wanted the time for was completely impossible. To speak of those things would have been like tearing away the last veil from the sanctuary. How ridiculously she was inhibited by her reserve and her sincerity! she thought angrily to herself.
And then, in the midst of all her despair, a little miracle happened. She sold a manuscript. Such a hopeless, defeated manuscript, — one in which she had lost all faith, but which suddenly, instead of returning its unwelcome self, sent a sort of‘Hail and Farewell,’ in the shape of a polite letter from an editor, and a substantial check. It was the check that set her free. Strange that one should require gold to achieve one’s Kingdom of Heaven! She admitted the incongruity, yet told herself that, however the seekers of old might have ventured into the desert without so much as a penny, such a pilgrimage was impossible for her.
She began now to plan for her journey— secretly and ecstatically. She knew just where she would go. A friend had told her of the place a year before, and ever since she had refreshed her heart with the thought of it. It was a little secluded island set in a green river, where people were in the habit of coming to pray, so that one more pilgrim would not be noticeable. That was what she craved — inconspicuousness, but also the fortification of many people seeking what she sought. Moreover, there nature came straight up to the doors of the sanctuary, so that all one’s prayers and meditations need not be made within four walls. This, for her, was essential, for, if some say that they are of Paul, and some of Apollos, she was, first of all, a disciple of the woods and fields, used to worshiping in country churches, where the outdoor sounds of insects and birds came in and mingled with the chants. Once a dull sermon had been lightened for her, and all the worshipful delight in life intensified, by the glimpse of a little chipmunk whisking across the vestry steps. And once, as she waited kneeling at the Communion rail, she had glanced out through a half-open window at the tangle of meadow flowers waving in the breeze; and it might have shocked the clergyman when he presented the chalice, had he known that she had invited the yarrow and ironweed to share with her the great mystery of love and companionship. Yes, she must be able to turn to nature in her retreat, but there must be more conventional worship as well. The Spirit was no doubt in the whole of the universe; but sometimes, if it were confined and compressed within four walls, it distilled itself with more force into the expectant heart.
She had not, as yet, said anything of her plan to the family. It was difficult for her to speak of it, and she told herself there would be time for that when all her arrangements were made. She dedicated the first two weeks in September to her pilgrimage. By that time most of the summer preserving would be over, and she did not begin her teaching of the little Wetheril children until the first Monday after the 15th. That left her two clear and beautiful weeks. Halcyon days they were to be, during which something wonderful might come to birth.
Then one day, as she was washing the breakfast dishes, Patty called excitedly, ‘Ann, here’s a letter from Mary — she and Bob are coming for a visit.’
With a dreadful premonition that her skies were falling, Ann hurried into the sitting-room, still clutching the teatowel and cup she had been wiping.
‘Ann,’ said Patty apprehensively, ‘Bob is all run down and tired out from his work in the summer school, and Mary wants him to have a real rest before his winter lectures begin. His nerves are dreadfully on edge, Mary says; and so,’ Patty wound up, ‘not to keep a good thing to himself, he’s coming here to put our nerves all on edge too.’
‘ Patty! ’ Mrs. Eversole warned gently.
‘Well, just listen to what Mary says,’ Patty said, dropping her demure, bright eyes to the letter. '"Bob must have rest and quiet. The doctor even suggested a sanitarium, but the idea frightened us both, so I am trusting to my own dear home people to help me through this difficult time.” Why, of course,’ Patty interpolated. ‘What are the dear home people for, if not to be door-mats for Bob! “We would have gone to a quiet hotel somewhere,” ’ she hastened on, to avoid her mother’s protests; ‘ “but Bob is on a strict diet, and of course that is so difficult to manage at a hotel!” — And so easy for the home people!’ Patty threw in. ‘“I know I can count on Ann’s delicious cooking. And just one thing more: you know how noisy the spare bedroom is through the day; so I wondered if Ann would be dear enough to turn out of her room, and let Bob have it for a study.” ’
‘But—but I’m going away!’ Ann broke in desperately, at this point.
Her mother and Patty looked at her in consternation.
‘Going away!’ Patty cried in horror; and her mother said, ‘O Ann, darling, you can’t go away just now! Wait until their visit is over— it’s only to be for two weeks.’
‘But it’s the only two weeks I have! — You know I start teaching Susie and Jack on the fifteenth,’ Ann said. She was acutely conscious of everything — of the whole sunny, familiar room, of her mother’s gentle concern, of Patty sitting in a low rocker, with the morning sun bright on her hair; most of all, conscious of herself, of the blue border of the cup she wiped, and of the smell of yellow soap.
‘What is the matter, Ann? You look absolutely floored!’ Patty cried suddenly.
Her mother said nothing, but Ann was conscious of deep, serene eyes, questioning her.
‘I — I was going away,’ she repeated breathlessly. ‘I’d been planning it for so long.’
She kept on wiping the cup in a helpless way, looking hard at it. She had a feeling that the only thing that kept her from bursting into tears there before her mother and Patty, in all that terrible bright sunlight, was an intense inspection of the cup’s blue border.
‘O Ann, we can’t spare you!’ Patty pleaded. ‘You never can depend on ’Hontas to get things right; and you know I always rub Bob the wrong way, even when he’s well.’
Her mother still said nothing, but waited, with that tender, enfolding question in her regard.
‘O Ann! You can’t go now!’ Patty repeated.
For a moment longer Ann stood and wiped the cup. ‘No, I know I can’t,’ she said at length. Then she turned and went back to the pantry, where she thrust her hands violently into the hot — almost burning—dish-water.
How her own inhibitions — her sensitive reserve, and her conscience — hedged her about! Even suppose she had been able to do violence to the former, and, breaking through, had explained why this trip meant so much to her; still, if she deserted her mother and Patty in the midst of all the domestic difficulties that were sure to be distilled under the pressure of Bob’s nerves, her doing so would leave little hurt, reproachful spots in the family relationship, which would continually accuse her. And yet — was she being unselfish, or was she just being weak and following the path of least resistance? Would she ever be able to achieve some great smashing blow that would set her free? Was not a complete break of some kind with one’s everyday life always necessary, if the spiritual freedom she craved was ever to be obtained? How ridiculous and impotent to be so defeated simply by a brother-in-law’s upset nerves? Suddenly she found that she was crying, shaking all over, and struggling breathlessly to control herself. In haste and terror lest Patty should discover her, she dashed the wet tea-towel across her eyes, all her little silver dream of a pilgrimage, which had nourished her heart so long, dissolving in a smudge of soapsuds and futile tears.
It was two days later, the afternoon on which Bob and Mary were to arrive. Ann went slowly up the steep path leading to the bench at the edge of the woods. She was discouraged and unhappy, acutely dissatisfied with herself, and, most of all, extremely tired. It had been a fatiguing day. At the last minute Patty had suffered a sudden contrition over Bob, and in an orgy of repentance had insisted that they make Ann’s room into a real study for him. This, of course, necessitated a great many changes, which Patty’s creative and artistic brain devised, but which her strength and patience were incapable of carrying out; so that in the end all the finishing up descended upon Ann.
Now, however, everything was in order at last. Patty and Mrs. Eversole had gone to lie down, before Mary and Bob should come; and Ann, dispossessed of her own room, and seeking a little oasis of peace after the burden of the day, made her way up to the woods. She carried with her a volume of collected prayers and meditations. It was a book new to her, which she had bought to take on her pilgrimage. But she was not thinking of it now, her mind being chiefly worried as to whether ’Hontas’s rolls would rise for supper. They looked depressingly indifferent to their responsibility in the matter the last time Ann had lifted the cloth to question their sallow dough faces. If they did not rise, they would have to substitute soda biscuits. Bob regarded a soda biscuit as almost immoral, certainly as shiftless and an insult to his digestion; and to offer him one on his first night would be to begin the visit disastrously.
Ann sank down on the bench at the edge of the woods with a little sigh. Leaning her dark, beautifully shaped head against the trunk of the maple tree that backed the bench, and crossing her slender hands in her lap, she gazed sombrely out over the valley. How very tired she was! And how dispirited and baffled! Worst of all, how wan and monotonous her whole world had become, with all the green sap of interest and enthusiasm dried at its roots. The little valley lay before her, surrounded by its enfolding mountains and shining in the soft effulgence of the afternoon light. Her father’s farm stretched across the lowland, to the wooded slopes of the opposite ridge; while just below her the house snuggled against the hill, with the bright flowergarden at the back. Ann could see it all distinctly, a panorama of her homelife— the brown earth of the kitchen garden, with its bright emerald row of vegetables, where old ‘Uncle Hiram’ was hoeing; and the back yard, where Pocahontas, in her blue cotton dress and white apron, had come out to feed the chickens, and where the hungry fowls greeted her in a wave of outspread wings and scurrying feet, while she fended off with her wooden spoon the big turkey gobbler’s furious attacks upon her.
Ann saw it all, and in other days it would have moved her to a delighted response; but now it was all pale and dead at the heart, until she should come upon that foundation in herself, which she had hoped so ardently to discover upon her pilgrimage, and without which there was no longer any zest in life. As she sat there on the little bench, none of the valley’s beauty moved her; she was conscious only of how very tired she was, and of the annoying fact that she had forgotten to take in the pillows of the spare bedroom. They still lay out there sunning on the roof, and she would have to go down sooner than she had hoped, to get them in place before Bob and Mary arrived.
Then, quite suddenly, and wholly unexpectedly, it happened. In the space of two short minutes, she went on her pilgrimage, and came home again all changed.
With a little sigh, forcing aside her fatigue, she had picked up the book of meditations, turning its leaves idly, when all at once two or three lines from St. Augustine stared at her from the text, giving themselves to her with almost a sense of laughter, swiftly and simply, flowering exquisitely out of all her perplexity.
‘Thither,’ she read (that is, toward God), ‘one journeyeth not in ships, nor in chariots, nor on foot; for to journey thither, nay even to arrive there, is nothing else but to will to go.’
‘Nothing else but to will to go.' With a dawning excitement and happiness she read the passage all over again, letting the words possess her. Her first reaction to them was an overwhelming, rejoicing, and restoring mirth. How simple it was! And yet, how she had struggled, and suffered, and beaten her wings! It seemed to her all at once that God was more simple than man’s attitude toward Him. Before she even started to find Him, she had thought it necessary to seek out a time of quiet and meditation, to discover what she actually believed about Him; but if this revelation were true, — and the words came to her with such sudden conviction, cutting so swiftly the Gordian knot of her perplexity, that she could not doubt their truth, — why, then it was not what one believed that mattered, it was only the desire — ‘to will to go’ — that was the golden passport for her pilgrimage, that was her scrip, her staff, her gray habit for the journey — nay, it was even the scallop-shell of attainment; for to journey thither, nay, even to arrive there, is nothing else but ‘ to will to go.’ Pascal’s words came also to sustain these: ‘Thou wouldest not seek Me, if thou hadst not already found Me.’
And so she had arrived!
She sat there on the little bench, so completely happy that there were no tears, no laughter, big enough to express her ecstasy, only an utter waiting stillness of the spirit. And as she sat there, all the everyday life, which she had rejected until she should have discovered the foundation of existence in herself, came flooding back upon her, to pour itself over her in torrents of love, refreshed and re-created, filled to the brim once more from the clear eternal well-springs of life. And now all that was in her rendered a response of transcendent joy to the scene below her — to the green prosperity of the valley, the golden sunlight on the mountains, the cosy house snuggling against the hill.
And as there was an unspeakable love at the heart of the universe, so too there was an extravagant mirth. The blue-clad figure of ’Hontas in the yard below, battling grotesquely with the turkey-gobbler, was comic beyond Homeric laughter to voice. Yet it seemed, somehow, to be voiced by the zigzag staccato note of a katydid in the branches over her head, who began to fling forth into the expectant air a sudden ejaculation of ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ For some whimsical and yet amazingly true reason, Ann found the katydid’s comment completely satisfying — the only adequate expression that there could be at that moment of the great affirmation of life. Half-laughing, yet deeply moved, she flung back an answering ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!' she and the little green invisible companion chorusing in ecstasy, as even the morning stars had sung together at creation. It seemed to Ann that not even the elation of the sons of God shouting for joy could be a more perfect tribute than the katydid’s chirp; for in the new world unrolled before her, nothing was too little, and nothing too great, to declare the glory of God.
And now here was all her old life given back to her. It seemed, indeed, to have been waiting, marking time with a delicate courtesy, until she should have found what she sought. Now, the gray house below, the garden, the rolling farm-lands, all the happiness, the beauty, the exquisite dearness of her accustomed world, flung out wide, unseen arms to her, inviting her to participate in its infinite zest and laughter, and Ann’s whole heart went out to meet it, like an actor stepping forth to play a part in some great and deathless drama. Unconsciously she rose, out there on the mountainside, all alone, stretching forth her arms to the whole beauty and significance of life. As she did so, it seemed that somewhere an unheard overture was being played, a silent curtain was rolling up, the performance had begun, and the other actors invited her exquisitely to take her part.
Suddenly she caught sight of the pillows waiting still on the roof to be taken in. Here, it seemed, was her cue. Clutching her book fast, she began to leap down the hillside, intoxicated with life, exulting in the gusts of evening air against her face, and the resiliency of her feet over the uneven ground.
As she bounded down the back steps, ’Hontas, abandoning her duel with the gobbler, came waddling in haste and excitement to meet her.
‘Hey! Is de company done ’rived a’ready?’ she cried.
‘No,’ Ann retorted, ‘no, the company has n’t arrived, but I have — and it’s time to take the pillows in!’
‘Well, fo’ de Lord’s sake!' ’Hontas ejaculated, ‘is dat all you come leaping down de mountains for — er lookin’ like you is heard good news!’
‘Yes — all for the Lord’s sake!’ Ann cried breathlessly, and flashed past her into the house and up the steps as if she could not go fast enough to meet this new-old world opening before her. As she went, she found that she was repeating absurdly, and yet with the sense of an immense discovery, — one that could only be thus expressed, — ‘Why — why, the katydid knew it all the time!