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Canterbury, New Hampshire
March 6, 1831
Arabella Newberry raced through the woods, the fallen leaves crunching beneath her feet and the echo of her footsteps beating the message Hur-ry, Hur-ry, Hur-ry. Darting through the timbers, she hastened by a grove of rock maples and onward toward the sheltering heavy-needled pines. Her breath came hard as she edged her agile body between two of the prickly green trees, the needles now poking her arms as they punctured her gray woolen cloak. She forced herself to breathe more easily, then leaned forward and listened. All was quiet, save the occasional chattering of a squirrel or the scampering feet of a frightened rabbit.
Without warning, a hand clamped around her arm and pulled her from the bristly nest. A sick feeling churned in her belly as she twisted to free her arm.
"You're late, Bella!" Jesse Harwood stood beside her, his cloudy gray eyes filled with recrimination.
She expelled a ragged breath. "Only a few minutes. I couldn't manage to get away from Sister Mercy. She asked me to assist her with one of the children."
Jesse's look softened and he released her arm. "I'm sorry. I was beginning to fear you weren't coming. I think I've worked out a plan for us."
Wisps of straight blond hair had escaped from under her palm-leaf bonnet. She automatically reached to tuck them out of view before giving Jesse a tentative smile. "I'm listening, but we must hurry before I'm missed."
"We'll leave tomorrow night, after the others have gone to sleep. We can meet right here and make our way toward Concord under cover of darkness. If we can't find your relatives in Concord, we'll continue on to Lowell. Pack only as much as you'll be able to comfortably carry, and I'll do the same. Be sure to bring some food."
"What if I awaken one of the Sisters as I'm preparing to leave?"
Jesse's eyes flashed with concern for a moment. "Say you're ill and can't sleep-that you don't want to bother the rest of the Sisters and you're going to make some tea and sit up for a while."
Bella shook her head back and forth. "But that would be a lie, Jesse. I can't lie to one of the Sisters."
Jesse gave a quiet chuckle. "We lie to the Sisters and Brothers every day when we fail to tell them of our love for each other."
Her brow furrowed at his reply. "Jesse, I'm not sure what I feel is the kind of love that need be confessed to the Society. If we merely love each other as brother and sister, we've done nothing wrong."
Jesse took her hand and looked deep into her eyes. "The love I feel for you is one that requires confession, Bella. And I hope the love you feel for me is much different from what you feel for Brother Ernest or Brother Justice-or any of the other brothers, for that matter."
"You know I care for you more than the other brothers, Jesse. But we have little knowledge upon which to base the love between man and woman. I feel no guilt in not confessing our friendship, but I would feel guilt if I openly lied to one of the Sisters."
Smiling, Jesse continued to hold her hand. "You'll soon realize that what you feel for me is love-the love that binds husband and wife together for a lifetime. If you're concerned about lying to the Sisters, I suppose we'd best pray that they remain sound asleep." He looked out into the quiet. "We should return soon or someone will miss us. You go first, and I'll follow in just a bit. Until tomorrow night," he said, pulling her hand to his lips and placing a kiss upon her palm.
Bella's face grew warm at Jesse's boldness. She quickly withdrew her hand and rushed back down the path. Slowing as she reached the children's dormitory, Bella removed her cape and attempted to casually walk toward the east door, which led to the side that was occupied by the young girls. Opening the door as quietly as possible, Bella made her way into the large room where the children were napping.
Daughtie Winfield glanced toward Bella as she slipped into the room. "Was I missed?" Bella inquired as she brushed a stray wisp of blond hair under her cap.
"No, but I was fearful for a short time. Sister Minerva walked with me until we reached the entrance of the dormitory. Fortunately Eldress Phoebe summoned her away before she had opportunity to inquire of your whereabouts. Did you meet Jesse?"
Bella nodded as she lifted one of the toddlers to her lap. "We're leaving tomorrow night, so this will be our last opportunity to visit, Daughtie. I transfer to the kitchen tomorrow. I'm sorry we'll not be together on my final day, but if we must be apart, I'm pleased I'll have some time with Sister Mercy before my departure."
Daughtie began to wring her hands, a nervous habit that brought constant remonstration from the older Sisters. "Are you sure you won't reconsider, Bella? Do you understand that you are leaving the safety of the Family? Won't you miss your Shaker Brothers and Sisters?"
"I'll miss you, Daughtie-and Sister Mercy and the children, of course."
"And your father?" Daughtie ventured.
"My father? You forget, Daughtie. Among the Shakers, I have no earthly father. Besides, Brother Franklin wishes his life to be separated from mine. How can I miss something I haven't had since my father-excuse me, Brother Franklin-convinced my mother four years ago to join the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing?"
"He cares for you, Bella. It's the rules of the Society that forbid him to show his affections," Daughtie insisted.
Bella stared out the window. The naked trees surrounding the house were forming small buds, awaiting the touch of a springtime sun before finally bursting into fragrant blooms. Like the trees, Bella waited. She, too, needed warmth before she could fully blossom, the warmth of knowing she was loved by another. The child on her lap snuggled closer. Bella turned and looked at Daughtie. "If my father cares for me, why did he push me away when I went to him seeking comfort after my mother's death? What kind of father does such a thing to his child? I don't believe the Shakers have correctly interpreted God's plan for our lives, and I can't remain among people that force parents to separate and withhold love from their own children."
"But your parents knew the rules when they signed the covenant-and so did you, Bella," Daughtie added hesitantly.
"I signed because I knew not doing so would cause a further breach between my father and me. Besides, Daughtie, what was I to do? What choices did I have at such a young age? But now I do have a choice, and I choose the world over the Shakers. You can come with us, Daughtie. I know that Jesse wouldn't mind, and you have no reason to stay here." Bella lifted the sleeping child and placed her in bed. She turned toward her friend with a surge of excitement. Why hadn't she thought of inviting Daughtie before this moment? "Say that you'll come, Daughtie," Bella pleaded.
Daughtie's mouth went slack as she gazed at Bella, who had now returned to the rocking chair. "You're running off to marry Jesse. Where do I fit into that arrangement?"
"I'm not running off to marry Jesse. I'm not even sure what love for a man is supposed to feel like. I'm leaving this place with Jesse because he knows the way to Concord and Lowell. It will be safer traveling with Jesse, and he's determined to leave the Society. I've not pledged my love or my hand to Jesse. The world has so much to offer, Daughtie. I know you've been here among the Believers since you were a tiny child, but there's more to life than this protected existence. Don't you ever long to know more about the lives of the people who come here on Sundays to observe our worship service? Don't you want to see what lies beyond this acreage?"
Daughtie was thoughtful for several minutes, obviously weighing her friend's words. "I can't say that I haven't felt a tinge of envy since you first told me that you were planning to leave."
Bella clapped her hands together and leaned forward in her chair, hoping to draw her friend into their scheme. "There's no need to be frightened. You know the Believers will welcome you back if you decide against the world."
Daughtie nodded. "Yes, but I'd certainly never be considered faithful enough to become an Eldress if I left and then later returned."
"Is becoming an Eldress what you aspire to, Daughtie? For if that is your heart's desire, I'll say no more. But if you're merely using the hope of achieving religious rank as an excuse because you fear any change in your life, then I'd say, 'Be brave, dear friend.' The three of us will learn how to survive in this new life. There's much I remember from my early years living in the world. And Jesse knows much more about the outside world than I do. With his weekly visits into town to sell and barter goods with Brother Justice, he knows how to talk and act among the world's people. He assures me we'll be able to work and support ourselves. Will you at least consider going? You have until tomorrow night."
Daughtie gave Bella a timid smile but said nothing.
"Why don't we both agree to pray about the decision to leave and see what happens tomorrow night? Would you agree to do that, Daughtie?"
Her friend gave Bella an enthusiastic nod. "Yes, Bella. And if I believe that God is leading me to leave, I'll accompany you and Jesse."
A Fragile Design (The Bells of Lowell, Book 2) by Tracie Peterson & Judith Miller
Copyright © 2003, Tracie Peterson & Judith Miller