The Shield of Silence
THE SHIELD OF
HARRIET T. COMSTOCK
JOYCE OF THE NORTH WOODS, Etc.
GROSSET & DUNLAP
PUBLISHERS NEW YORK
Made in the United States of America
COPYRIGHT, 1921, BY
DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, INCLUDING THAT OF TRANSLATION
INTO FOREIGN LANGUAGES, INCLUDING THE SCANDINAVIAN
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES
THE COUNTRY LIFE PRESS, GARDEN CITY, N. Y.
TO MY SON
PHILIP S. COMSTOCK
"We will grasp the hands of men and women; and slowly
holding one another's hands we will work our way upwards."
|THE SHIELD OF SILENCE||3|
Let us agree at once that—
We are all on the Wheel. The difference lies in our ability to cling orlet go. Meredith Thornton and old Becky Adams—let go!
Across the world's heart they fell—the heart of the world may be wideor narrow—and, by the law of attraction, they came to Ridge House andSister Angela.
Unlike, and separated by every circumstance that, according to theexpected, should have kept them apart—they still had the same problemto confront and the solution had its beginning in that pleasant home forEpiscopal Sisters which clings so enchantingly along the north side ofwhat is known as Silver Gap, a cleft in the Southern mountains.
To say the solution of these women's problems had its beginnings inRidge House is true; but that they were ever solved is another matterand this story deals with that.
Meredith Thornton was young and beautiful. Up to the hour that she letgo she had lived as they live who are drugged. She had looked on lifewith her senses blurred and her actions largely controlled by others.
Old Becky, on the other hand, had gripped life with no uncertain hold;she, according to the vernacular of her hills, "had the call to larn,"and she learned deeply.
Sister Angela had clung to the Wheel. She had swung well around thecircle and she believed she was nearing the end when the strange demandwas made upon her.
The demand was made by Meredith Thornton and Becky Adams. Meredith, fromher great distance, somewhat prepared Sister Angela by a letter, butBecky, being unable[Pg 4] either to read or write, simply took to the trailfrom her lonely cabin on Thunder Peak and claimed a promise made threeyears before.
And now, since The Rock played a definite part in what happened, itshould have a word here.
In a land where nearly all the solid substance is rock—not stone, mindyou—The Rock held a peculiar position. It dominated the landscape andthe imagination of Silver Gap, and the superstition as well. It was ahuge, greenish-white mass, a mile to the east of Thunder Peak, and overits smooth face innumerable waterfalls trickled and shone. With thiscolour and motion, like a mighty Artist, the wind and light played,forming pictures that needed little fancy to discern.
At times cities would be delicately outlined with towers and roofsrising loftily; then again one might see a deep wood with a road windingfar and away, luring home-tied feet to wander. And sometimes—not often,to be sure—the Ship would ride at anchor as on a painted sea.
The Ship boded no good to Silver Gap as any one could tell. It hadbrought the plague and the flood; it brought bad crops and raids onhidden stills; it waited until its evil cargo had done its worst andthen it sailed away in the night, bearing its pitiful load of dead, orits burden of fear and hate. Surely there was good and sufficient reasonfor dreading the appearance of The Ship, and on a certain autumn morningit appeared and soon after the two women, unknown to each other, came toRidge House and this story began.
"Wait and thy soul shall speak."
There is, in the human soul, as in the depths of the ocean, a state ofeternal calm. Around it the waves of unrest may surge and roar but therepeace reigns. In that sanctuary the tides are born and, in theirappointed time, swelling and rising, they carry the poor jetsam andflotsam of life before them.
The tide was rising in the soul of Meredith Thornton; she was awake atlast. Awake as people are who have lived with their faculties drugged.The condition was partly due to the education and training of the woman,and largely to her own ability in the past to close her senses to anyconception of life that differed from her desires. She had always beenlike that. She loved beauty and music; she loved goodness and happiness;she loved them whom she loved so well that she shut all others out.Consequently, when Life tore her defences away she had no guidance uponwhich to depend but that which had lain hidden in the secret place ofher soul.
As a little child Meredith and her older sister, Doris, lived in NewYork. Their house had been in the Fletcher family for three generationsand stood at the end of a dignified row, opposite a park whose irongates opened only to those considered worthy of owning a key—theFletchers had a key!
In the park the little Fletcher girls played—if one could call itplay—under the eye of a carefully selected maid whose glance wasexpected to rest constantly upon them. The anxious father tried to dohis double duty conscientiously, for the mother had died at Meredith'sbirth.
The children often peered through the high fence (it really was more funthan the stupid games directed by their[Pg 6] elders) and wondered—at leastDoris wondered; Meredith was either amused or shocked; if the latter itwas an easy matter to turn aside. This hurt Doris, and to her plea thatthe thing was there, Meredith returned that she did not believe it, andshe did not, either.
Once, shielded by the skirts of an outgoing maid, Doris made her escapeand, for two thrilling and enlightening hours, revelled in the companyof the Great Unknown who were not deemed worthy of keys.
Doris had found them vital, absorbing, and human; they changed the wholecurrent of her life and thought; she was never the same again, neitherwas anything else.
The nurse was at once dismissed and Mr. Fletcher placed his daughters inthe care of Sister Angela, who was then at the head of a fashionableschool for girls—St. Mary's, it was called.
Sister Angela believed in keys but had ideas as to their uses and thegood sense to keep them out of sight.
Under her wise and loving rule Doris Fletcher never suspected the holdupon her and, while she did not forget the experience she had once hadoutside the park, she no longer yearned to repeat it, for the presentwas wholesomely full. As for Meredith, she felt that all danger wasremoved—for Doris; for herself, what could shatter her joy? It was onlyrunning outside gates that brought trouble.
Just after the Fletcher girls graduated from St. Mary's Sister Angela'shealth failed.
Mr. Fletcher at this time proved his gratitude and affection in adelicate and understanding way. He bought a neglected estate in theSouth and provided a sufficient sum of money for its restoration andupkeep, and this he put in Sister Angela's care.
"There is need of such work as you can do there," he said; "and it hasalways been a dream of my life to help those people of the hills.Sister, make my dream come true."
Angela at once got in touch with Father Noble, who was winning his wayagainst great odds in the country surrounding Silver Gap, and offeredher services.[Pg 7]
"Come and live here," Father Noble replied. "It is all we can do atpresent. They do not want us," he had a quaint humour, "but we mustchange that."
Mr. Fletcher did not live long enough to see his dream do more than helpprolong Sister Angela's days, for he died a year later leaving, to hisdaughters, a large fortune, well invested, and no commands as to itsuse. This faith touched both girls deeply.
"I want to travel and see all the beautiful things in the world,"Meredith said when the time for expression came.
"Yes, dear," Doris replied, "and you must learn what life really means."
Naturally at this critical moment both girls turned to Sister Angela,but with the rare insight that had not deserted her, she held them fromher, though her heart hungered for them.
"Ridge House is in the making," she wrote. "I am going slow, making nomistakes. I am asking some Sisters who, like me, have fallen by the way,to come here and help me with my scheme, and in the confusion ofreadjustment, two young girls, who ought to be forming their own plans,would be sadly in the way.
"Go abroad, my dears, take"—here Sister Angela named a woman she couldtrust to help, not hinder—"and learn to walk alone at last."
Doris accepted the advice and the little party went to Italy.
"Here," she said, "Merry shall have the beauty she craves and she shalllearn what life means, as well."
And Meredith's learning began.
They had only been in Italy a month when George Thornton appeared. Hewas young, handsome, and already so successful in business that oldermen cast approving eyes upon him. He had chosen, at the outset of hiscareer, to go to the Philippines and accepted an appointment there. Hehad devoted himself so rigidly to his duties that his health began toshow the strain and he was taking his first, well-won, vacation when hemet the Fletchers.[Pg 8]
Thornton's past had been spent largely with men who, like himself, weremaking their way among people, and in an environment in which the fineraspects of