They had been waiting for us and as soon as we were seated the services commenced with a prayer, every one standing with bowed head. Orrin Colby always delivered this same short prayer at the opening of services each first Sunday of every month. It ran something like this:
“God of our fathers, through generations of persecution and cruelty in a world of hate that has turned against You, we stand at Your right hand, loyal to You and to our Flag. To us Your name stands for justice, humanity, love, happiness and right and the Flag is Your emblem. Once each month we risk our lives that Your name may not perish from the earth. Amen!”
From behind the altar he took a shepherd’s crook to which was attached a flag like that in my father’s possession and held it aloft, whereat we all knelt in silence for a few seconds. Then he replaced it and we arose. Then we sang a song—it was an old, old song that started like this: “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” It was my favorite song. Mollie Sheehan played a violin while we sang.
Following the song Orrin Colby talked to us—he always talked about the practical things that affected our lives and our future. It was a homely talk, but it was full of hope for better times. I think that at these meetings, once each month, we heard the only suggestions of hope that ever came into our lives. There was something about Orrin Colby that inspired confidence and hope. These days were the bright spots in our drab existence.
After the talk we sang again and then Samuels the Jew prayed and the regular service was over, after which we had short talks by various members of our church. These talks were mostly on the subject which dominated the minds of all—a revolution but we never got any further than talking. How could we? We were probably the most thoroughly subjugated people the world ever had known—we feared our masters and we feared our neighbors. We did not know whom we might trust, outside that little coterie of ours, and so we dared not seek recruits for our cause, although we knew that there must be thousands who would sympathize with us. Spies and informers were everywhere—they, the Kash Guard and the butcher, were the agencies by which they controlled us; but of all we feared most the spies and informers. For a woman, for a neighbor’s house, and in one instance of which I know, for a setting of eggs, men have been known to inform on their friends—sending them to the mines or the butcher.
Following the talks we just visited together and gossiped for an hour or two, enjoying the rare treat of being able to speak our minds freely and fearlessly. I had to re-tell several times my experiences before Or-tis’s new court-martial and I know that it was with difficulty that they believed that I had said the things I had to our masters and come away free and alive. They simply could not understand it.
All were warned of Peter Johansen and the names of others under suspicion of being informers were passed around that we might all be on our guard against them. We did not sing again, for even on these days that our hearts were lightest they were too heavy for song. About two o’clock the pass signal for the next meeting was given out and then we started away singly or in pairs. I volunteered to go last, with Juana, and see that the door was locked. An hour later we started out, about five minutes behind Samuels the Jew.
Juana’s mother had passed down to her by word of mouth an unusually complete religious training for those days and she, in turn, had transmitted it to Juana. It seemed that they, too, had had a church in their district; but that a short time before it had been discovered by the authorities and destroyed, though none of the members of the organization had been apprehended. So close a watch was kept thereafter that they had never dared seek another meeting place.
She told me that their congregation was much like ours in personnel and with the knowledge she had of ancient religious customs it always seemed odd to her to see so different creeds worshiping under one roof in even greater harmony than many denominations of the same church knew in ancient times. Among us were descendants of Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Roman Catholic and Jew that I knew of and how many more I did not know, nor did any of us care.
We worshiped an ideal and a great hope, both of which were all goodness, and we called these God. We did not care what our great-grandfathers thought about it or what some one a thousand years before had thought or done or what name they had given the Supreme Being, for we knew that there could be but one and whether we called Him one thing or another would not alter Him in any way. This much good, at least, the Kalkars had accomplished in the world; but it had come too late. Those who worshiped any god were becoming fewer and fewer. Our own congregation had fallen from twenty-two a year or so before to fifteen—until Juana made us sixteen.
Some had died natural deaths and some had gone to the mines or the butcher; but the principal reason of our decadence was the fact that there were too few children to take the place of the adults who died—that and our fear to seek converts. We were dying out, there was no doubt of it, and with us was dying all religion. That was what the lunar theory was doing for the world; but it was only what any one might have expected. Intelligent men and women realized it from almost the instant that this lunar theory stuck its ugly head above our horizon—a political faith that would make all women the common property of all men could not by any remote possibility have respect, or even aught but fear, for any religion of ancient times, and the Kalkars did, just what any one might have known they would do—they deliberately and openly crushed all churches.
Juana and I had emerged from the wood when we noticed a man walking cautiously in the shade of the trees ahead of us. He seemed to be following some one and immediately there sprang to my thoughts the ever near suspicion—spy.
The moment that he turned a bend in the pathway and was out of our sight Juana and I ran forward as rapidly as we could go that we might get a closer view of him, nor were we disappointed. We saw him and recognized him and we also saw whom he shadowed. It was Peter Johansen, carrying one arm in a sling, sneaking along behind Samuels.
I knew that if Peter was permitted to shadow Samuels home he would discover the devious way the old man followed and immediately, even though he had suspicioned nothing in particular before, he would know that Moses had been upon some errand that he didn’t wish the authorities to learn of. That would mean suspicion for old Samuels and suspicion usually ended in conviction upon one charge or another. How far he had followed him we could not guess, but already we knew that it was much too near the church for safety. I was much perturbed.
Casting about in my mind for some plan to throw Peter off the track I finally hit upon a scheme which I immediately put into execution. I knew the way that the old man followed to and from church and that presently he would make a wide detour that would bring him back to the river about a quarter of a mile below. Juana and I could walk straight to the spot and arrive long before Samuels did. And this we proceeded to do.
About half an hour before we reached the point at which we knew he would strike the river, we heard him coming and withdrew into some bushes. On he came all oblivious of the creature on his trail and a moment later we saw Peter come into view and halt at the edge of the trees. Then Juana and I stepped out and hailed Samuels.
“Did you see nothing of them?” I asked in a tone of voice loud enough to be distinctly heard by Peter, and then before Samuels could reply I added: “We have searched far up the river and never a sign of a goat about—I do not believe that they came this way after all; but if they did the Hellhounds will get them after dark. Come, now, we might as well start for home and give the search up as a bad job.”
I had talked so much and so rapidly that Samuels had guessed that I must have some reason for it, and so he held his peace, other than to say that he had seen nothing of any goats. Not once had Juana or I let our glances betray that we knew of Peter’s presence, though I could not help but seeing him dodge behind a tree the moment that he saw us.
The three of us then continued on toward home in the shortest direction and on the way I whispered to Samuels what we had seen. The old man chuckled, for he thought as I did that my ruse must have effectually baffled Johansen—unless he had followed Moses farther than we guessed. We each turned a little white as the consequences of such a possibility were borne home upon us. We did not want Peter to know that we even guessed that we were followed and so we never once looked behind us, not even Juana, which was remarkable for a woman, nor did we see him again, though we felt that he was following us. I for one was sure, though, that he was following at a safer distance since I had joined Samuels.
Very cautiously during the ensuing week the word was passed around by means with which we were familiar that Johansen had followed Samuels from church; but as the authorities paid no more attention to Moses than before we finally concluded that we had thrown Peter off the trail.
The Sunday following church we were all seated in Jim’s yard under one of his trees that had already put forth its young leaves and afforded shade from the sun. We had been talking of homely things—the conning crops, the newborn kids, Mollies little pigs. The world seemed unusually kindly. The authorities had not persecuted us of late. A respite of two weeks seemed like heaven to us. We were quite sure by this time that Peter Johansen had discovered nothing and our hearts were freer than for a long time past.
We were sitting thus in quiet and contentment, enjoying a brief rest from our lives of drudgery, when we heard the pounding of horses’ hoofs upon the hard earth of the path that leads down the river in the direction of the market place. Suddenly the entire atmosphere changed—relaxed nerves became suddenly taut; peaceful eyes resumed their hunted expression. Why? The Kash Guard rides.
And so they came—fifty of them—and at their head rode Brother General Or-tis. At the gateway of Jim’s house they drew rein and Or-tis dismounted and entered the yard. He looked at us as a man might look at carrion; and he gave us no greeting, which suited us perfectly. He walked straight to Juana, who was seated on a little bench beside which I stood leaning against the bole of the tree. None of us moved. He halted before the girl.
“I have come to tell you,” he said to her, “that I have done you the honor to choose you as my woman, to bear my children and keep my house in order.”
He stood then looking at her and I could feel the hair upon my head rise and the corners of my upper lip twitched—I know not why. I only know that I wanted to fly at his throat and kill him, to tear his flesh with my teeth—to see him die! And then he looked at me and stepped back, after which he beckoned to some of his men to enter. When they had come he again addressed Juana, who had risen and stood swaying to and fro, as might one who has been dealt a heavy blow upon the head and half stunned.
“You may come with me now,” he said to her, and then I stepped between them and faced him and again he stepped back a pace.
“She will not come with you now, or ever,” I said, and my voice was very low—not above a whisper. “She is my woman—I have taken her!”
It was a lie—the last part, but what is a lie to a man who would commit murder in the same cause. He was among his men now—they were close around him and I suppose they gave him courage, for he addressed me threateningly.
“I do not care whose she is,” he cried, “I want her and I shall have her. I speak for her now and I speak for her when she is a widow. After you are dead I have first choice of her and traitors do not live long.”
“I am not dead yet,” I reminded him. He turned to Juana.
“You shall have thirty days as the law requires; but you can save your friends trouble if you come now—they will not be molested then and I will see that their taxes are lowered.”
Juana gave a little gasp and looked around at us and then she straightened her shoulders and came close to me.
“No!” she said to Or-tis. “I will never go. This is my man—he has taken me. Ask him if he will give me up to you. You will never have me—alive.”
“Don’t be too sure of that,” he growled. “I believe that you are both lying to me, for I have had you watched and I know that you do not live under the same roof. And you!” he glared at me. “Tread carefully, for the eyes of the law find traitors where others do not see them.” Then he turned and strode from the yard. A minute later they were gone in a cloud of dust.
Now our happiness and peace had fled—it was always thus—and there was no hope. I dared not look at Juana after what I had said; but then, had she not said the same thing? We all talked lamely for a few minutes and then father and mother rose to go and a moment later Jim and Mollie went indoors.
I turned to Juana. She stood with her eyes upon the ground and a pretty flush upon her cheek. Something surged up in me—a mighty force, that I had never known, possessed me, and before I realized what it impelled me to do I had seized Juana in my arms and was covering her face and lips with kisses.
She fought to free herself, but I would not let her go.
“You are mine!” I cried. “You are my woman. I have said it—you have said. You are my woman. God, how I love you!”
She lay quiet then and let me kiss her, and presently her arms stole about my neck and her lips sought mine in an interval that I had drawn them away and they moved upon my lips in a gentle caress that was yet palpitant with passion. This was a new Juana—a new and very wonderful Juana.
“You really love me?” she asked at last. “I heard you say it!”
“I have loved you from the moment I saw you looking up at me from beneath the Hellhound,” I replied.
“You have kept it very much of a secret to yourself then,” she teased me. “If you loved me so, why did you not tell me? Were you going to keep it from me all my life, or were you afraid? Brother Or-tis was not afraid to say that he wanted me. Is my man less brave than he?”
I knew that she was only teasing me, and so I stopped her mouth with kisses and then: “Had you been a Hellhound, or Soor, or even Or-tis,” I said, “I could have told you what I thought of you, but being Juana and a little girl the words would not come. I am a great coward.”
We talked until it was time to go home to supper and I took her hand to lead her to my house. “But first,” I said, “you must tell Mollie and Jim what has happened and that you will not be back. For a while we can live, under my father’s roof, but as soon as may be I will get permission from the Teivos to take the adjoining land and work it and then I shall build a house.” She drew back and flushed. “I cannot go with you yet,” she said.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “You are mine!”
“We have not been married,” she whispered.
“But no one is married,” I reminded her. “Marriage is against the law.”
“My mother was married,” she told me. “You and I can be married. We have a church and a preacher. Why cannot he marry us? He is not ordained because there is none to ordain him; but being the head of the only church that he knows of or that we know of, it is evident that he can be ordained only by God and who knows but that He already has done so.”
I tried to argue her out of it as now that Heaven was so near I had no mind to wait three weeks to attain it. But she would not argue—she just shook her head and at last saw that she was right and gave in—as I would have had to do in any event.
The next day I sought Orrin Colby and broached the subject to him. He was quite enthusiastic about it and wondered that they had never thought of it before. Of course, they had not because marriage had been obsolete for so many years that no one considered the ceremony necessary, nor, in fact, was it. Men and women were more often faithful to one another through life than otherwise—no amount of ceremony or ritual could make them more so. But if a woman wants it she should have it. And so it was arranged that at the next meeting Juana and I should be married.
The next three weeks were about the longest of my life and yet they were very, very happy weeks, for Juana and I were much together, as it had finally been decided that in order to carry out our statements to Or-tis she must come and live under our roof. She slept in the living room and I upon a pile of goat skins in the kitchen. If there were any spies watching us, and I know that there were, they saw that we slept every night under the same roof.
Mother worked hard upon a new tunic and breeches for me, while Mollie helped Juana with her outfit. The poor child had come to us with only the clothes she wore upon her back; but even so, most of us had few changes—just enough to keep ourselves decently clean.
I went to Pthav, who was one of our representatives in the Teivos, and asked him to procure for me permission to work the vacant land adjoining my father’s. The land all belonged to the community, but each man was allowed what he could work as long as there was plenty, and there was more than plenty for us all.
Pthav was very ugly—he seemed to have forgotten that I had saved his child’s life—and said that he did not know what he could do for me, that I had acted very badly to General Or-tis and was in disfavor, beside being under suspicion in another matter.
“What has General Or-tis to do with the distribution of land by the Teivos?” I asked. “Because he wants my woman will the Teivos deny me my rights?”
I was no longer afraid of any of them and I spoke my mind as freely as I wished—almost. Of course, I did not care to give them the chance to bring me to trial as they most assuredly would have done had I really said to them all that was in my heart, but I stood up for my rights and demanded all that their rotten laws allowed me.
Pthav’s woman came in while I was talking and recognized me, but she said nothing to me other than to mention that the child had asked for me. Pthav scowled at this and ordered her from the room, just as a man might order a beast around. It was nothing to me, though, as the woman was a renegade anyway.
Finally I demanded of Pthav that he obtain the concession for me unless he could give me some valid reason for refusing.
“I will ask it,” he said finally, “but you will not get it—be sure of that.”
I saw that it was useless and so I turned and left the room, wondering what I should do. Of course, we could remain under father’s roof, but that did not seem right, as each man should make a home for himself. After father and mother died we would return to the old place, as father had after the death of my grandfather, but a young couple should start their life together alone and in their own way.
As I was leaving the house Pthav’s woman stopped me. “I will do what I can for you,” she whispered. She must have seen me draw away instinctively as from an unclean thing, for she flushed, and then said: “Please don’t! I have suffered enough. I have paid the price of my treachery; but know, Yank,” and she put her lips close to my ear, “that at heart I am more Yank than I was when I did this thing. And,” she continued, “I have never spoken a word that could harm one of you. Tell them that—please tell them! I do not want them to hate me so, and, God of our Fathers! How I have suffered—the degradation, the humiliation. It has been worse than what you are made to suffer. These creatures are lower than the beasts of the forest. I could kill him if I were not such a coward. I have seen, and I know how they can make one suffer before death.”
I could not but feel sorry for her, and I told her so. The poor creature appeared very grateful, and assured me that she would aid me.
“I know a few things about Pthav that he would not want Or-tis to know,” she said, “and even though he beats me for it I will make him get the land for you.”
Again I thanked her, and departed, realizing that there were others worse off than we—that the closer one came to the Kalkars the more hideous life became.
At last the day came, and we set out for the church. As before I took Juana, though she tried to order it differently; but I would not trust her to the protection of another. We arrived without mishap—sixteen of us—and after the religious services were over, Juana and I stood before the altar, and were married—much after the fashion of the ancients, I imagine.
Juana was the only one of us who was at all sure about the ceremony, and it had been she who trained Orrin Colby—making him memorize so much that he said his head ached for a week. All I can recall of it is that he asked me if I would take her to be my lawfully wedded wife—I lost my voice, and only squeaked a weak yes—and that he pronounced us man and wife, and then something about not letting any one put asunder what God had joined together. I felt very much married, and very happy, and then just as it was all nicely over, and everybody was shaking hands with us, there came a loud knocking at the door, and the command: “Open, in the name of the law!”
We looked at one another and gasped. Orrin Colby put a finger to his lips for silence, and led the way toward the back of the church where a rough niche was built containing a few shelves upon which stood several rude candlesticks. We knew our parts, and followed him in silence, except one who went quickly about putting out the lights. All the time the pounding on the door became more insistent, and then we could hear the strokes of what must have been an ax beating at the panels. Finally a shot was fired through the heavy wood, and we knew it was the Kash Guard.
Taking hold of the lower shelf Orrin pulled upward with all his strength with the result that all the shelving and woodwork to which it was attached slid upward revealing an opening beyond. Through this we filed, one by one, down a flight of stone steps into a dark tunnel. When the last man had passed I lowered the shelving to its former place.
Then I turned, and followed the others, Juana’s hand in mine. We groped our way for some little distance in the darkness of the tunnel until Orrin halted, and whispered to me to come to him. I went and stood at his side while he told me what I was to do. He had called upon me because I was the tallest, and the strongest of the men. Above us was a wooden trap. I was to lift this.
It had not been moved for generations, and was very heavy with earth, and growing things above; but I put my shoulders to it, and it had to give—either it or the ground beneath my feet, and that could not give. At last I had it off, and in a few minutes I had helped them all out into the midst of a dense wood. Again we knew our parts, for many times had we been coached for just such an emergency, and one by one the men scattered in different directions.
Suiting our movements to a prearranged plan, we reached our homes from different directions, and at different times, some arriving after sundown, to the end that were we watched none might be sure that we had been upon the same errand or to the same place.