They had become something of a fascination of mine: communes cut out of the interior, new societies where all were equal and either Jesus or Liberty reigned. Some days, after reading an account of a blind prophetess leading her followers to Illinois, or of a mill town where all shared labor and wealth equally, I yearned to give up my life and join them. I felt as if I lived in a hurtling age. It seemed all humanity stood on a precipice, that in the distance, beyond the coal smoke and the tangle of telegraph wires, could be spied a shining metropolis where men would be re-formed. But I spent my days stuck in my father’s shop—at twenty-three I was his peer in making the fiddles and other cheap instruments we sold to travelers embarking from the docks—and my nights in drink with friends. I need only walk the streets of my Baltimore, pass a slave carrying bricks on his crooked back or a rheumy-eyed sailor, ruined by the sea, begging alms and ale, to feel the rottenness in my soul. Men could not be changed, and I, one among millions, would never make it to any dream city.
Even so, the yearning never left me. One night, during yet another of our regular debauches, I rose without a word and left my friends in a steaming oyster house. I had seen notices in the paper of a Hebronite meeting: their leader and revelator, Josiah Kershaw, was touring the East to summon new followers to the city he was raising on Peaine Island, a wilderness in the far northern reaches of Lake Michigan. All week the papers had mocked Kershaw. To them he was a gross fabricator—the great paradise he promised a myth, the prophecies on which he claimed his authority pure forgeries. But I was intrigued. His talk of harmony, of plain lives lived according to rule, stirred my hopes. I had passed the last weeks in a violent melancholy, pining for a woman who didn’t even know me, a ship captain’s young wife, and increasingly I had seen my future, bound by an invisible chain to the worktable, just like my father. And so, unsteady on my feet after five whiskeys, I searched for the inn where the meeting was to be held. By the time I found it my heart beat heavily and sweat dripped from my skin. My nerves were electric with anticipation.
Eyes turned to look at me when I stumbled into the room. The meeting was already underway. At the front a graybeard clutched a Bible and kept his eyes shut as he recited a prayer. I sat in the back, gripping my knees to keep from swaying. The graybeard droned on. People yawned and scratched their noses. After fifteen more minutes of this—the prayer was unending!—I could barely master myself. I was an imbecile. There was nothing for me here. I glanced at the door, but before I could rouse the courage to get back up, the graybeard sat and another man stood.
“Those who walk in the way of the Lord will receive His blessings,” he shouted, and with those words—and that marshal’s voice—I was seized. My drunkenness lifted from me. My eyes steadied, my mind ceased to yaw, my limbs stiffened with sober life. I recognized Kershaw from the newspaper illustrations. He was tall and spare, with a trimmed auburn beard and a high forehead seemingly shaped for the guarding of truths. His eyes glittered as if catching the wonders of his heavenly Guide. He paced before us, and something in him called to me. Without knowing why, I hungered for his blessing.
Five years earlier, he told us, he had been a coal shoveler in Chautauqua County. It was then that angels, and at last the Lord, had first shown themselves to him and revealed a golden scroll hidden in a cave. On this scroll he found descriptions of Peaine Island. It was the Lord’s chosen site for a holy city, a place where men would live in harmony under new laws and seek pleasure in labor, purity in distance from all the corruptions of the East. Already the city was begun. It was called Port Hebron, after the ancient city of refuge, but when it reached its ordained population of 144,000 it would take its true name of Zion. Then ambassadors from all the world’s nations would wait upon him and his followers, Kershaw told us, and Jesus would descend to take His golden throne.
I felt the island rise inside me: the pines, the clear water, the small bay, the city shining like a diadem in the lake. It was the Lord speaking.
The next morning, as I departed, my father damned me for a fool. He stood as I packed my set of Italian tools and forms and enough cured maple and ebony for a dozen violins. At last he called me cruel for abandoning him and refused to give me his hand in farewell. Ever since my mother died I had been his sole companion, though it had been a companionship passed in silence. His words pained me—I had always been a dutiful son, always done as he asked—but I had heard the call.
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