The Eleventh Hour
MISS LYDIA BENNETT was one of the most prominent and influential citizens of the little town of Greenville. There was not a man in the place who was possessed of such decided and energetic character, such positive opinions, or such a firm and unyielding will ; and the supremacy she exercised in social affairs was only that accorded to all strong and resolute natures. She had experienced religion in her youth by an indisputably correct process, and had at once joined the church, of which she became, by force of character, the leading spirit. Her orthodoxy was unbounded, her knowledge of theology and dogma precise and unquestionable, and her learning in the Scriptures such as is gained only by life-long and diligent study. In the narrow but intense life of a retired New England village, where the church is the centre of social activity, religious thought has great prominence; and Miss Lydia Bennett’s religion was the mainspring of her character, the ruling power of her life.
The most vital and essential part of this religion, that which lay nearest her heart and awoke her strongest feeling, was a bitter and vindictive hatred of one of her neighbors,—a man who was, nominally at least, a brother Christian, and who had never injured her personally by word or deed. The last fact shielded her from all misgiving. She might have doubted the sanctity of a resentment awakened by her private wrongs, but she gloried in a righteous indignation against an enemy of God’s church.
The object of all this animosity was the Rev. Joseph Eliot, a retired clergyman, who for many years had made his home in Greenville. He had come to the people as their pastor long ago, and Miss Lydia and her sister, Miss Phebe Bennett, had been among his warmest supporters. His life was beneficent and his power increasing, when his bark struck that worst of snags in the current of a clergyman’s life, a quarrel in the choir. It originated in a trifle, and therefore soon assumed serious proportions. The members of the church took sides in the matter, naturally dividing according to their social sympathy and family ties, rather than with reference to the merits of the case, and in the inevitable gravitating of opinions it chanced that the Rev. Joseph Eliot found himself viewing the matter in another light from that in which it was regarded by Miss Lydia Bennett, and he even refused to carry into execution some arbitrary measures adopted by the church at Miss Bennett’s instigation. She took the liveliest personal interest in the matter; and, infuriated by Mr. Eliot’s undaunted opposition, determined to make an example of this minister who dared to thwart her own will and that of an independent church.
It was easy to excite public opinion against him, aided by those who feed eagerly upon the faults of the clergy ; and by instituting diligent inquiry in every place where he had hitherto lived she had soon in lively circulation a fine crop of evil reports. Mr. Eliot, pursued with relentless fury and deserted by all save a few faithful friends, was compelled to ask for a dismission ; when, instead of flying before his enemies, he decided to remain in the place. His health, always delicate, had been so undermined by the recent excitement that he could not undertake another charge ; and perhaps to a spirited man it seemed cowardly to run away from slander, and a better course to stay and live it down.
And now Miss Lydia Bennett began against this man a system of persecution which, if related in detail, would be scouted as incredible. His actions were watched, his words misrepresented, and his motives assailed, until his best deeds were made to tell against him ; and in spite of his pure and blameless life he was shunned with suspicion and dislike by a large share of the community. It seemed to her that his continued presence among them was a deliberate insult to herself and to the church he had defied ; and that in driving him out she was obeying God, as the Jews obeyed him in exterminating the inhabitants of the land of Canaan. She led her Sunday-school class through rivers of blood and scenes of slaughter, having Joseph Eliot ever before her mind as the modern representative of the enemies of Israel in whose destruction she gloried ; and she loved the savage denunciations of the Psalmist against the foes of God, being confirmed in the righteousness of feelings that were so exactly voiced by words of holy writ.
It was undeniable that Mr. Eliot’s presence was often a source of serious annoyance to the pious folk of Greenville. When a new minister came to the place, and, finding this reverend brother in his congregation, naturally warmed to him with fraternal affection, and extended the ordinary clerical courtesies, the state of affairs was cautiously explained to him and his own line of conduct plainly indicated. Some men of spirit refused to alter their course of action because of a ridiculous church quarrel that they had no share in, or a few old slanders falling to pieces with decay; others were timid, politic, or prejudiced, and trimmed their sails to accommodate public feeling; but no minister ever stayed long among them. Some of the “ world’s people ” shook their heads, and said " they’d never have a revival or a settled minister till all those that had a hand in dismissin ' Mr. Eliot was dead.” Others laughed when the subject of personal religion was urged upon them, and retorted that “ they ’d rather stay outside, where there wa’ n’t so much quarrelin’,” or that “ a church that was too good for Mr. Eliot was too good for them.” The faithful souls who prayed for the prosperity of Zion seemed to pray in vain, and few recruits were gathered in to fill the vacant places.
As the years passed on, however, public opinion gradually underwent a change. A new generation was growing up, outside the church; strangers moved in, who cared nothing for old grudges, and recognized the clear radiance of Mr. Eliot’s Christian light. Old enmities died out, and the number of his friends increased. But Miss Lydia Bennett’s consistent hatred never faltered, being cherished even more tenderly as others grew careless or lukewarm. The magnanimity that lifted him above her worst attacks and the calm forbearance that never sought revenge she interpreted as a hardened indifference; while his happiness and prosperity in his private life reminded her of the “ wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green bay-tree.” It was only when, like Daniel, she went into the sanctuary and considered the slippery places upon which he stood that she was able to endure the spectacle.
But time goes on, and everything is short that it can measure. Joseph Eliot’s life had been a long one, as men reckon life; his threescore years and ten had passed ; but the end came. A neighbor going by Miss Bennett’s door, one morning, paused to tell the news that Mr. Eliot was very sick. Her curiosity was awakened ; she inquired the particulars of his illness, and after her neighbor departed wondered with her sister if they had sent for any of the children. The next morning, as she was washing dishes in the kitchen, a stroke of the church bell came upon her with a sudden shock, and her heart beat a little faster as she turned to meet her sister who was coming in from the postoffice.
“ It is Mr. Eliot,” said Miss Phebe. “ He died last night.”
Miss Lydia wiped her hands upon her apron and sat down by the window, unnerved by the news. The door was suddenly shut in the face of her active and living hatred, and as it turned away, baffled and unsatisfied, she saw its face. There are delicate spiritual premonitions and perceptions that are beyond analysis; and by some intuition her soul discerned upon its far horizon the shadow of a fear — a dim foreboding of something as yet unknown and far away — that was drawing near to alarm her.
A neighbor dropped in ; she listened to the talk that always follows death,— speculations as to the funeral and the future plans of the survivors. She took part in the conversation with the surface current of her thought, but there was a deeper consciousness that was silent, uneasy, and almost afraid. She went about her duties softly, and alone at night, when she put out her candle, the darkness was like a presence in the room. She lay awake a long time, her eyes wide open, her mind unnaturally active, and her memory busy with the past, dragging forth from the dark corners of forgetfulness the scenes and incidents of years gone by, until fancy began to mingle with recollection, her consciousness grew misty, and she passed to the more vivid and intense life of dreams.
When she awoke in the morning her presentiment had drawn nearer, and though she turned away and closed her mental vision it was too late ; she knew what it was. It was a shadowy misgiving of herself, — concerning what, she would not think.
Her sister spoke of the coming funeral. “ I suppose we ought to go, for the speech of people,” she said. “ There ’ll be folks from out of town, and they ’ll think it’s queer if we are not there, living so near the church.”
Miss Lydia shrank from going, but she would not admit to herself that she was afraid or ashamed to be present. She found her doubt there awaiting her, and as she grew defiant it grew more bold. She was swayed by the influences of the place and hour ; the lifeless form of the one she had so relentlessly pursued seemed silently to reproach her, and her doubt spoke plainly : —
“ Have I been just in my past judgment of this man ? Is it not possible I have been mistaken ? ”
She glanced uneasily at the weeping relatives, and saw herself in the unwonted light of another’s estimation. She had always been a law unto herself, careless of all other opinion ; but now she saw how she must appear to this grief-stricken widow, against whom she had never been able to bring a worse accusation than that she “ sympathized with her husband.” She felt the altered public mood, and that there were some present who looked at her with curiosity or condemnation.
But Miss Lydia’s spirit was not one to cower long in self-reproach. She turned aside these feelings with confident self-justification, and stared boldly about the assembled congregation, recalling all the just cause she had had for her enmity, and sneering inwardly at the tribute paid the dead. Her mind turned with relief from the subject when all was over, and she gladly hurried home.
t( “Well,” said her sister placidly, as they were taking off their bonnets, “ it does seem strange how different you feel when folks are gone. We are imperfect creatures, and I am afraid in some things we was most too hard on Mr. Eliot.”
While Miss Phebe Bennett’s shallow experience thus found complete and calm expression, it stirred painful depths in Miss Lydia’s soul to hear her own misgiving shaped in words; and her doubt grew so persistent that at last she turned and faced it.
“ What if I did ! ” she retorted, “ I’m not perfect; but I have done, right along, what I believed to be my duty. You can’t think so hard of folks when they are gone.”
This was a dangerous admission to make, but in the line of her convictions she was honest, and she would not take it back. Her inward accuser at once took tip the new position she had accorded as a vantage-ground for renewed demands, while she began to feel a gentle but gradually increasing spiritual pressure, a constraint upon her inclination, a vague impulse of duty, a whispered “ Ought I ? ” It was as if there stood beside her some one waiting, who, though often ignored and forgotten, was always there, and now and then touched her, asking to be heard, while whispering voices filled her ears, and her trouble grew upon her, until she gradually became conscious of a distinct suggestion that if she had done a wrong to Joseph Eliot it had been deep and terrible, — a wrong that demanded all the expiation in her power, and an acknowledgment of error as public as had been her accusations, even to making a formal confession of her sin before the church and people of her native town.
She prepared herself by earnest prayer for guidance, and receiving the suggestion freely endeavored to look at the matter calmly by the light of reason and judgment. A careful self-examination only confirmed the decision she had originally made, — that the demand was monstrous and unreasonable, and that the voice within her was not the voice of God. The shock of Mr. Eliot’s death had awakened an over-sensitive conscience ; and in her morbid brooding over the matter she had mistaken the unhealthy action of a mind unnaturally excited for the promptings of duty. Whatever mistakes she had made in the past, in the mam purpose of her life she had sought the glory of God and the honor of his name ; and to make a confession like the one suggested would be essentially insincere, would do herself a worse wrong than she had done to Joseph Eliot, and inflict grave injury upon the cause of Christ, of which she had so long been the leading representative. Her intellectual conviction was without the shadow of misgiving; and, with a longing to be delivered from her mental oppression she laid her arms upon the table by which she sat and bowed her head upon them, as her custom was, in prayer; but her soul was silent. She could not pray. After a while she raised her head and took her Bible.
“ Perhaps he chooses to speak to me by his word,” she thought, as she turned the leaves of the book looking for some appropriate message. Her attention was first arrested by these verses : —
“ Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter ; for thy heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent, therefore, of this thy wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee. For I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.”
“ Peter’s words to Simon Magus,” she thought, maintaining her calmness by an effort. “ In my excited state of feeling they naturally seem to have undue significance.”
She turned back a few leaves, and looked again: —
“ Why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost ? . . . Thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.”
She closed her Bible and resolutely laid it from her.
“ My nerves are overwrought,” she said. “ I must divert my mind by natural and healthy interests.”
It was just at twilight; she went out and proposed to her sister that they should spend the evening at a neighbor’s house, and during the days that followed she went much into active business and society. But she found it impossible to shake off the oppression that was upon her spirit; the same suggestion of duty haunted her; and reason, judgment, and intellectual conviction availed no more against it than a sponge avails to wipe out a shadow. She grew reluctant to read her Bible ; there were verses there that she did not like to see ; and she at last gave up her daily reading, saying that for the present it had perhaps ceased to be profitable. But she could not escape the living word written in her memory, which seemed quickened to intense activity. Her prayers were sometimes constrained and formal ; and sometimes she cast herself upon the Lord with strong cries for deliverance.
“ Why dost thou leave me to such doubt and disquietude ? ” she pleaded. “ I have sought my duty carefully with tears. Leave me not in darkness ; let thy light shine.”
“ If, therefore, thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light,” suggested memory.
“ Lord, help me ! ” she cried. “ Deliver me from this horrible pit and miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and my lips shall praise thee.”
“ Why call ye me Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say 9 ” was her answer.
She went over the ground again and again, calling common sense and reason to her aid. She told herself she was the victim of a strange delusion, and that by patient waiting she would yet recover mental health. But her facility in the Scriptures met her at every turn, and some text arose and tripped up every step she took.
“It is monstrous, impossible,” she urged. “ I could not do it if I would.”
“ If ye have faith as a grain of mustard-seed, ye shall say to this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place, and itshall remove ; and nothing shall be impossible to you.”
“ Oh, for patience ! ” she cried. “ I will withdraw my mind from this subject, and it will yet leave me.”
“Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed to the day of redemption.”
“ It is not the Spirit of God,” she answered. “ My faith is tried, like that of Job, and Satan is allowed”— She went no further.
“Whoso blasphemeth against the Holy Ghost,it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world nor in the world to come. .. .Because they said,He hath an unclean spirit.”
Miss Lydia’s mental trouble began to wear upon her health. Every one was noticing her worn and haggard face; and a visit of a few weeks among her relatives gave her but temporary relief. Spring came, with its warm, soft air and its depressing languor. She was an old woman, and now she began to feel about her some vague premonition of a change. Grave symptoms of disease hereditary in the family declared themselves. One by one she gave up her active duties, and sat in her cushioned chair. The old family doctor was called in ; he gave her illness a Latin name, mixed some medicine in a tea-cup, promised a speedy recovery, and went away and left her with her trouble. Her mind was held relentlessly upon the subject from which her whole being shrank; and though as physical strength failed her she had less power of resistance, still her will was fixed and resolute as ever that she would not yield.
Upon his second visit the old doctor found his patient confined to her bed; friends shook their heads sadly over this downward step, but Miss Lydia felt an intense relief that now, at least, a physical impossibility stood in the way of the suggestion that ever haunted her.
One evening, as she lay alone in the twilight, listening to the soft voices of the summer evening, there gradually closed about her the conviction that for her the end of life was near. Death seemed to approach and forewarn her, and her soul recognized his face. What if, after all, this had been the voice of God within her that she had refused and disobeyed? What if her eternal destiny were indeed imperiled, and now it was too late. The things of this life shriveled to nothingness as she drew near the eternal verities. Outside the window, just across the street, the churchbell began to ring; and Miss Lydia grew faint with fear, as her inward conflict began anew. Was it, then, too late? The church prayer-meeting was assembling, close at hand. A remnant of physical strength was still her own. Might she not even now obey the impulse within her, and be at peace? She felt her spirit wooed by strong persuasion, and the voices about her were melting with entreaty.
She turned her face upon the pillow; the slow and painful tears forced themselves through the unused channels, and she gave up. The feeble notes of a wailing hymn rose and fell upon the air ; the exercises had begun. Ten minutes later Deacon Tryon was addressing the meeting. The candles flared in the dim twilight of the echoing room, and the little handful of brethren sat drowsily listening to the same old story. Deacon Tryon felt himself to be a great sinner. He was conscious he had not walked worthily before them, and he asked their prayers —
He paused; his hearers roused themselves, and turned to follow the direction of his startled glance.
Miss Lydia Bennett stood in the doorway, her clothes flung hastily about her, and her face like one struck with death. She came slowly up the aisle, and when she feebly spoke all held their breath to listen.
“ I have sinned against Heaven,” she began. “ I am verily guilty concerning my brother. I have slandered a good man and done him wrong. I have resisted the Spirit when he moved me to confess my sin. I am not worthy ” —
Her voice faltered, and she wavered and seemed about to fall. A young man sprang from the back seat and caught her in his arms ; and the meeting broke up in confusion as they carried her home again.
Miss Lydia Bennett’s strange appearance at the Thursday evening meeting was the talk of Greenville for weeks after. The public verdict was unanimous that she “ must have been out of her head with the fever;” and if there were some who did not wonder at the form of her delirium they held their peace.
“ She never spoke much after it,” Miss Phebe used to say. u The doctor said it hastened her end, of course. She just lay quiet, with her eyes shut, seeming kind of happy and smiling to herself; but she wouldn’t take medicine, nor seem to notice anything. Once I asked her if she felt she was prepared, and she whispered something that sounded like ‘ So happy.’ The night she died I was sittin’ by the bed, and she opened her eyes, and says she, quite clear, ‘ Goodby, Phebe. God is here, — right here ; ’ and then she never spoke again, and before morning she was gone.”