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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Evening Meeting at Uncle ’Sias’s

By Esther Bernon Carpenter (1848–1893)

[Born in Wakefield, R. I., 1848. Died there, 1893. South-County Neighbors. 1887.]

AT the height of the melody a newly arrived group of women attracted the hospitable attention of Uncle ’Sias.

“This way,” he hoarsely whispered, beckoning from the door of the parlor-bedroom to the sisters, who evidently could see but little beyond the range of their imprisoning sunbonnets; and as they hesitated at noticing the seated occupants of the room, he added, explanatorily, “seats on the edge o’ the bed.” This somnolent invitation was gratefully accepted, and the log-cabin sunbonnets filed in, and took up their places among the stuffy pillows, just as the singers in the outer room were raising the tune—

  • “Shell I be kerried toe the skies
  • On flowery beds of ease?”
  • The bed had not been unoccupied through the evening. For twenty years, or for half her life, it had been the habitat of Uncle ’Sias’s unhappy daughter, Luce. Jilted, or, as her people said, “shabbed,” by the young man whom she was to have married, she never held up her head again after the shock of this misfortune, and took her bed, which she had never since left,—living there “as if it belonged to her organism,” and finally sinking into such a hapless state that for years past her mental obituary might have been read in that line of the thoughtful poet of rustic life—

  • “She slowly withered, an imbecile mind.”
  • By one of those coincidences that cease to surprise us by the time that middle age has shown us how often they recur in obedience to some mysterious law, the company of that night happened to include another of the weak-hearted cravens in life’s warfare—a man of mature years, who had never been heard to speak since the blow fell that crushed the pride, the hopes, and the affections of his early manhood. No force of entreaties, taunts, or provocations could drag him from the refuge of silence, which he had sought with a sternness of purpose that, like the woman’s pitiful cowering away from human eyes, testified to the narrow conditions and imperfect development of lives that went to wreck in the first storm of disaster by which they were overtaken.

    The meeting was conducted in the usual way. The customary appeals were made from the leaders to the more timid sisters, and to the young converts, to rise and speak; and the responses from each class were, in most instances, of an inaudible brevity. The maturer standard-bearers rose and delivered the set speeches with which they always graced these occasions; their several styles being marked by the repetition of certain texts to which they had acquired a well-defined right—sacred quotations that, as was said of Emerson’s prose “’tis,” became almost a personal possession. For instance, the trademark distinguishing Aunt Rooty, the gatherer and compounder of simples, the Medea of savory and medicinal drinks, was the text, “Oh, taste and see how good the Lord is!” which she dwelt upon with a sort of professional unction, as though she were offering some ptisan of sovereign virtue. And Miss Experience, or ’Speedy Goodspeed, known for her painful and halting utterance, never failed to wind up her remarks with the query, “What shall be done unto thee, O thou false tongue?” Then there was the usual burst of gratitude from the “skinching” or miserly Deacon Handy, who piously thanked the Lord that he had been saved from dead works, and whose hopes of justification must indeed, according to the testimony of his neighbors, have rested upon faith alone. The usual element of comedy was furnished by the flighty speaker, a sister of infirm wits but pious intentions, much given to raising her voice in a high, cracked tone, and detailing her domestic trials with injudicious frankness, closing with the application of her favorite “varse” to her house-mates, “And five of them were foolish.” Her example encouraged “Eelly Dick,” the feeble-minded pauper, whose board the town had let out to Uncle ’Sias as the lowest bidder, to make his first appearance on any religious platform—getting slightly astray in his attempted citation, “A woman took a maysure of oil, and hid it in a maysure of wheat, until the whole was leavened,” but meeting the Elder’s frown with a manly independence, by the declaration, “I may not repeat it us verbatim as some, but it is not for this one, nor that one, nor the other one to say what I shall say in the great congregation!” The Elder urged, warned, and exhorted, addressing the doubters and inquirers, reminding them that Satan desired to have them, and was there among them; that the spiritual eye might plainly discern him right down there by the stove; and that all concerned should make haste to leave so dangerous a vicinity for the haven of the anxious-seats. A pause ensued, of appalling length, after which a sister rose, and with the pious intention of rubbing in the Elder’s persuasions, quoted her own experience at a similar crisis, when she “felt as if glue couldn’t begin to hold her down half so fast as Satan did; but she broke away from all her bad feelings, and got up and spoke, and felt quite a good deal better for spiting old Satan.”

    Perhaps these appeals might have met with the desired response if the attention of the young people had not been divided between ghostly warnings and skyey threatenings. The rain, which had been so long gathering in force, was now preluded by keen flashes of lightning and ominous mutterings of thunder. Seeing that no movement was made by the objects of the recent exhortations, Uncle ’Sias rose, just to occupy the time as he explained. “Alas, alas,” he began, with his highest aim at a conventional style, “there was a time of blessed news, when the Lord did marvels amongst us, and we should rej’ice, yea, and did rej’ice. But, alas, the gold is become dim, and the most fine gold is changed. Although I hope the’ is some movings on the minds of some few, yit the saints air not so zeelous f’r the Lord’s cause an’ the good o’ souls ez they was in times past. Sin doth greedily abound amongst us, and the love of many waxes cold, for which the Lord is angered with a great anger. Now is plantin’ time, in a worldly way o’ speakin’, but ef we fare ez we desarve, what sorter harvest shell we hev? Brethring, it’ll be ez it was in times I knowed when I lived up to Westfield, on Widder Bacon’s farm, when the Lord sent his armies o’ worms to cut off the fruits o’ the airth. Thet season it come ’round so thet they ez expected fifty bushels didn’t get sca’cely one. Seth Beebe was one of our gret farmers up thet way. He sowed fo’teen acres o’ new ground, an’ anticipated on a gret crop. Wal, he ploughed it up, an’ planted it with corn. Oh, thet we, ez a people, rememberin’ these jedgments o’ times past, should beware lest they be let loose in the land agin. Oh, my young frien’s, we’m all a lookin’ ter you. Oh, think o’ the famine in Egypt; think o’ the plagues o’ the land; think o’ the good-will o’ the burnin’ bush; think”——

    But here the worthy man’s words were lost in the fierce rush of the gust, the roll of the thunder, and the maddened lashing of the rain. Hysterical women, whose twitching shoulders and quivering chins had for the last quarter of an hour betrayed their nervous agitation, covered their faces before the blue, blinding lights that glared pitilessly in at the great uncurtained windows of the old farmhouse, and sobbed in the abject misery of terror. Stout-hearted Aunt Freelove was heard declaring, “Kind of an onseasonable sorter thunder-tempest, but I guess I c’n weather it tell the sullar walls ketches fire.” But Brandywine Spears, who had hitherto sat in the seat of the scorners, beside the open house door, now hastily joined the inner circle, a pallid and crestfallen Mephistopheles, as the racking peals shook the giant timbers of the room, and the furious beating of the rain on the roof was like the tramp of a charging host, while a long, lurid dazzle, a roar that seemed to fill the sky, and the sickening sound of a rending, tearing concussion proclaimed that one of the trees of the surrounding forest had fallen. Suddenly, at this crisis of awe, the mood of the people passed at once from the ecstasy of fear to the ecstasy of devotion; a change effected by the sign and voice of one among them who now assumed the place of a leader. At the signal of this strange, tall hermit figure, known as the solitary dweller in the centre of the haunted Carr’s Plain, they rose by one impulse to their feet, and poured out their swelling hearts in a wild burst of sacred song, their voices mounting high in the passionate cry of the triumphant refrain—

  • “Oh, Moses smote the waters,
  • And the seas gave way!”
  • With the singing of the hymn the tempest somewhat abated, as if to the clang of mediæval bells. Angry black clouds still rose fast from the ocean, but the lightning glanced harmlessly through the protecting veil of falling waters, and the house seemed an ark of safety in the midst of the raging floods. All looks now turned upon the new guide of the evening’s devotions, as he remained standing in his place, with the abstracted look of a solitary, and yet as if charged with the burden of a word that must make its way to utterance! Unknown and almost nameless as he was to the listening crowd, there was a power in his presence, in the suggestions of his emaciated countenance and the spectral glitter of his eye, which pointed to a reality in the vague background of rumor which had given him, at his coming to live in their community, the repute of a seer of strange visions, and of a fearless host to such ghostly visitants as the inhabitants of the haunted territory which he had chosen to make his dwelling-place. But if a suspicion of something unhallowed had at first clung to his mysterious personality, it disappeared with that fuller knowledge of his brooding enthusiasm, his meditative insight, and his recondite learning which had gained him his common title of “The Preacher,” though his voice had never yet been heard in these seasons of worship. A lonely settler in strange places, like the spiritual fathers of Rhode Island—Williams, Blackstone, and Gorton—it was rumored that he, too, claimed to be a witness to a special interpretation of sacred truths, and, like those historic pioneers, had been separated by the stress of conflicting opinions from his earlier associates, or, as it was more darkly hinted, had, at the Divine pleasure, as made known to him in a dream, left home and family and friends to dedicate himself to the contemplative life.

    Such were the confused ideas prevailing among the congregation concerning the strange recluse who now spoke to them, wearing a far-away, introverted look, which presently quickened and glowed, as his low and quiet tones grew in intensity with the development of his theme.

    “It is written,” he said, without preamble or address, “in the Word of God that in the last days He will pour out his spirit upon his servants and handmaidens, and old men shall dream dreams, and young men shall see visions. I had been writing a letter to a friend at a distance, and being weak and feeble, I lay down on my bed, with my face toward the wall, to take repose, and soon fell into a sound sleep. Methought I cast my eyes toward heaven, and saw the blue vault of heaven split asunder, through which, I thought, I saw a stream of light and love proceeding from the throne of God, clear as crystal. As the rays of the sun in the firmament, at its first rising, shine into a door or window, so that the stream through the whole house will be lighter than anywhere else, so the whole stream of light from heaven to where I stood shined with light and love.”

    The storm was subsiding, and the flashes of lightning were few and distant, faintly illuminating the horizon. The dreaming glances of the speaker wandered out upon the night, and returned kindled with a deeper light, as he offered a newly-suggested image to his rapt listeners.

    “Never did I see anything so straight, and on either side the stream was decked with thousands of little rays of light, all pointing one way, even toward heaven. I thought that every drop of light and love that God bestows is to be returned to him again; and while I stood wondering at the sight, I thought I saw the fiery chariot of God’s love come through the gap that was in the vault, coming through the midst of the stream, a hundred times swifter than I ever saw an eagle fly. I thought it was all over glorious, and in color like to a rainbow, and was carried on wings of love. In a few moments it was just by where I stood, and turned short about, with the fire part toward heaven, and rested on its wings, keeping its wings in a slow motion to bear it up, and waiting for me to come in. I thought my soul was transported; I thought I stood with my heart and hands extended to heaven, crying, Glory, glory in the highest! and just as I was about to mount into the chariot I turned to a great multitude, crying, Glory, glory, I am going to glory in the fiery chariot of his love! and with these words on my lips I awoke out of sleep. Oh, cried I, in tears, that I had been suffered to take my flight! Oh, thought I, in the bitter disappointment of those waking moments, if one view of glory and love will fill a soul with such joy, even in a dream, what will the open vision and full fruition be in glory?”

    The preacher’s voice broke and failed, the light died out of his wan face, his Dantean vision was told, his mission was ended. The message that he had delivered was in a tone of fervor and power so far above the usual spiritual ministrations received by the flock that a confused sense of wonder sat upon all the faces. But the Elder, or exhorter of the evening, catching something of the enthusiast’s emotion, dismissed them with the genuine dignity of a pastoral guide.

    “Brethren,” said he, “our brother has spoke to us in the word of power. As we go to our homes, and lay us down to rest, let us meditate well thereupon; and let each one commune with his own heart, and be still.” And he gave, and the congregation received, a blessing, with a new sense of reverence.

    As the people disappeared on their homeward ways the sky was still obscured by drifting fog, through which glimpses of the clear heavens, set with star-points, promised a further April change to fair weather. But the atmosphere of storm and cloud and mist has ever since hung so heavily over the story of that night that it has finally come to wear the shadowy shape of a legend of the South County.