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   Chapter 43 THE MIDNIGHT ALARM.

The End of the World: A Love Story By Edward Eggleston Characters: 10550

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


At last the time drew on toward midnight, the hour upon which all expectation was concentrated. For did not the Parable of the Ten Virgins speak of the coming of the bridegroom at midnight?

"My friends and brethren," said Elder Hankins, his voice shaking with emotion, as he held his watch up in the moonlight, "My friends and brethren, ef the Word is true, they is but five minutes more before the comin' in of the new dispensation. Let us spend the last moments of time in silent devotion."

"I wonder ef he thinks the world runs down by his pay-tent-leever watch?" said Jonas, who could not resist the impulse to make the remark, even with the expectation of the immediate coming of the day of judgment in his mind.

"I wonder for what longitude he calculates prophecy?" said Andrew. "It can not be midnight all round the world at the same moment."

But Elder Hankins's flock did not take any astronomical difficulty into consideration. And no spectator could look upon them, bowing silently in prayer, awed by the expectation of the sudden coming of the Lord, without feeling that, however much the expectation might be illusory, the emotion was a fact absolutely awful. Events are only sublime as they move the human soul, and the swift-coming end of time was subjectively a great reality to these waiting people. Even Andrew was awe-stricken from sympathy; as Coleridge, when he stood godfather for Keble's child, was overwhelmed with a sense of the significance of the sacrament from Keble's stand-point. As for Cynthy Ann, she trembled with fear as she held fast to the arm of Jonas. And Jonas felt as much seriousness as was possible to him, until he heard Norman Anderson's voice crying with terror and excitement, and felt Cynthy shudder on his arm.

"For my part," said Jonas, turning to Andrew, "it don't seem like as ef it was much use to holler and make a furss about the corn crap when October's fairly sot in, and the frost has nipped the blades. All the plowin' and hoein' and weedin' and thinnin' out the suckers won't, better the yield then. An' when wheat's ripe, they's nothin' to be done fer it. It's got to be rep jest as it stan's. I'm rale sorry, to-night, as my life a'n't no better, but what's the use of cryin' over it? They's nothin' to do now but let it be gethered and shelled out, and measured up in the standard half-bushel of the sanctuary. And I'm afeard they'll be a heap of nubbins not wuth the shuckin'. But ef it don't come to six bushels the acre, I can't help it now by takin' on."

At twelve o'clock, even the scoffers were silent. But as the sultry night drew on toward one o'clock, Bill Day and his party felt their spirits revive a little. The calculation had failed in one part, and it might in all. Bill resumed his burlesque exhortations to the rough-looking "brethren" about him. He tried to lead them in singing some ribald parody of Adventist hymns, but his terror and theirs was too genuine, and their voices died down into husky whispers, and they were more alarmed than ever at discovering the extent of their own demoralization. The bottle, one of those small-necked, big-bodied quart-bottles that Western topers carry in yellow-cotton handkerchiefs, was passed round. But even the whisky seemed powerless to neutralize their terror, rather increasing the panic by fuddling their faculties.

"Boys!" said Bob Short, trembling, and sitting down on a stump, "this--this ere thing--is a gittin' serious. Ef--well, ef it was to happen--you know--you don't s'pose--ahem--you don't think God A'mighty would be too heavy on a feller. Do ye? Ef it was to come to-night, it would be blamed short notice."

At one o'clock the moon was just about dipping behind the hills, and the great sycamores, standing like giant sentinels on the river's marge, cast long unearthly shadows across the water, which grew blacker every minute. The deepening gloom gave all objects in the river valley a weird, distorted look. This oppressed August. The landscape seemed an enchanted one, a something seen in a dream or a delirium. It was as though the change had already come, and the real tangible world had passed away. He was the more susceptible from the depression caused by the hot sultriness of the night, and his separation from Julia.

He thought he would try to penetrate the crowd to the point where his mother was; then he would be near her, and nearer to Julia if anything happened. A curious infatuation had taken hold of August. He knew that it was an infatuation, but he could not shake it off. He had resolved that in case the trumpet should be heard in the heavens, he would seize Julia and claim her in the very moment of universal dissolution. He reached his mother, and as he looked into her calm face, ready for the millennium or for anything else "the Father" should decree, he thought she had never seemed more glorious than she did now, sitting with her children about her, almost unmoved by the excitement. For Mrs. Wehle had come to take everything as from the Heavenly Father. She had even received honest but thick-headed Gottlieb in this spirit, when he had fallen to her by the Moravian lot, a husband chosen for her by the Lord, whose will was not to be questioned.

August was just about to

speak to his mother, when he was forced to hang his head in shame, for there was his father rising to exhort.

"O mine freunde! pe shust immediadely all of de dime retty. Ton't led your vait vail already, and ton't let de debil git no unter holts on ye. Vatch and pe retty!"

And August could hear the derisive shouts of Bill Day's party, who had recovered their courage, crying out, "Go it, ole Dutchman! I'll bet on you!" He clenched his fist in anger, but his mother's eyes, looking at him with quiet rebuke, pacified him in a moment. Yet he could not help wondering whether blundering kinsfolk made people blush in the next world.

"Holt on doo de last ent!" continued Gottlieb. "It's pout goom! Kood pye, ole moon! You koes town, you nebber gooms pack no more already."

This exhortation might have proceeded in this strain indefinitely, to the mortification of August and the amusement of the profane, had there not just at that moment broken upon the sultry stillness of the night one of those crescendo thunder-bursts, beginning in a distant rumble, and swelling out louder and still louder, until it ended with a tremendous detonation. In the strange light of the setting moon, while everybody's attention was engrossed by the excitement, the swift oncoming of a thunder-cloud had not been observed by any but Andrew, and it had already climbed half-way to the zenith, blotting out a third of the firmament. This inverted thunder-bolt produced a startling effect upon the over-strained nerves of the crowd. Some cried out with terror, some sobbed with hysterical agony, some shouted in triumph, and it was generally believed that Virginia Waters, who died a maniac many years afterward, lost her reason at that moment. Bill Day ceased his mocking, and shook till his teeth chattered. And none of his party dared laugh at him. The moon had now gone, and the vivid lightning followed the thunder, and yet louder and more fearful thunder succeeded the lightning. The people ran about as if demented, and Julia was left alone. August had only one thought in all this confusion, and that was to find Julia. Having found her, they clasped hands, and stood upon the brow of the hill calmly watching the coming tempest, believing it to be the coming of the end. Between the claps of thunder they could hear the broken sentences of Elder Hankins, saying something about the lightning that shineth from one part of heaven to the other, and about the promised coming in the clouds. But they did not much heed the words. They were looking the blinding lightning in the face, and in their courageous trust they thought themselves ready to look into the flaming countenance of the Almighty, if they should be called before Him. Every fresh burst of thunder seemed to August to be the rocking of the world, trembling in the throes of dissolution. But the world might crumble or melt; there is something more enduring than the world. August felt the everlastingness of love; as many another man in a supreme crisis has felt it.

But the swift cloud had already covered half the sky, and the bursts of thunder followed one another now in quicker succession. And as suddenly as the thunder had come, came the wind. A solitary old sycamore, leaning over the water on the Kentucky shore, a mile away, was first to fall. In the lurid darkness, August and Julia saw it meet its fate. Then the rail fences on the nearer bank were scattered like kindling-wood, and some of the sturdy old apple-trees of the orchard in the river-bottom were uprooted, while others were stripped of their boughs. Julia clung to August and said something, but he could only see her lips move; her voice was drowned by the incessant roar of the thunder. And then the hurricane struck them, and they half-ran and were half-carried down the rear slope of the hill. Now they saw for the first time that the people were gone. The instinct of self-preservation had proven stronger than their fanaticism, and a contagious panic had carried them into a hay-barn near by.

Not knowing where the rest had gone, August and Julia only thought of regaining the castle. They found the path blocked by fallen trees, and it was slow and dangerous work, waiting for flashes of lightning to show them their road. In making a long detour they lost the path. After some minutes, in a lull in the thunder, August heard a shout, which he answered, and presently Philosopher Andrew appeared with a lantern, his grizzled hair and beard flying in the wind.

"What ho, my friends!" he cried. "This is the way you go to heaven together! You'll live through many a storm yet!"

Guided by his thorough knowledge of the ground, they had almost reached the castle, when they were startled by piteous cries. Leaving August with Julia, Andrew climbed a fence, and went down into a ravine to find poor Bill Day in an agony of terror, crying out in despair, believing that the day of doom had already come, and that he was about to be sent into well-deserved perdition. Andrew stooped over him with his lantern, but the poor fellow, giving one look at the shaggy face, shrieked madly, and rushed away into the woods.

"I believe," said the Philosopher, when he got back to August, "I believe he took me for the devil."

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