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Though none go with me, p.8
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       Though None Go with Me, p.8

           Jerry B. Jenkins
 

  Elisabeth also prayed that Will Bishop would find a wife and that God would make it plain that Will had simply misread the first signal. If by some bizarre twist Will was right, if God had really impressed on his heart that Elisabeth was in his future, God would tell her too. Wouldn’t he?

  One Sunday in December, Frances Crawford and Art Childs stopped Elisabeth on her way out of church. Frances waved a diamond ring in her face. So eager herself to marry, Elisabeth had to fake a smile. “When’s the big day?” she said.

  “After graduation,” Frances said, beaming. “Art’s already a welder with the railroad.” Elisabeth was impressed that Art seemed to have become a serious young man and was now back in church regularly after a season of spotty attendance.

  “I want you as my maid of honor,” Frances added, and Elisabeth was stunned. They had drifted apart, but maybe there was hope for their friendship yet. Frances had to know that Art pursued Elisabeth first, but she also knew of Elisabeth’s interest in Ben. “Or will it be matron of honor?” Frances said.

  “Not that soon,” Elisabeth said. “But I’ll be honored either way.”

  Will Bishop blossomed with his new interest in accounting. He worked part-time at a local manufacturing plant while maintaining his many side businesses. Elisabeth noticed that he had begun speaking up in Sunday school and training hour, evidencing things he had learned from his own Bible study. He was cordial to her, but his eyes betrayed his pain. She could only hope they would one day be friends again.

  Ben arrived a few days before Christmas at the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern depot. Elisabeth met him with great fanfare and they walked arm in arm to a nearby boarding house. She waited in the lobby while he settled in, then they walked home to meet Aunt Agatha.

  Elisabeth was eager to see whether Ben could work his considerable charm on this tough case. “Aunt Agatha Erastus,” she said, “Benjamin Phillips. Benjamin, this is my father’s sister, who has devoted her life to raising me.”

  “Not my whole life, thankfully,” Agatha said, nodding but not offering her hand. “But what’s a body to do in such a situation? Out of tragedy rises responsibility.”

  “Which, carried out, is godly virtue,” Ben said.

  “Yes, well, I don’t know about that.”

  Before dessert Agatha maneuvered the conversation to the future. “Are you clear about the disposition of Elisabeth’s estate?”

  Ben looked at her, open-faced. “Begging your pardon, Mrs. Erastus, I frankly don’t see how that’s any of my business.”

  “Then let me be frank with you, Mr. Phillips. If you wait long to make it your business, the house portion of it will have been disposed of.”

  “I told him all about that,” Elisabeth said.

  “Just so he has no designs on it or the proceeds from it.”

  Elisabeth raised her brows. “There’ll be precious few proceeds if you pay only what you believe is fair.”

  Aunt Agatha glared. “I was talking about when I sell it.”

  Elisabeth was stricken. “You’d sell this place?”

  Agatha laughed. “What do I need with a house the size of a barn? It’s an investment, child.”

  “Surely, you’ll take into consideration the feelings of your niece,” Ben said. “Does it make sense for her to sell it to you for whatever price you set and then you turn a fast profit on it?”

  “You said yourself it was none of your business,” Aunt Agatha said.

  “Maybe I’ll buy it back myself!” Elisabeth blurted.

  “Then don’t sell it,” Ben whispered.

  “I’ve given my word,” she said.

  Ben tried to help Elisabeth cope with her aunt. He went so far as to visit Marlin Beck, and he returned agreeing with the lawyer that Elisabeth had confused meekness for weakness. “Your aunt is walking all over you and the memory of your father.”

  “It’s my own fault,” she said.

  “Only if you let it happen.”

  “It’s already happened. I can’t go back on my word.”

  Elisabeth worried that Ben would consider her too immature to become his bride. That fear was eradicated Christmas Eve when they walked in the snow to the corner of Adams and North Main, where Bonnie Castle had been transformed from a private residence to the new Three Rivers Hospital. Ben brushed snow off a wrought iron bench and they sat huddled and shivering.

  “Elisabeth, I love you,” he said. “I want you to be my wife.”

  “Are you asking me to marry you?”

  He laughed. “Was that not clear?”

  “I thought we had decided to wait—”

  “Until my disposition, yes. That’s why I don’t have a ring for you tonight. I won’t leave the continent with a fiancée waiting. But I wanted you to know my intentions, and I want to know if they have basis.”

  “Basis?”

  “I need to know you’ll marry me when I return.”

  “I will.”

  They fell into a long kiss. “It will have to be our secret until we make it official,” he said at last.

  She nodded. “No one would understand if we announced now and I had no token …”

  “Nor a visible fiancé.”

  “Some are becoming engaged despite the dangers. Some even marry, worried they may never again have the chance.”

  “My faith is stronger than that,” he said. “Anyway, their reasons are shallow if they guarantee themselves only a few weeks together.”

  Elisabeth felt that same urgency, but she would not admit it. “I’ll wait for you,” she said. “As long as necessary.”

  Ben left the day after Christmas, and Elisabeth busied herself at the pharmacy and the library and the church. She was tempted to take Mr. Beck up on his offer to legally preclude Aunt Agatha’s attempt to wrest the home from the estate. But as much as she wanted to honor her father’s wishes, when she prayed about it she felt led to follow through with her commitment. She didn’t dare ask if her aunt was intent on moving her out as soon as she turned eighteen. Elisabeth’s birthday was a holiday anyway. Nothing legal could happen that day.

  Among Elisabeth’s Christmas cards was one from Will Bishop. On the back he wrote, “Elisabeth, regardless of what the future holds, I wish you all the best that God has for you, now and forever. If you ever need anything at all, with no strings attached, please do me the honor of asking. Your friend, Will.”

  Elisabeth was taken with the simple beauty of the sentiment and thankful that Will had acceded to her request not to pressure her. A tear surprised her and raced down her cheek. She blinked away the sting and prayed for Will. His old question echoed in her mind—not whether God had told her she was to marry him, but rather, whether God had told her she was to marry Ben.

  Elisabeth did not believe God spoke audibly anymore. But she knew when God impressed something on her heart. Had she prayed about marrying Ben? Only that God would spur him to ask, and that had been answered. Had she sought God’s will? She couldn’t say she had, but did she need a loud signal for every decision?

  On the other hand, this was not just another decision. Ben had asked. She had answered. And while it seemed she prayed without ceasing about anything and everything, she felt discomfort in her soul. For the briefest moment she was glad Will was not right there demanding an answer. As forward as he had been and as uncomfortable as he had made her that summer, his question—the one about seeking God—was legitimate.

  Everything about Ben, except his immediate future, fit neatly on a list of everything Elisabeth looked for in a life’s mate. He was spiritual, mature, bright, articulate, caring, moral, ethical, motivated. She had examined her heart. She loved him. It was a first love, yes, initially perhaps infatuation or a love of being in love. But she had gotten to know him, and she loved him all the more. What more did she need or want from God on the matter? Could there be anyone more perfect for her?

  Surely God had thrust Ben into her path. She smiled. Actually, she had been in Ben’s path. What kept her
from praying specifically about marrying him? How did that jibe with her commitment to obey Christ in everything? Had something deep down kept her from leaving it with God?

  Worse, was she again setting a course where she felt bound to her word, even if she had acted impulsively, apart from God’s wisdom?

  Elisabeth shook her head and stood, placing Will’s sweet card into a basket with the others. There was no reason to doubt her yes to Ben Phillips. She was sure that if she asked God to give her complete peace about it, he would. Someday, she might do just that.

  On Monday, December 31, 1917, a document was delivered to Elisabeth at home. “This is to inform you that a check has been written to the First National Bank of Three Rivers by Mrs. Agatha LeRoy Erastus in exchange for the title deed to the house that legally becomes yours tomorrow. Please plan to appear at the closing of the transaction at 1 P.M., Wednesday, January 2, 1918.”

  Included in the envelope was a birthday card from her aunt. Under Agatha Erastus’s signature, she had written:

  “Please evacuate the premises of all your belongings by the end of the day, Thursday, January 3.”

  Elisabeth had been put onto the street by the only remnant of her family. Hands trembling, she replaced the documents in the envelope and wished she could talk to Ben. What she really wanted was to be held by him, to announce to the world that they were marrying right away. Instead she merely wept and tried to pray, her spiteful aunt not twenty feet away, working in the kitchen.

  Elisabeth had already accepted this. It may not be right; it certainly wasn’t what her father had in mind. And she couldn’t imagine it was God’s plan. But she would rise above it and go quietly.

  Where, she did not know.

  CHAPTER EIGHT

  Elisabeth heard the slam of a car door and watched Marlin Beck march to the porch. Apparently he had been served the same papers.

  “My authority ends the day you turn eighteen,” he whispered fiercely to her at the door, “but I beg you not to let this happen. I will have failed your father.”

  “You didn’t fail him,” Elisabeth said. “I did.”

  “Well, by heaven, I’ll have my say anyway. Do you know the market value of this house?”

  “I don’t care.”

  “You don’t care that it’s four times the amount of your aunt’s check? It’s a travesty. Let me in.”

  Elisabeth stepped aside and stood gazing out as Mr. Beck stomped through the house behind her. “Mrs. Erastus! This is criminal! If your niece would say the word, I’d have you on the street tomorrow!”

  Elisabeth turned at the unhurried footsteps of her aunt. “Are you joking? That would violate her sacred code. She’d no longer be a martyr, the last attribute she would sacrifice.”

  Beck wheezed, bereft of a comeback. Red-faced, mouth pinched, he swept past Elisabeth. She opened the door, but he stopped. He looked at her with disgust, then at Aunt Agatha. “That I have to give you, Mrs. Erastus. Yes, that would be difficult to argue. But could you please tell me why? What has this child done so despicable that in the middle of winter you would put her out of the house she was born in?”

  The woman eyed Beck as if wondering whether she owed anyone an answer. “My own daughter would be about her age,” she said. “Kathleen is gone. This one will survive. Mine had to die, but this girl’s been dealt every blow God could bestow, yet she blithely prances through life, feeling no pain.”

  “No pain?” Elisabeth said, hating the whine in her voice. “I—”

  “Mrs. Erastus,” Beck said, “yours is an act of greed as plain as I’ve seen in a career. You care no more for your own niece than you care what I think of you.”

  “I certainly care nothing about you, sir.”

  “Hallelujah! A badge of honor I can wear home.” He turned to Elisabeth. “Dear, you need not appear at the closing. I’ll handle it.” She nodded, unable to speak. Beck added, “The proceeds won’t go far. I hope Snyder is paying a livable wage. Where will you go?”

  Elisabeth cleared her throat. “Maybe Aunt Agatha will rent me a room.”

  “For Pete’s sake!” Beck roared. “My wife and I would take you in before I could abide that!”

  “This place will be sold within the week,” Aunt Agatha said. “Why do you think I need her out by Thursday?”

  Elisabeth stormed to her room, stuffing everything she could find into two trunks and a suitcase. She was stunned when Mr. Beck followed and began helping. “If you stay in this house one more night, I’ll sue you myself—for stupidity.”

  In spite of everything, Elisabeth had to laugh. Beck shook his head. “Is she right? Are you hopelessly cheerful, regardless?”

  Elisabeth shrugged.

  “Seriously, where are you going? Where may I transport your things?”

  “To the front porch for now. I may need a ride to Central House or—”

  “Please, Miss LeRoy! A single young woman? That place has a saloon.”

  “Three Rivers House, then.”

  “Better. I know the proprietors. But won’t you stay with my wife and me until you make other arrangements?”

  “I’ll manage, but thank you.” Elisabeth couldn’t imagine staying in a stranger’s home.

  Beck looked at his watch. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I’m running late.” He lugged the trunks to the porch and was gone.

  Elisabeth strode to the cellar, found a box, and took it to her room. She sat on the edge of the bed, her eyes filling at the thought of the years she had spent there. It had been her only bedroom her whole life. How many times had her father sat where she was sitting? Talked with her. Prayed with her. Held her. Let her cry. Taught her. Loved her. She breathed a prayer of thanks, pleading with God to not allow her to be bitter toward her aunt. Elisabeth was already losing that battle.

  She pulled on her heavy winter coat and sat again. “Lord,” she said, “I still want to obey in everything. Tell me what to do. Pastor could find someone to take me in, but I hate to ask. Don’t let me be proud.”

  And with that came the answer. Elisabeth was nearly rocked by the force of it. By simply asking to be shielded from pride, she was deeply impressed with what to do. “No, Lord, please. This is not of you, is it? Tell me it’s my penchant for martyrdom.”

  But she received no such peace. She filled the last box and muscled it out the front door, then stepped back inside. From the basket on the piano she sifted through the Christmas cards, selecting those addressed to her alone. She tucked the stack in her pocket, took a deep breath, and called out for her aunt.

  “What do you want? I’m in the kitchen.”

  Elisabeth wiped her face and caught sight of her reflection in the oval, concave photograph of her mother near the front door. Standing there in her snug coat, collar high on her neck, hair up and pinned back, Elisabeth thought herself a full-grown woman, tall, straight, and—incongruously—confident looking. She shifted her focus so her mother’s face replaced her own. Vera LeRoy had a softer, more complacent countenance. She had been not much older than Elisabeth when the photograph was made.

  Elisabeth wanted to ask Aunt Agatha why she was hiding in the kitchen. There was nothing on the stove, not even anything before her on the table. Elisabeth wished she could force her aunt to acknowledge her own wickedness. Rather, she said, “Aunt Agatha, I want to thank you for all you’ve done for me.”

  “Oh, please,” Mrs. Erastus groaned. “You were a job, and you know it. I needed room and board. You were the price.”

  “You helped raise me, and I appreciate it.”

  “You’re a fool.”

  “Clearly. But I didn’t want to leave with you unaware that I appreciated—”

  “All right!” Agatha said, turning away. “Now go.”

  Elisabeth hoped her aunt averted her face to hide tears, but she knew better.

  Will Bishop lay in the snow in his fourth ward driveway under the very truck he had used to drive her home from camp months before. “Must be wet and cold under ther
e,” Elisabeth said, standing at his feet.

  “Elspeth?”

  “How’d you know?”

  He slid out from underneath, his hands red and raw. “Universal,” he said.

  “Universal?”

  “U-joint. Slipping and sliding in the snow is awful for ’em.”

  “You don’t say. Will, may I speak with you?”

  He struggled to his feet, attacking his greasy hands with an oily rag as he led her inside the huge, ramshackle house. He and his mother, his two married sisters, their husbands, and a passel of kids under ten shared it with boarders. Rent was cheap and you got what you paid for. Mrs. Bishop was not known as a fastidious housekeeper or a great cook.

  “I’m selling my house in two days,” Elisabeth said.

  Will narrowed his eyes. “You can imagine I have all kinds of questions. Your aunt. Your timing. Your boyfriend. Everything.”

  Elisabeth was shocked at how easily he conversed, compared to just that summer. Maybe branching into bookkeeping and accounting, or taking more responsibility in his family, had produced this.

  “Will, I have a card in my pocket with a precious promise on it.”

  “Anything, Elspeth. You know that. I can have the truck running in an hour. Where ya going?”

  “I’d like room and board here, no discounts, and no questions.”

  He concentrated on his hands with the rag. “One condition. I need your forgiveness for this summer.”

  “Oh, Will, that’s all right.”

  “No, you need to know I was sincere. Probably just misguided.”

  “Well, I appreciate it. I still want us to be—”

  “I’m not saying I was wrong, but Pastor helped me see—”

  “Pastor Hill knows?”

  “I’m sorry, Elspeth. He won’t say anything. Anyway, it was wrong how I went about it, and I don’t blame you for being upset.”

  “Thank you. I forgive you.”

  “You sure you want to stay in the same house? School’s not exactly walking distance. If I drive you, people will talk.”

 
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