We invited our new-found friend to be our guest for dinner, though, in fact, Jack and I were the guests in this hermit’s home. He eschewed the rum, but received the bacon as if it were manna from heaven—which he may have believed it to be.
Jack asked the man how long he had been living in the cave.
“Since the year of Our Lord, eighteen and forty-four.” He said.
“You’ve been out here for four years?”
“Perhaps,” he said, while enthusiastically cutting into a rasher of bacon, “but, since the Advent, I don’t believe it is correct to reckon in earth years.”
Jack closed one eye, and with tilted head scrutinized the man more fully. “That’s it,” she said, “it makes sense now. You’re an Adventist. A disciple of Reverend Miller.”
I had never heard of the Millerites—four years previous, I had little knowledge of anything outside the farm—but Jack remembered it full well and told me the story. Apparently, this Reverend Miller had used information gleaned from the Bible to calculate that the date of Christ’s second coming was a day in March 1844. He took the knowledge to the people, with banners and tents shows, and on that fateful day, thousands of the faithful, a sizable majority of them living in the state of New York, who had sold their possessions and donned ascension gowns, gathered on hilltops waiting to righteously ascend into heaven.
As he heard it recounted, our guest hung his head in sorrow. “Yes, yes,” he said, I was a Millerite, but as it came to pass, one of little faith.” He raised his head and looked us over as if seeing Jack and me for the first time.
“My name is Hiram Abernathy, and I have waited a long time to tell my story.” He had left off eating now and was intent on talking. In the evening twilight, Jack and I stoked the fire, and I for one was happy to keep the flames alive as something to look at beyond Abernathy’s empty but imploring eyes.
“I owned a dry goods store in Halfmoon. I lived there with my wife and our daughter Grace. We were Methodists then, though we became something else, you may call it Millerite or Adventist, the truth needs no name. Some friends had acquainted us with the work of William Miller, who through faith and reason had used scripture to determine the date of Christ’s second coming. My friends, my wife, myself, we all believed. We would sell our property, and on that day, gather together on the hilltops and await our ascension into heaven.
“It had all been worked out, I had agreed to sell the store for $1,200—though the inventory alone was worth more than that—and on that day we would all ascend into heaven together. On the morning of that great day, my wife and grace went along with all of our brethren to the hills outside of Halfmoon. I stayed behind to complete the sale and would follow when the property was liquidated. But when it came time to sign the papers, my faith did not hold. I could not sign the papers; I did not share the faith of my friends and family, not enough to lose my property. I went back home then and packed my bag. I knew that either the world would end today and I would be sent to hell, or the world would not end, and I could not face my wife and daughter.
“But as I walked home, I saw a rainbow to the north. And as I stopped to look, I could see that it was a double rainbow, and all around it was mist, and all the world was mist and fog but the for the astounding double rainbow. I saw myself, then, as a doubting Thomas, needing a sign from above, where others had faith that was pure. And now I had a sign.
“I went back to town to complete the sale of my store, but the buyer now offered only $600. But that only strengthened my belief in the world’s sinfulness. I closed the deal, donned my ascension robe and went off to face my judgment. But I did not follow after my wife and brethren; partly out of shame for my lack of faith, and partly compelled by the heavenly sign, I instead walked north, toward the end of the rainbows. I walked north until I could walk no more, and here I have remained, awaiting the Lord.”
“What do you suppose has taken him so long?” Jack asked.
“Oh, I suspect he started in places like China and Africa, to take care of Hindoos, Mohammedans, and other pagans first,” Said Abernathy. “He will do the Christians last.”
“What became of the $600?” I asked.
“It’s hidden in the cave.” He said.
“’It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.’ Mark 10:25,” I said.
Mr. Abernathy gave me a look of sheer terror; his eyes grew extraordinarily wide. “Is that why the Lord has not come for me?”
“I don’t know the mind of the Lord,” I said. “only his scriptures.”
Abernathy stood up and hurried back through his little crack in the cliff. He emerged a few minutes later with a thick leather wallet.
“Here,” he said, handing me the wallet filled with banknotes, “Here is all my money. Take it; I no longer need it. Only my salvation is important.”
“What of my salvation?” I said, feigning reluctance to take the money.
Jack grabbed the wallet from my hand, saying, “That’s alright, we’ll put this money to good use. You know, for the good of mankind in these final days."
“Yes, yes.” Said Abernathy softly, but he had already lost interest in the money.
Jack and I thought it was a good time to take our leave. We packed up our belongings and said our goodbyes, leaving the bacon as a gift for Mr. Abernathy. He was appreciative for the bacon and also thanked us again for taking his money and removing a burden that he had not even been aware of carrying. We headed back through the woods then, knowing we would eventually hit a road that would take us to Albany.
You, good reader, who have followed my progress from Salem to Canajoharie and halfway back again, have, no doubt long ago passed judgment on my behavior and found my morality lacking. I have been living as a libertine, on stolen money, flaunting the laws of God and man, thinking of nothing but my personal comfort. And maybe your judgment is sound. But for me, it was not until I took that poor man’s life savings, and made him glad to give it, that I began to see myself as truly bad. It was as if all the deception of Reverend Travis, all the violence of Ramsey and his men, all the larceny and meanness of Jack at her worst, came out of me in one simple Bible verse calculated to hoodwink the poor hermit. I was the devil quoting scripture, and I knew instinctively the effect it would have on Mr. Abernathy. It was no longer a matter of theory and theology, it was beyond the old Scotsman and his unyielding predestination, I now truly walked with the damned.