How gloomy everything was without John, Elizabeth mused this April evening as she walked the few blocks from their home on Cuthbert Street to the County Jail in the heart of Bedford.
He had been kept in prison since the November day, almost five months ago, that he was arrested. The hoped-for baby was a long ago dream, for a few days after John was imprisoned, it had been born prematurely and died.
Though their house was only a few minutes’ walk from the jail, and John was allowed visits, she didn’t get to see him that often, for there were the children to look after. At ten years old, Mary was responsible, but because she was blind, Elizabeth hesitated to put her in charge of Beth, little Thomas and Joseph. Today, though, she’d felt the need to see John so desperately, she’d asked a daughter of a church acquaintance from Elstow to come for a few hours, so she could get away.
Perhaps today John would have word about when he’d be released. Or if not, at least he’d give her the courage to go on. He was always so full of faith and optimism, just being with him would help.
Mr. Cobb, the warden, answered her knock on the heavy wooden door. "Welcome, Mrs. Bunyan," he said. "John will be happy to see you." He took her to the jail’s tiny, dim common room and a few minutes later John arrived.
It was good to feel his strong arms again and look into his brown eyes. But today they didn’t sparkle like usual. As she told him the news from home, he seemed preoccupied and burdened. "How is it with thee?" she asked.
John gave her a long look, as if sizing up her state of mind. "It seems I won’t be freed as readily as I thought," he began. "Cobb called me in for a talk today. He was most civil. But..." John looked at her with concern, "I’m afraid the news is bad."
Elizabeth felt the familiar rise of panic. "What is it?" she asked, keeping her voice calm.
"Cobb told me that at the next assizes, if I don’t promise to stop preaching and holding meetings, they may well banish me – or worse."
Elizabeth was stunned. She’d hung on to the hope that it was just a matter of time before they’d realize that arresting John had been a big mistake. But banishment or – the gallows?
"What wilt thou do?" she asked.
"I could make them that promise," John said, looking down. Then he lifted his face and she saw in his eyes a mixture of defiance and regret. "But I can’t do it. God knows how I’ve struggled with fears for myself. For thee. For the children. By taking this stand I feel like I’m tearing down my house with my own hands. But my conscience won’t let me give in to them. I would rather be obedient to God and make Him responsible for my concerns than deny what I know is right and thus take things back into my feeble hands. But it means I must look death in the face."
"Don’t say that, John," Elizabeth said. "Surely God will send someone or something to help deliver us."
"Maybe He will," John replied. But his voice lacked its usual conviction.
Elizabeth was shaken when she left the jail. She had never seen John so discouraged. He seemed to think he really might be banished or executed. Suddenly the weight of it all – John’s predicament, the responsibility for the children, their poverty without John’s income – felt overwhelming. He had always been there, capable, ready with answers and solutions. But now he too was powerless. If John couldn’t help, then who?
There was only One. Oh God, she prayed silently, we desperately need Thee.
A few days later, friends from church stopped by her house.
"John wants thee to come," they said. "We’ll stay with the children."
Elizabeth was out of breath when she knocked on the jail door.
John’s broad smile and twinkling eyes filled the prison’s common room as he entered. "Great news, Elizabeth!" he exclaimed. "I’ve just heard that in honor of the king’s coronation, prisoners are being set free. And they can’t banish me or change my sentence in any way till the business is done! This may prove to be the answer to our prayers!"
"Are you on the list to be freed, then?" Elizabeth asked.
"No," replied John. "We must apply. I have twelve months to sue out a pardon. I’ve heard that one does that through the courts in London."
"Will they let thee go to London?"
"No. I had thought that I would send thee."
Elizabeth felt fear and resistance rise inside her. Did John know who he was asking to speak for him? She - who got all tongue-tied, flushed and choked with emotion at the smallest thing - speak to the authorities? "Wouldn’t someone else do a better job?"
"There is no one else." John replied. "Thou must go."