JOSEPH OR THE SILENT CORNER
The most melancholy part of the churchyard is the Silent Corner, where lie the remains of our nameless ancestors. It is sad enough to be told by the “storied urn or animated bust,” the polished granite or unpretending headstone, the names of departed friends; but it is sadder still to look on that neglected spotÂ—the pauper portion. There is no voice there. If the question be asked,Â— “Who sleeps there?” we must wait till the sound of the last trump for an answer: then the dead, small and great, will come forth, and many from these obscure resting places to a glorious resurrection.
In the last made burying-ground connected with old St. Chad’s Church, Rochdale, near the iron palings that divide it from the highway, it is easy to distinguish the strangers’ portion; for, while the rest of the ground is covered with memorials, this part is bare as the common, though very many are known to be interred there. Several of these were amongst my acquaintances, and one of them constitutes the subject of this narrative.
The little rural spot called “The Wood,” on the banks of the Roche, near the old stone bridge, has long been a favourite resort of invalids. It has much the appearance of a private walk, and is free from the noise and throng of the streets. My business often leading me in this locality, brings me into the society of, and frequently into conversation with, old and young, whom a fine summer’s day will tempt to seek a little fresh air in this secluded place. One beautiful evening in May, a tall, handsome young man was leaning against one of the three stone posts that divide the walk in the wood from the field called Sparrow Hill. Everything about this young man was calculated to arrest attention. That he was poor was evident, yet he was scrupulously clean. He had a highly polished walking stick in his hand, and a few gathered flowers, carefully arranged, on which he was looking with evident pleasure. His fine figure, intelligent countenance, and the unmistakable indications to an experienced eye, that he was a doomed man, increased my desire to form his acquaintance.
“So, you are fond of flowers, I presume. I have heard it said that invalids see greater beauty in flowers than those in good health; is it so, my dear sir?” I asked.
“I think it is,” he quietly answered with a smile; “but do you consider me an invalid?”
“That was my first impression on seeing you; but I shall be glad if I am mistaken, and am truly sorry if I have offended you.”
“You are not mistaken, and I am glad you have spoken to me, for I am a very lonely young man, without one being in this wide world with whom I can converse on subjects nearest my heart, and which most engage my thoughts. I am very lonely, and very miserable.”
“It ought not to follow that you are miserable because you
are lonely,” I replied. “There are some joys ‘the sweetest when enjoyed alone.’ But you surely have either relations or friends somewhere?”
“I have no relations that I know of. My father and mother both died when I was young, and I never had sister or brother. I lived some time with my grandmother, but since her death I have been in lodgings; for, not having the best of health, I have not been able to make myself a home. Twelve years I have worked in the cotton mills, here, in Burnley, and in Todmorden; but for several weeks I have not been able to follow my employment, and now I am in a common lodging-house, with two shillings from the parish as my only support. I do not say this to induce you to give me anything, for I cannot beg. I have sold my better clothing at various times, and this has helped me a little; but now I have nothing left that I can dispose of.”
“In which of the lodging-houses do you reside? for I should like to call and see you.”
“Jack Smith’s, in Packer Meadow, or King Street; but you will find it a queer place.”
Promising to call and see him, with a mutual “good evening,” we parted.
On the following evening I called, and learned from the landlady much about Joseph’s circumstances. She informed me that he was a very conscientious young man; that his means were exhausted, and she feared he did not get what was necessary for his poor state of healthÂ—that he was quite friendless, and she often found him weeping, and in great sorrow. She was glad I had called to see him. After settling the question of lodgings, and making provision for a few nourishments for Joseph, I followed him into the respectable room, and found him nervously waiting for me.
That night Joseph was greatly distressed. He mourned over his lonely and destitute condition. All his prospects were gloomy;
nothing but an early death in the workhouse was before him, and he wished he had never been born.
His condition was indeed a very painful one, and I felt much for the young man; and having brought for him a few books, I left him, with a promise soon to call again.
At our next interview Joseph entered into many particulars of his life, honestly confessing that much of his present misery was the result of his own folly. Speaking of his earlier days, he said:Â—
“The happiest period of my He was that spent in the Sunday-school. My mother was then alive, and she seemed anxious that I should early imbibe religious impressions. She regularly attended the church, and had a great regard for the Sabbath day. She would read to me stories from good books, and many times prayed with me when father was not at home. I well remember how she began to look very pale when she heard the doctor tell her that she could
not get better. That night was to me the beginning of sorrow.
My father had died of brain fever, about six months before;
but somehow I had not cared much about him. One reason for this was my being so very young; also my father’s business took him often from home, and I had not much of his company. But the doctor’s words to my mother, ‘You cannot live long,’ sound in my ears to this day. They were true words, for in less than three months I was an orphan. The day before mother died, she called me to her bedside to bid me farewell. I feel her clammy hand, and see her flushed face this moment. O, how well do I remember that night! She spoke to me of heavenÂ—told me what a glorious place it was, and that she was going there. She presented me with her pocket Bible and her wedding-ring. She then requested me to kneel down, while she offered up for me her last prayer. She put her hand upon my head, and, with her dying breath, entreated the Lord to guide me in the path of holiness, and to save me from the temptations and snares so destructive to the young. She prayed that, sooner than I should live a life of sin. God would take me home to Himself while in my youth. She then again took hold of my hand, and made me promise never to leave the Sunday school and never to neglect reading the Bible. I promised her all she wished; from my breaking heart I promised her, and from the very depths of my sorrow-stricken soul I intended to perform all I promised. In six days after, leaning on the arm of my grandmother, I followed my dear mother to the grave.
The first week I went to live with my grandmother I was sent to the mill to earn my daily bread; and for four years I daily read my mother’s Bible, regularly attended the Sunday school, and every day prayed that I might meet mother in heaven. But one fatal Sunday a terrible misfortune befell me. The teacher of our class was a very young man Â— very proud, and for the smallest offence he would strike our heads with the Bible. I was telling the boy next to me which verse he had to read, when the teacher struck my forehead with the edge of the Bible. In a moment he lay sprawling on the floor, and in a moment more I was in the hands of the superintendent, being dragged up to the desk, exposed to the gaze of the whole school, and in ten minutes after publicly expelled. I was turned out of the door, and my cap thrown after me into the street; and though the blood was running down my face from the force of the blow, yet I received not the slightest pity, but was forever disgraced and branded by being turned out of a Sunday school.
I went from the school to my mother’s grave, and, seeing no one near, I lay down on the cold flag, crying. Mother, mother;
dear, dear mother, what shall I do? I promised you never to leave the Sunday school, but they have driven me away. I feel I have done wrong, and the teacher has done wrong,Â—what must I do? O I wish some kind friend had taken me by the hand that moment, and led me back to the school. I would have done anything to
have been once again in my place, for the sake of the promise I had made my mother. But I had no one to sympathise with me. I sat amongst the dead until it was dark, and then, sorrowfully, with aching head and heart, plodded my way home.
From that day I have felt myself an outcast; for my grandmother was very feeble, and did not much care about me. I wished to go to some other school, but feared they would have heard of my disgrace, and object to take me, so I durst not apply; and my Sundays, which had formerly been my greatest comfort, were now the days of my greatest misery. I soon became changed in my feelings, and felt that my heart was getting hard. I forgot to read my Bible, and soon after went to bed without saying my prayers. About this time I met the young teacher that had struck me the severe blow. He put out his hand, wishing to be friendly, and invited me back to the school. Had he done this six months sooner, I should have been saved, but now the arrow had entered into my soul, and all desire was gone. I excused myself by saying, that as my grandmother was now dead, I was removing to Burnley, where I expected to be able to get better wages. He expressed his regret at having struck me, and said he feared he had been the cause of my leaving the school. This softened me a little; but the week after I went to Burnley, and for six years have led a wild and dissipated life.”
“How long is it since you came to Rochdale, Joseph?”
“About two years since. I worked eighteen months, but for the last six months I have been in very poor health, and have kept sinking, both in body, mind, and circumstances. I wish I had no soul, and then to die would be a blessing.”
“What have you done with your mother’s Bible and wedding-ring, Joseph?”
“I could not keep the Bible after I commenced a life of sin. I knew it condemned all my actions; and that I believe is the real reason why wicked men are ever trying to prove it a false book. But no part of that book is more true than that which points out the consequences of sin; it is terribly true, and they all know it. I purposely left mother’s Bible in a lodging-house, and have sold the ring for bread.”
“I feared your Bible would be gone, and have brought you another.” On handing it to him, he carelessly opened it, and seeing the corners of four leaves all turned down to the same verse Â— Isaiah 55, 7Â—he read the passage, and again closed the book, saying, “It is of no use, ‘the harvest is past.'”
Joseph quickly rose from his seat, and turning his face to the window, burst out into convulsive weeping. I gently laid my hand on his shoulder, and whispered in his ear, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” and quietly left the room.
The landlady, Mrs. Smith, informed me on my next visit, that for several weeks Joseph had coughed most of the night, and that
the lodgers complained they could not sleep. Several of them had left in consequence. She also informed me that she had cleaned out the room in the backyard, called the hen-cote, and made him up a small bed, for which she would only charge me half-price. She expressed her regret at having to remove him, but promised to do all she could to make him comfortable.
“And is Joseph in the hen-cote now?” I asked.
“Yes, sir; if you will come this way I will take you to the place, but you will think it a strange bedroom.”
I followed her out of the back door into the yard, and in a very small one-story building found Joseph lying on his narrow straw bed. He told me he had been very poorly during the day, and was forced to lie down.
I sat down on a three-legged stoolÂ—the only piece of furniture in Joseph’s roomÂ—and, taking hold of his moist hand, asked him if he heard the words I softly whispered the night I left him weeping.
“Yes, I heard them; and they have been ringing in my ears ever since. I am greatly distressed. A few hours since, a little girl, belonging to a kind neighbour, brought me a basin of gruel, and said her mother told her to ask my permission to let her come and read for me. I could not refuse the little thing. She ran home to tell her mother, and was soon back with the Bible wide open at the 103rd Psalm, the place she was to read for me. While the child was reading, I thought my heart would have broken. It was my mother’s favourite psalm, and the last I ever heard her read. I burst out weeping, which seemed to frighten the child. She asked me where my mother was; and when I told her she was dead, and gone to heaven, she asked me if I should go to heaven if I died; but I could not answer. O, I wish I could.”
“Well, Joseph, you surely see the goodness of God in all this. He has certainly sent that little girl to read the Bible to you, as He sent you a Bible to read. I am here, because, being His servant, I must do His work. Everything is conspiring to lead you to the Lamb of God. Joseph, my dear friend, doth not His goodness lead you to repentance.”
“I have very little faith,” he replied, “in sickbed repentance. It has long seemed strange to me that sinners should, with their eyes wide open, in the full blaze of gospel light, go on, step by step, down to destruction, knowing that every step they take brings them nearer and nearer, and when they get within a few steps of hell, scream out for mercy. It is miserable trifling with God’s goodness, and often a mockery; for many that have been restored to health have proved worse than before. These being my views, how can I consistently hope for pardon in the eleventh hour? It is against reason.”
“Almost all you say is true, Joseph, and your reasoning is, to a great extent, just; but it leaves you hopeless. If your soul be lost,
you will not be the first, by thousands, that reason has damned. Man’s salvation depends not on reasoning, but believing. ‘He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life;’ ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shall be saved;’ these are God’s words, and this is God’s plan; and in this plan the amazing love of God is seen. By your reasoning you have shut heaven’s door against yourself; but believing will throw it wide open, and, through the shed blood of Jesus Christ, poor Joseph Sutcliffe may enter.”
Joseph now became greatly agitated. He turned on his back in his narrow bed, and his eyes filled with tears, but for a considerable time he made no reply. At last, with a long-drawn breath, he said. “The thief on the cross; O, that happy thief!”
“Did the thief reason, Joseph?”
He paused a moment, heaved another long sigh, and clasping his hands, exclaimed, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”
“Did the publican reason, Joseph?” I again asked.
He made no reply; but stretching out his long, thin arms towards the ceiling, his unbuttoned, ragged shirt-sleeves falling down, revealing his wasted condition, with trembling anguish he again exclaimed, “Lord, save, or I perish!”
I rose from the three-legged stool, and gently laying my hand on his forehead, said: “Did poor sinking Peter reason, Joseph?”
His hands fell back, and with a look of despair, he sobbed out, “Is there mercy? Is there mercy? Happy thief! Happy thief!”
“Look to the middle cross, Joseph. Take your eye from the thief, and look to Jesus, and hear His dying cry, ‘Father, forgive them.'”
That moment I was hurriedly called away to Manchester. On passing through the house, I urged Mrs. Smith to see Joseph well provided for in everything he could require, and to send to my house for wine as often as needful. I went on my journey, and did not see Joseph again till the following day. About nine o’clock, little Rachel, the Bible-reader, came running to tell me Joseph wished me to go as soon as possible. I took the child’s hand, and very soon we both stood beside the sick man in the hen-cote.
The first glance at Joseph’s smiling and really happy-looking countenance revealed the glorious change that had taken place. He was indeed a new creature in Christ Jesus. He stretched out both hands, one for each of us, exclaiming, “What will my mother say? I shall now meet her in heaven! O, that I had the voice of a trumpet; I would proclaim to the world that ‘the blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin.’ I am the happiest man out of heaven.”
“How and when did you obtain this pearl of great price, Joseph?”
“About five this morning. All night I prayed and sought mercy. I looked to the middle cross, and saw my dear Saviour bleeding and dying for sinners; and all at once I believed from my heart He would save me. That moment I felt an unspeakable joy
spring up in my soul. O, the depth of God’s love to sinners!”
“What do you think of reason now, Joseph?”
“Think of reason? why it is blind as a bat in spiritual things.”
“You said when I first visited you, that you wished you had no soul; are those your views still?”
“O dear, no. I feel now that to be a child of God, and have a glorious hope of dwelling with Him in heaven for ever, is worth more than the whole universe.”
On returning home, and reflecting on the great change wrought in Joseph by the power of Divine grace, I felt more than ever a determination to cryÂ—”Behold the Lamb!” Very many times, during the following six weeks, did I sit on the three-legged stool in the hen-cote, beside Joseph’s narrow straw bed; but in no case have I witnessed so much unmixed joy. His former readings of the Bible were now of unspeakable value. Long-forgotten passages of the promises came back with renewed force, and he seemed to bask in the sunshine of heaven. From being his teacher, I became a learner. He had been fond of poetry, and now that his imagination had become sanctified, many sublime thoughts and words flowed from his mouth. On one occasion he said, “I have been thinking of the difference betwixt the deaths of Paul and of Byron. Paul said, ‘The time of my departure is at hand; but there is laid up for me a crown.’ Byron saidÂ—
‘My days are in the yellow leaf,
The flower, the fruit of life is gone:
The worm, the canker, and the grief
Are mine alone.’
What a difference betwixt the last days of a scoffer and those of a Christian!”
On the last day of Joseph’s life I read to him his mother’s Psalm; and in his last moments I moistened his parched lips with a little wine and water. The last sigh came, and with it two faint words, “JesusÂ—Mother.”
“The beggar died, and was carried by angels into Abraham’s bosom.”
And the fatherless and motherless, sisterless and brotherless pauper diedÂ—died on a bed of straw, in a hen-cote; and he too had his convoy of angels to carry him home from straw to glory.
On the day of Joseph’s funeral, three kind neighbours assisted me in carrying him to THE SILENT CORNER. There was no one to follow his remains to their last resting place. The tallest of the four bearers was the only one that was impressed with the sad scene.
In the grave of the pauper he let drop a tear,
But that tear was a tear-drop of joy.
The account of the life of “John Ashworth”, together with twenty one of his strange tales, has been published by “Gospel Tidings Publications”.