THE DARK HOUR
On returning from a morning appointment at Lower-place, on Sunday, the 15th of November, 1859, two strong, big-boned, but very poorly clad men were coming in the opposite direction. When we met, I took hold of an arm of each, and, in as kindly speech as possible, asked them where they were going to spend God’s good day.
The elder one answered: Â—”We are going to waste it as fast as we can.”
“Waste it! waste it! Did you never hear that Queen Elizabeth offered her physician a great sum of money if he would prolong her life a single day?”Â—I inquired.
“Yes, she might, but what we say is true. The fact is, we both came into town last evening, and are in a miserable lodging-house, and prefer rambling through the streets to sitting in such a wretched place; though I have left two children in the house, for I did not like to fetch them out into the streets this cold day.”Â—replied the same man.
“Did you not see a paper on the wall in the lodging-house you speak of?”Â—I asked.
“Yes, I did,” responded the younger, “but I thought it was an almanack.”
“No, it is a card inviting the lodgers to a place of worship, called the Chapel for the Destitute. There is a large congregation, all very poor,Â—good singing,Â—no collections,Â—and I shall be very glad to see you both there tonight.”
“Well, sir, the fact is, I do not know what to do. I pawned the handkerchief off my neck last night, for a shilling, to pay the lodgings for myself and children. I have never been so reduced as at present. I am no drinker; my wife is at Halifax, with two of our youngest children, waiting until I get employment; and when I return to my miserable lodgings, I do not know whether the landlord will give me credit till tomorrow.”
“Well, my dear sirs, come to the Chapel this evening, and your lodgings shall be paid.”
“Thank God! you have lifted a weight from my breast,” exclaimed the elder man. “And from mine too.” said the younger.
That night both made their appearance at the Chapel. After service, Johnson, for that was the name of the elder person, introduced his two little girls, who made a very nice curtsey; and on their receiving one penny each, the father sixpence, and the other man three-pence, all four faces brightened up with joy at the paltry gift of eleven-pence.
On the following morning, the younger man went on to Oldham, but Johnson remained in Rochdale to seek employment at his own trade,Â—gardening, or any other spade work. For several days he tried hard, travelling over many miles of ground, but without success; and night found him standing before my house, the
very picture of anxiety,Â—for he could not beg, and having nothing wherewith to pay his lodgings, or buy bread for his two children, he did not know were to look for help. His only hope was, that if I saw him I might pity his condition, and again render him assistance. At night I found him walking to and fro; he was drenched in the rain, the water was dropping off his hat, and his appearance was miserable in the extreme. On seeing me he pretended to be walking past, lest I might think he was again looking for me.
My heart melted for the poor man, and, in as kind words as possible, I asked him if he had succeeded in getting anything to do.
‘No, sir, I have been many miles round, but I have not been able to get one penny, or a promise of employment; and I do not know whatever I must do. I do not care so much for myself, but the sufferings of my wife and children weigh me down. I am afraid to go to my lodgings, for I expect we shall be turned out this night, dark and wet as it is.”
“Well, my man, take this half-crown, pay your lodgings and buy some food; still do your best to get work, and when your money is done, call on me again.”
Before I could prevent him, Johnson had taken off his hat;
he took the half-crown with a convulsive grasp; the light from the gas-lamp shining on his countenance revealed the tears running down his face; he tried hard to speak his thanks, but his emotion choked his utterance.
“Never mind, Johnson, put on your hat, and thank God for what you have got; for all the silver and gold is His; I am only His steward.”
The following day Johnson called, quite overjoyed. He had got a promise of work, and told me he had written to Halifax requesting his wife to come. At their meeting, the elder girls clasped their little brother and sister in their arms, in transport of joy. The pale-faced mother (who I perceived would soon bring another to share their joys and sorrows) wept in silence. Johnson stood gazing with mingled feelings on his helpless family.
But a grievous disappointment awaited Johnson. The man who had promised him work had no authority for so doing; and when he went expecting to begin, he was told that he could not be engaged. When the keeper of the lodging-house heard this, he demanded payment before either Johnson or his family should retire to their miserable beds. Poor man, he had not anything wherewith to pay, and begged permission to remain till morning, offering part of his garments for security, which was reluctantly accepted.
On the following morning they were all turned into the street. They wandered about for several hours, when seeing an empty cellar, they got permission to remain in it for a few days. Mother and children sat down on the bare, damp flags, whilst the father went out to buy two penny-worth of coals, and a half-penny candle. Throughout the night which followed, Johnson sat on the flagged floor, before the small flickering fire, with two children on each
side, making his legs their pillows, and his pale, delicate wife leaning against his back. Did they sleep? Yes, the children slept, and sobbed in their sleep,Â—for bread,
That night Johnson was almost driven to despair. Dark thoughts passed through his troubled soul. The last flickering glimmer from the expiring embers had died away, and left them in utter darkness. His sorrowing wife, knowing he had done his best, did not utter a word of complaint, fearing to increase his grief by repining, yet could not suppress all indication of her own feeling. He would have tried to comfort her, but the anguish of his own soul extinguished all power of words, and he felt speechless; for though they were both unable to sleep, yet they sat in silence,Â—no sound but the fitful slumbers of their four children, as they lay huddled together without the least covering. Is it strange that Johnson’s thoughts were dark? Can we be surprised that gloomy emotions passed
through his troubled soul? Less than the suffering of that night has driven many to absolute recklessness, and made their cases a thousand times worse, by associating with a passing misfortune, a permanent disgrace. Honest poverty will not descend to crime. |
But there is a God! This Johnson believed; and though he had not called on Him in prosperity,Â—as he now felt he ought to have done,Â—yet many a silent petition went up to Him whose eye seeth in the darkness, and who turneth not a deaf ear to the cry of the poor. Nor did he pray alone. The sighs of his suffering partner were many of them sighs for help. But when the long-looked for morning dawned, and the cold, grey streak of light fell on the still sleeping children, the sight of their misery was even worse than their thoughts had imagined.
About noon that day, the eldest girl called at my house to know if I had seen her father .She wept while she told me that they had been forced to leave the lodging-house, and that they were in a cellar in Cheetham Street; that her father had gone out to seek for work, and her mother was very unhappy and poorly. I gave the child a little for their immediate wants, and promised to call and see them in the evening.
On the Tuesday evening,Â—dark and cold,Â—I put on my overcoat, took my stick, put some money in my pocket, and went to visit several of my poor friends. John asks how the love of God can dwell in the man’s heart, who sees his brother in need, and keeps his pocket buttoned.
Mrs. B., the first object of my visit, resided in Dunkirk. Afflicted with asthma, she sat by the fire, gasping for breath. On perceiving me she rose, took hold of my hand, and, in a tremulous, broken voice, said, “Bless you for coming to see me! You will pray for me before you leave? I know you will.”
“Well, Martha, what do you want me to pray for?” I asked.
“That the Lord will have mercy on my poor soul, for I feel I want Him to pardon my sins; but I think He hardly ought to do it yet, for I have been a dreadful sinner,” was her answer.
“Then you, like poor Martin Luther, are for working for salvation. You intend to mend yourself, some way or other, and not to seek immediate pardon through faith in a dear dying Jesus;
Â—to be saved by works of righteousness, and not by the renewing of the Holy Ghost; is it so Martha?”
“O no, no; I am conscious that we are saved through faith, but I am such a sinner! such a sinner! Do kneel down and pray for me.”
I did kneel down, in that dimly lighted, poor cottage, with its bare walls and scant furniture,Â—knelt at the throne of grace, for the afflicted Magdalene, Â—knelt until heart-broken cries of anguish burst from her heaving breast. Angel of the Covenant! Thou binder up of the broken heart! Thou promised Comforter, to Thee we prayed! Â—nor prayed in vain.
On my taking leave of Martha, she blessed God for His goodness, in providing a place of worship to which she could come in her rags and clogs.
Johnson’s cellar, in Cheetham Street, was my next place of call. After a little inquiry, I descended the steps and knocked at the door. All was dark; a faint voice answered the knock, saying the door could not be opened. A strange fear came over me; I was afraid something was wrong. Thinking they would know my voice, I spoke through the key-hole, but still received the same answer. I ascended the steps, walked to and fro for at least an hour, then tried the door again. Johnson opened it. Poor man; he had been to seek work, and had locked the door at his wife’s request. There he stood, the picture of sorrow! The children lay huddled in the corner, covered with the mother’s shawl; she lay on the floor, her head leaning against the wall, evidently in great pain; the eldest girl, about nine years old, stood looking at her mother, with tears streaming down her cheeks. Not an article of furniture was in the house; the fire had almost died out for want of fuel: a thin candle, nearly spent, was on the mantel-piece, held up by two child’s shoes.
Instantly suspecting that things were even worse than they appeared, I whispered to Johnson my fears. Poor man! He knelt down on one knee, took hold of his wife’s hand, and tenderly asked her if she really stood in need of the doctor.
“I am afraid it is so,” was her feeble answer.
Johnson, looking me in the face, clasped his hands in silent agony. Bidding him and the eldest girl follow, we went to the shop of a vendor of old furniture, and purchased two chairs, two stools, bed-stocks, a pan, a kettle, several pots, knives, a table and candlestick. The broker and little girl carried home the goods, while Johnson and I went out and purchased three laps of clean straw, and to the grocer’s for some provisions. The straw was opened out in a small windowless place, called the coal-house; the children removed, laid on the straw, and covered up; two neighbouring women were fetched in, and a doctor got immediately. This done,
I returned home; and in two hours Johnson came to inform me that another immortal had entered the world, before the mother could be lifted from the flags.
On retiring to my bedroom that evening, turning on the gas, and lifting my watchguard from my neck, I wound up my watch, looked round on my pictures, furniture, bed-hangings, and carpet. I seemed in a palace. I, who had often looked at and envied my rich neighbours, and murmured, in my heart, that I was so much below them in worldly circumstances, all at once found myself among the princes of the earth! The contrast between my comfortable home, and the miserable one I had just witnessed, seemed too great. My unthankfulness and ingratitude never seemed so black, or my murmuring so sinful, as they did that evening. I have often blessed God that He has entrusted me, as steward, with a little of what enabled me to be a blessing to others. To cause the widow’s heart to rejoice; to wipe the orphan’s tear;
to lessen human woe; to mitigate, in any degree, the sorrows of our fellow-men,-Â—heaven has decreed that these shall be productive of great pleasure to the happy instrument. The cold-handed, icy-hearted, soul-shrivelled money-hoarder, that has “nothing to spare,” never drinks at this fountain of bliss. The god of this world has blinded his eyes, and mixed his poor dross with gall. “He heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them.” There is a sting in those words that has pierced many a miser’s heart. But “blessed is he .that considereth the poor. The Lord will deliver him in time of trouble; the Lord will preserve him and keep him alive; and he shall be blessed in the earth; and Thou wilt not deliver him to the will of his enemies. The Lord will strengthen him on a bed of languishing; Thou wilt make all his bed in his sickness.” God spake these words, through the mouth of David; but all will be done to His glory if we get that blessing.
The ensuing evening I went to see how matters stood with Johnson. I found the bed set up, and about one half of the straw spread on the cords. One of the poor women who had been with Mrs. J. during the night, had brought a thin bed-cover, made of patches of print, and hung it on one side of the bed to prevent the cold air from blowing; for the bed was close to the door, the only place where it could stand. Johnson had found as many things as possible for covering; among them his only coat. Mrs. J. was very feeble; she could not taste food, and had several attacks of shivering. Her life hung on a very slender thread. The doctor had been to see her, and left orders that she was to be kept very quiet.
Perceiving that our work was but half done, and that, unless warmth and nourishment were immediately administered, she would die, I went at once to a neighbouring pawn-shop, and bought a bed-case for two-shillings and sixpence, and the good lady gave me a half-bottle of wine; next, to a second-hand clothes shop, to purchase some flocks; found quite enough, price seven shillings, for which the good woman would not receive a farthing, when she
heard what they were for. My wife had sent up some clean linen and a pillow-case the night previous. Two women filled the bed and case with flocks. I carried the half-bottle of wine and some sago, and then left to attend our church-meeting, whilst the fresh bedding was substituted. On my return a great change for the better had taken place. A few tea-spoonfuls of the wine had revived our patient; the flock bed and pillows gave ease to her poor bones, and she seemed warm and comfortable.
The children had now got all the straw. Two of the youngest (not including the last comer) lay huddled in one comer, and the thirdÂ—a fine girl of sevenÂ—was partly undressed. She knelt down on the flags beside her bed of straw, clasped her hands, and closed her eyes, her chemise dropping from her little shoulders to her arms. And, O! what a prayer did that child offer to God! The moment she began I pulled off my hat, and bowed down my head. The deep emotions that passed through my heart can never be expressed. I have heard thousands of prayers, and many of them from God’s most gifted servants, but none ever affected me like the prayer of that little child. She repeated her “Our Father;” asked the Lord to bless her father, mother, sisters, brother, and the little baby, finishing with these words: Â—”O God, our Heavenly Father! Thou art good to us; we would love Thee, and serve Thee. We have sinned and done wrong many times, but Jesus Christ has died on the cross for sinners. Forgive us our sins for Jesus’ sake! May the Holy Spirit change our hearts, and make us to love God! and, when we die, may we go to Heaven! ”
To see the poor child kneeling on the damp flags, beside her bed of straw, and hear her faint, clear voice thanking God for His goodness, and praying for the Holy Spirit to change her heart, and this under such circumstances, melted me down to tears. I felt as if some angel of mercy, as in the case of Daniel, would come down and tell the little thing her prayer was heard. That moment was to me a moment of unspeakable joy, and amply repaid me for all I had done.
I wiped the tears from my eyes, sat down beside the mother’s bed, and asked her if she had heard the prayer. “Yes,” was her quick answer, “and I felt it, too. The prayers of my children have often lightened my load of sorrow; they are always new to me, though I taught them. But, O! sir, just before you came into this house last night, when I lay on the floor, and knew in what state I was,Â—nothing to lie down upon, no food for my poor sobbing children, my poor husband seeking work, and, I know, almost beside himself, in a strange place, and without friendsÂ—I thought God’s mercy was clean gone. IT WAS A DARK HOUR! I tried to look at the promises, but there was not one for me. One promise, that has cheered me many times, and that I often repeated, I could not call to mind; but it is come back now:Â—’They that trust in the Lord shall be as Mount Zion that cannot be moved.’ Yes; I have it now; but it was a dark hour!”
“But do you not see that, at the very time God’s mercies seemed clean gone, they were just coming?” I replied.
“Yes, but I could not see behind the cloud, and faith seemed dead to me. I have seen better days, and have not been thankful;
when I am a little stronger you shall know more of my history. The Lord has chastened me for my good.”
Johnson was leaning against the bed-post, catching the faint words of his wife during the conversation, and gave it as his conviction that the Almighty would not let me leave his house on the preceding evening; for had I done so, “his dear Mary” would have died.
“Well thank God, and not me, for anything that has been done; for I am only like that old tea-pot that stands by the fireside when you get a good cup of tea, you do not thank the tea-pot do you?”
“Well, perhaps not; but in this case, let both me and my wife thank both God and the tea-pot then.”
Returning home, I felt concerned about Johnson’s still being without work. Having a friend who employed about five hundred hands, and thinking he might perhaps find him some place as a labourer, I at once went to his house and knocked at the door. He was just locking up, but, knowing my voice, he opened the door. I apologised for my late visit, and walked into the sitting-room. His lady received me kindly. I told them my errandÂ—told them the whole tale as it was. When I came to the child’s prayer, they broke down. Mr. D., with tears streaming down his fine face, put his hand into his pocket, pulled out all the money he hadÂ—stammered out, “Here, give him that, and send him down to the works in the morning; I will find him something to do.”
In the morning I went to tell Johnson I had got him work and he must go back with me, and begin at once. Poor fellow, he could not speak for joy. He was in his shirt sleeves, and I never saw coat put on so quickly. The eldest girl and the two neighbouring women took charge of his wife in his absence, and in about fourteen days she was able to go about the house and attend to her family; but in the mean time the lifeless body of the “little stranger” had been carried in a plain box, and laid in our beautiful cemetery. He who tempers the wind to the shorn lamb had called cherub home.
Johnson now resides in a neat cottage, in a healthy neighbourhood; his children have all along attended the Sunday School, and on the Sabbath his voice is heard among the worshippers in the sanctuary. During the week he follows his occupation as a gardener, and on calling to see him a few days since, I found him reading his well thumbed Bible (their companion in all their troubles), and was glad to see that the star of hope had chased away he gloom of the DARK HOUR.