THE DARK NIGHT
As you ascend from the vale of Rochdale, on the western side, skirting the hamlet of Spotland, near the Moorlands, the valley opening to the right reveals the tops of Long Ridge and Knowl Hill. On the rising ground, near the summit of Long Ridge, stood a few white-washed cottages, and a farm called Bank House. In this house the old-fashioned, broad oak stairs once served as a pulpit; and, in a large field behind, Mr. Whitfield, surrounded by a crowd, gathered from hill and dale, poured forth his rolling eloquence with such mighty power, that the echo reverberated from the rocks on the opposite side of the valley. Though, in those days of moral darkness, the seed often fell on stony ground, still, in many places, it produced lasting fruit. A spirit of inquiry pervaded the minds of the people; the old, long-neglected family Bible was taken down from the dusty shelf. Twos and threes met together for prayer; earnings and savings were dedicated to the building of houses where they might meet for the worship of God. Hundreds and thousands of churches sprang up amidst the rejoicings of the new-born myriads, the results of the revival of the eighteenth century.
In the valley bewixt Shelf Hill and Long Ridge, one of these rural temples was erected. Men and women, whose hearts God had touched, brought willingly their offerings; and on the day of its dedication, amidst tears of thanksgiving, the people shouted aloud for joy. And, from that day to this, the Sabbath morning brings groups of old and young, from their scattered homes on the uplands, to join in the duties of the school, and the worship of the sanctuary. The short and simple annals of these poor of the earth, but candidates for heaven, would undoubtedly be interest-
ing; and one of them, who for many years had mixed with the happy gatherings of this school and church, constitutes the principal subject of this narrative.
There he comes, with his trembling step, his wrinkled but pleasing countenance, and his nicely combed grey locks; bending under the weight of years, and the effects of many sorrows, he leans heavily on his staff. See with what evident delight he once more enters the house of God; and, as he slowly walks down the aisle to take his accustomed seat, the eyes of young and old seem to say, “Welcome, old Richard!” But Richard had once been young; his step had once been firm, his body erect, his countenance radiant with health and vigour, and, in the obscure hamlet where he resided, he “had stood in his lot.” A labouring man, with a sickly wife and a numerous family of small children, all depending on him to supply their daily returning wants,Â—manfully and unflinchingly struggling to obtain the bare necessaries of life, at the same time careful to watch over their morals, such a man is one of earth’s noblemen. How delightful when, after the toils of the day, “the saint, the husband, and the father,” gathering his young charge around the family altar, reads to them out of the Holy Book, kneels with them at the throne of grace, pouring out his soul in thanksgiving to God for past mercies, asking for wisdom, that he may “command his children and his household after him”!
If the angels that are sent forth to minister to those that shall be heirs of salvation,Â—if those swift-winged messengers of mercy ever halt on their glad journeys through the skies, surely it will be to look on one of these bright spots, where the sons of toil, bowing down before the Eternal, gather for themselves and little ones the rich harvest of heaven’s blessings.
One evening in autumn, when Richard was offering up his evening sacrifice, he was led to pray earnestly for his numerous family;Â—that not one of them might miss the way to heaven;
that through all the temptations which they might have to pass,Â— through all the troubles, and dangers of the wilderness, not one of them should be found straying in forbidden paths; and that, after the storms of life were over, they might all be gathered into the heavenly fold of the Good Shepherd, never to part again. Richard prayed that the whole might ultimately meet where there is no more parting. Shall they go before? or shall they follow after? Shall the shaft of death be thirteen times hurled, laying them one by one dead at his feet, and he. in the bitterness of spirit, exclaiming, “I shall go unto them, but they shall not return unto me”?Â— or shall he be the first to go, and hail them, one by one, as they enter the gates of Paradise? God often answers our prayers; but God’s mode of answering them we must leave with Himself.
During that night’s devotion, Ellen, their eldest daughter, a fine young girl of eighteen, was much affected, and, after the younger children had retired to rest, she wept bitterly. On recovering herself, so as to be able to speak, she said,Â—”O father! I shall
soon be gathered to that fold you have been praying we may all one day reach. I shall be the first to go. I feared to tell you and mother, knowing you have enough to bear, but I cannot longer hide the truth; I feel I am fast sinking into an early grave.”
The anguish of that night Richard long remembered. The bitterness of death,Â—the death of his firstborn,Â—the mother’s stay and the father’s joy,Â—to be smitten down at the moment of her greatest promise, how agonizing the thought! Yet this very thing had been feared, and all available means devised to prevent it. For several months the parents had held anxious counsel respecting Ellen’s altered looks; but when the child herself confirmed their painful suspicions, the stroke fell with crushing effect. This was the first stroke, but not the last, that Richard was destined to feel.
Ellen’s case soon became hopeless. And now were to be seen the fruits of Sunday-school instruction, and of piety at home. Step by step as she neared the tomb, the fear of death departed;
so wonderfully does God adapt His grace to the altered circumstances of His children. Never yet was dying strength withheld from dying saints. The Christian, in his walk through the valley of the shadow of death, finds that to him it is but a shadow. Millions of redeemed have entered this valley smiling,Â—God’s presence chasing away all their fears, and imparting unspeakable joys. Millions of dying Christians, since the days of St. Paul, have been able to appropriate some of his last words,Â—”There is laid up for me a crown.”
Sunday-schools have many trophies. Sowers in tears and reapers in joy are far more numerous than falls to the lot of mortals to know; and though Ellen first learned to lisp the name of Him who said,Â—”Suffer little children to come unto me,” on the spot where children ought first to learnÂ—her mother’s kneeÂ—yet the school had been to her a happy place, and to many of her class-mates the house of mercy. One Sunday, the teacher received a message, requesting that she would bring with her all the scholars of the class in which Ellen had spent many peaceful hours, that she might see them once more. The teacher communicated Ellen’s wish to her young friends. The books were closed in silence; a tear stood in every eye. Two and two, headed by their kind teacher, with hearts of sadness, they wended their way to the house of death; weeping, they gathered round her bed. Did Ellen weep? No. The young, the healthy, and the strong, through their blinding tears, beheld the wasted form of one they all loved, her pale countenance radiant with raptures of holy joy;
and while, at her request, they all kneeled down, and their sobs drowned the voice of the teacher engaged in prayer, still Ellen did not weep. She clasped her thin, white hands, and smiled; and when, at parting, they, one by one, took her clammy hand, to say the sad “Farewell!” still she smiled, and. in a feeble whisper, said,Â—”I die in peace; meet me in heaven.”
Richard’s days of mourning had now begun; bitter were the tears he dropped on Ellen’s grave. And how soon that grave was to be opened again and again! But the grace that shone conspicuous in the pilgrim’s life well sustained his burdened soul, Richard never murmured, but was often made to mourn.
The next that entered the dark portals of “the house appointed for all living” was Richard’s partner. Long had she been feeble;
she had inherited the fatal malady that had cut down her first-born from her parents, and entailed it on her own offspring. Then followed another, and another, until, out of twelve, only one daughter was left. Yet these multiplied sorrows gradually tended to enrich and mature Richard’s piety; his mind was stayed on God, and that peace which the world can neither give nor take away was his increasing inheritance. His Christian experience was riper and richer than that which many of his brethren possessed. None, amongst the many that attended the house of God, seemed to enjoy the preaching of the gospel to the same extent as he did. The words of those sweet hymns that point the soul heavenward he sung in rapturous joy.
Richard was now becoming an old man; he could not regularly follow his daily work. Small, indeed, had been his earnings; but now the time was come when he must become dependant on his only child. He removed to a small cottage, nearer the mill where she worked, expecting, as he said, there quietly to end his days, and be buried with his wife and children. Alice, the last and only child, was now a fine young woman, twenty years of age; she was good-looking, and seemed the most healthy of the family. Up to about eighteen years of age, Alice, had been regular at the Sunday-school, and constant in her attendance at divine service. She knew the way of truth, and had the highest respect for the truly religious. She was, like thousands of the young in our Sabbath-schools, almost persuaded to be a Christian, yet felt she was not one.
When Alice was about seventeen years of age, several of her school-mates, in the same condition of mind as herself, agreed to meet together for reading the Scriptures and prayer. These meetings greatly tended to strengthen their faith. Christ’s conversation with Nicodemus, as recorded in the third of John, was the subject on one occasion; and our Saviour’s words,Â—”Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God,” took fast hold of Alice’s heart. She saw that to be born of the flesh was one thing, and to be born of the Spirit was quite another thing. The last verse of the chapter,Â—”He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life,” caused a ray of hope to spring up in her soul. She saw the Saviour hanging on the cross for herÂ—stricken, smitten, and afflicted for her; she saw His crown of thorns. His pierced hands and feet. His blood shed for sinners; and heard His cry,Â— “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” By the eye of faith she saw the whole scene on Calvary. Over and over
she repeated the words,Â—”Was this for me?” For a moment, but only for a moment, doubt and darkness clouded her mind: she feared God would not save her,Â—that she was lost; but the words, He came to seek and to save that which was lost,” brought
renewed hope. Again she prayed, and now was able to say,Â—”His blood was shed for me.” Her sorrow was turned into joy; and now, being justified by faith, she had peace with God.
From that day Alice was a new creature in Christ Jesus. She was now born again of the Spirit; she had now obtained the pearl of great priceÂ—the one thing needful; she was now of the kingdom; now, by the grace of God, she was a Christian; and though, at times, doubts arose, yet she found that faith and prayer invariably dispelled them.
Alice had always loved her father, but now her affection seemed to increase. And so it is; the more we love God, the more we love each other. She it was who so nicely combed old Richard’s grey locksÂ—who looked so well to his personal appearanceÂ—who kept their little cottage so neat and scrupulously clean. On the Sabbath morning she rose early, and by school-time father and daughter were ready. All weathers they might be seen; the .old man leaning on his staff, and often on the arm of his dutiful daughter. They had a smile for everybody; and many that saw ‘them expressed their gladness that Richard was so comfortable in his old days. Richard’ place in the school was with a class of little boys. Long and patiently did he talk to them of good things, helping them to spell out their words, and encouraging them by saying,Â—”You will some day be good readers.” Alice occasionally taught a class of young girls, but more frequently joined her friends in the Bible class. To Richard and Alice the Lord’s day was, in deed, a day of holy duties and holy pleasures.
As you leave the valley in which the chapel stands, travelling due west, at Shepherd Mill you cross a brook, gathered from the mountain rills; and as it meanders down the vale, supplying the woollen bleach works and cotton mills, it ultimately joins Bamford Brook, and finally empties itself into the river Roach.
Blackpits Mill, where Alice worked, stands on the banks of this
One Winter’s evening, old Richard, as usual was preparing
the meal for Alice on her return. He had put fresh coals on the fire, and poured hot water into the tea-pot. On a small round table, covered with a white cloth, stood the cups and bread-and- butter; the candle was burning on the mantlepiece. That night the little cottage bore the aspect of peace and cheerfulness. “I like,”said the old man, “to have everything as comfortable as I can for my Alice when she comes from her work.”
The mill had stopped, and the hands were returning home in groups. The night being dark, care was required in passing between the reservoir and the brook. Alice, hastening to get home, took a wrong step. One wild scream! a plunge! another wild,
smothering scream! and the deep, dark waters rolled over the body of poor Alice! Lights, and ropes, and drags, and every available means to save her were instantly brought to bear; and while the flickering torches, borne by many hands, cast their reflecting light on the deep waves, groups of weeping friends stood round the sad scene; and when at last the body was found, and laid on the bank, it was evident to all that her soul had fled. THAT DARK NIGHT ALICE WAS DROWNED!
Who now shall tell old Richard the dreadful tale? Who, of the many scores on the river bank, will find nerve to tell the dreadful tale? “Who will tell her father?” was the question put by many of the weeping, sobbing friends. A brother of the church, with trembling heart, undertook the painful task,
On arriving at the cottage door of old Richard, he stood for some time perfectly unmanned. At last he gently lifted the latch. The old man sat in his arm-chair, with his back to the door. When he heard the door opened, without turning his head, he said, “Alice, my child, you have been long in coming to-night.” This caused the sorrowful bearer of the melancholy announcement to burst out in weeping; he was unable longer to control his pent-up feelings. Richard rose from his chair, looked his friend in the face, and exclaimed, “O, tell me what is the matter!Â—whatever is the matter? Has something happened to my child?Â—do tell me!” With choking voice, the good brother begged the old man to be seated. “Richard,” said he, “pray for strength; my dear brother, pray for strength; the Lord help you, your Alice is drowned.
“Drowned!Â—Alice drowned!Â—my child drowned!” Reason reeled, and consciousness mercifully left him; and before the dead body of his daughter reached her once happy home, kind friends had carried to his bed the unconscious old father.
That night was a night of lamentation and weeping, and as the mournful intelligence spread, a wail of sadness rolled over the valley; for, though everyone that knew Alice believed she was prepared for the change, still they felt it to be a distressing event. She was loved for her own sake, and additionally loved for her kindness to her aged father. “Poor old Richard, what will he do now!” was the general exclamation. But nowhere was the sorrow so deep as at the church meeting, from which Alice was seldom absent, and, had all been well, she would that very night have made one of the happy company. That was indeed the house of mourning. The usual singing was dispensed with, but the minister read out old Richard’s favourite hymn,Â—
“God moves in a mysterious way.”
Then all knelt down in solemn prayer, and as they prayed they wept; a beloved one had fallen from their midst, but if the
militant Church counted one less, the Church triumphant numbered one more.
When old Richard recovered his reason, he wept aloud for [some time. When able to converse, he said,Â—”Now I understand ” my child’s last prayer; she always read the evening chapter, and, if I was not well, she sometimes engaged in devotion. ‘Lord,’ she said. Thou hast taken my dear mother, and all my sisters and brothers, to dwell with Thyself in mansions above; if it please Thee, preserve me for my aged father’s sake, that I may be a comfort and support to him in his declining days. But if otherwise be Thy will, then he will see us all safely folded in the realms of bliss, and he will soon follow, and then we shall be a whole family in heaven. O, help us both to say. Thy will be done.’ But never did I feel it so hard to be resigned; my cup is bitter indeed. It seemed as if this stroke might have been spared me. It is strange, very strange! I would not judge the Lord by feeble sense; but now this world is a wilderness Â— a waste, howling wilderness. She prayedÂ—yes, my child prayedÂ—that we might be able to say. Thy will be done. Lord, help me to say it; for no doubt Thy will is the best, though at present I cannot see it. Job lost more in one day than I have lost in a whole lifetime, yet he could say, ‘The Lord ) gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ O my God, help me to be resigned.”
The day of Alice’s funeral was a memorable one. Many of the hands in the mill where she had worked, together with the teachers and elder scholars belonging to the Sabbath-school, besides many friends and neighbours, followed her to the tomb. The old man, leaning on his staff and the arm of a brother Christian, headed the melancholy procession. Amidst tears and sobs, the body was lowered into the devouring grave, but with a sure and certain hope of a glorious resurrection.
And now let us pause, lest we be led thoughtlessly, to “charge God foolishly. Ought not the Almighty to have spared this dutiful and affectionate child to be the comfort and help of her aged father, during the short time left for him in this world?
Humanly speaking, yes; but it is humanly speaking. The finite can never understand the doings and purposes of the Infinite. There is great force in the words, “What we know not now, we shall know hereafter.” There are greater calamities than having those we love snatched from us by the hand of death. To see a son or daughter, day after day, leading a wicked and ungodly life, would be far more distressing to a good man than ; having that son or daughter taken away by early death, knowing them to be prepared. Continual anguish of mind, consequent on seeing our children walking down to eternal death, is a thousand times worse to bear, than one great agony by their being taken suddenly to eternal life.
Old Richard was bereaved of his only remaining child, the stay and support of his old age. To the thoughtless it would seem a cruel providence. Jacob lost his son Joseph, and thought he must also lose Simeon and Benjamin. This made him cry out,
“All these things are against me:” but as the design of heaven began unfolding, events showed that all things were making for him.
The good brother before mentioned took old Richard to reside in his own house. His remaining furniture was sold to pay a few small debts. On the following Sabbath morning, the old pilgrim, now alone, was again wending his way to the house of God. Kind, but mistaken friends, tried to dissuade him from going, thinking it would increase his distress of mind. “No, no,” said the old man, “I have often had, like the Psalmist, hard things made plain in the sanctuary of my God. ‘Truly God is good to Israel, even to such as are of a clean heart.’ God will guide me with His counsel, and afterwards receive me to glory. ‘My flesh and my heart faileth, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever.’ No, no; let me go to the chapel, for ‘one thing have I desired of the Lord, and that will I seek after, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.'”
Richard’s appearance in the chapel that morning drew silent tears from most in the congregation; and when the minister offered up a prayer that the aged brother might be sustained under his heavy bereavement, his voice trembled with emotion, and the sobs of the audience became general; every heart in that assembly said “Amen,” to the prayer for their afflicted friend.
But another trial yet remained; the owner of Blackpits Mill died, and, in consequence, the works were stopped, and all the hands had to seek employment elsewhere. The good folks in whose house Richard for several months had found a shelter were amongst the number. He had the option of going to the parish workhouse, or receiving two-and-sixpence per week if he did not go into the house. He chose the two-and-sixpence; “For,” said he, “if I go to the workhouse, I shall not be able to attend the chapel and other means of grace;Â—for that comfort is still left me, and an unspeakable comfort it is. And, besides, if I go to the workhouse, when my short pilgrimage is ended, I shall be buried in a stranger’s grave; and I should likeÂ—O yes, I should like to be buried with my dear wife and children.”
Another brother in the church, feeling commiseration for the now houseless old man, offered him a home. This poor man had nothing to spare, for he was a weaver, with a family of small children. Here Richard soon found he was a burden, and he would not consent to eat the children’s bread; and now there seemed no place left but the workhouse. For a whole week he was in much trouble. To leave the chapel, to be buried in a stranger’s grave, to remove from amongst those who had, according to their ability, shared with him and lightened his sorrows, was a sore and painful trial. Late one Saturday evening he remained long in prayer, beseeching the Almighty to open out some way of deliverance. “Have mercy upon me, O Lord, for I am in trouble. Hear, O Lord, and have mercy upon me. Lord, be Thou my
helper.” His struggle that night was severe and bitter; but at last, from the depths of his afflicted soul, he was able to say, “Lord, not my will, but Thine be done. I leave my body, soul, and spirit entirely in Thy hands.”
On the Sunday following, the day after Richard’s prayer of resignation, I was unaccountably impressed with a desire to attend Bagslate Chapel, Richard’s place of worship. I knew it was the school anniversary that day, but that was not, in itself, any attraction to me. The place was two miles from my house, and on that dayÂ—which was very unusualÂ—I had no special engagement. I felt I must go, and after dinner I set out in good time, wishing to distribute a few tracts on the way. On arriving at the chapel, after shaking hands with many well-known friends, I found several of them in trouble. On inquiring the reason, one of them informed me that old Richard was going to the workhouse, and was come to bid them farewell.
“Where is old Richard?” I asked.
“In the school-room, taking leave of the children,” was the answer.
On entering the school-room, I found Richard alone, walking up and down; the scholars and teachers were all gone into the chapel. The old man seemed to be labouring under great mental anxiety. On seeing me approach, he held out his hand, saying, “This is my last day amongst you; I feel it hard work to part with my old friends, the means of grace, and the house of my God. O how precious to me has been the Sabbath-school and this blessed sanctuary! but the bitterness is past. Yes, yes, the bitterness is past; I now feel much more resigned to my lot;” and taking hold of my hand, he prayed that the Lord might bless me, and make me a blessing.
“Well, Richard, but supposing you had three shilling a-week, in addition to the two-and-sixpence allowed by the townshipÂ— that would make five shillings and sixpenceÂ—how would that do?”
“Do! do! why I should be a king; yes, and far happier than any king. Do! I should think it would do, indeed.”
“Well, then, you shall have it,” I replied, “weekly, and every week as long as you live. And now you can remain with your friends and the school, and still attend the house of your God:
and, when your days are ended, you can be laid down in the grave with your wife and children, as you have always wished.”
Richard looked at me with tears streaming down his face, and with the most childish simplicity, said “Mr. Ashworth, are you really in earnest, or are you trifling with an old man’s sorrows?”
“In earnest, Richard, and never more in earnest; you surely do not think I should sport with your troubles.”
For a moment the old man seemed unable to speak; then, clasping his hands, exclaimed, “Now I see! now I see! If I had
sooner left myself in the hands of GodÂ—sooner from my heart said, ‘Not my will, but Thine be done,’Â—deliverance would have come sooner. Not till last night could I say it; and my God sends deliverance the very day after. ‘Blessed is the man that maketh the Lord his trust.’ ‘O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt His name together.’ ”
“Well, Richard, but I think you had better not tell about this providential help; there may be prudence in not making it known.”
“Tell! tell! but I must tell, I cannot help it. Was there ever anything like it? Just in time; a day or so later, and I should have gone!”
And tell he did, for, after the service was over, Richard was again shaking hands with his friends, exclaiming, “Bless the Lord, I am not going, I am not leaving you; no, no, the Lord has sent me help; I can come to His house still, and meet with you as long as I live and then be buried with my own family. Praise God, for He has done it all.”
The following week was to Richard a week of great joy. He spent much of it in going amongst his Christian friends, talking with them about his deliverance, as he called it. To one brother in the church he said, “I wonder I was so unwilling to leave myself in the hands of God. I have long believed that a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, but somehow I did not like the workhouse, and I was very wishful to keep near the school and chapel. O this ‘Thy will be done!’ there is nothing beats it. My dear Saviour first spoke these words when sweating great drops of blood, and it seems that we must be made to sweat too, before we will say it. Prayers in sorrow are prayers in earnest. I have had a wonderful deliverance. I have now nine-pence halfpenny a-day of an income, and I can make that do famously, and I will try never to doubt God’s care for me again.”
Richard’s re-appearance in the school the following Sunday morning astonished some of the younger scholars,Â—they could not understand how it was that he had bid them farewell, and come back again. Richard knew their thoughts, and from the desk told them all about his deliverance.
For two years the old man regularly received the promised pension, several friends willingly contributing the amount required. This, in addition to many gifts, prevented him being a burden to the poor, hard-working man with whom he resided. As long as he could walk, either alone or with help, he attended the house of prayer. But the weary wheels of life were now on the eve of standing still. On my visit to him a few days previous to his death, I found him like a shock of corn, ready to be gathered in, and as he said, “his sun was setting in a clear sky.”
“Well, well,” said he, “you are come to see me once more; I think it will be the last time. I do not know the persons that have so kindly sent the money, but the Lord knows, and He will bless
them. I have been trying to think of the way God has brought me, and now I believe He has brought me the right way. Many dark clouds have cast their shadows across my path. Dark, indeed, have been some of the nights of my pilgrimage, yet faith in the promises enabled me to see my way; but the night my dear Alice was drowned was the darkest of all; that was a DARK NIGHT. I have had many sorrows, but I have had millions of joys. Yes, Mr. Ashworth, taking all together I have been a happy man. A few more hours, and we shall be fourteen in heaven. What a mercy, fourteen in heaven! From my heart, I do now believe that ‘all things work together for good to them that love God. One day with my Saviour in heaven will compensate for all my sufferings on earth.”
It was, as Richard expected, our final interview. In his last moments he enjoyed unbounded peace, and his triumphant death was another evidence of the power of saving and sustaining grace.
He died at a place called Springs, and, at the request of his friends, the writer preached his funeral sermon, from the words,
Richard had prayed that not one of them might miss the way to heaven;Â—that through all the temptations which they might have to passÂ—through all the dangers and troubles of the wilderness, not one of them should be found straying in forbidden paths; that, after the storms of life were o’er, they might all be gathered into the fold of the Good Shepherd, never to part again. Richard, thy prayer was heard!
JOHN ASHWORTH 1865.