Old Joseph, as he was called, had been grave-digger at Rehoboth for upwards of fifty years, and so rooted were his customs that none cared to call them in question. For minister and deacons he showed little respect. Boys and girls fled from before his shadow; and the village mothers frightened their offspring when naughty by threatening to ‘fotch owd Joseph to put them in th’ berryhoile.’ The women held him in awe, declaring that he sat up at night in the graveyard to watch for corpse-candles. Even the shrewd and hard-headed did not care to thwart him, preferring to be friends rather than foes. Fathers, sons and sons’ sons—generation after generation—had been laid to rest by the sinewy arms of Joseph. They came, and they departed; but he, like the earth, remained. A gray, gaunt Tithonus, him ‘only cruel immortality consumed.’
The graveyard at Rehoboth was his kingdom. Here, among the tombs, he reigned with undisputed sway. Whether marked by lettered stone or grassy mound, it mattered little—he knew where each rude forefather of the hamlet lay. Rich in the family lore of the neighbourhood, he could trace back ancestry and thread his way through the maze of relationship to the third and fourth generations. He could recount the sins which had hurried men to untimely graves, and point to the spot where their bones were rotting; and he could tell of virtues that made the memory of the mouldering dust more fragrant than the sweetbriar and the rose that grew upon the graves.
There was one rule which old Joseph would never break, and that was that there should be no interments after four o’clock. Plead with him, press him, threaten him, it was to no purpose; flinch he would not for rich or for poor, for parson or for people. More than once he had driven the mourners back from the gates, and one winter’s afternoon, when the corpse had been brought a long distance, it was left for the night in a neighbouring barn. Upon this occasion a riot was with difficulty averted. But old Joseph stood firm, and at the risk of his life carried the day. This was long years ago. Now, throughout the whole countryside it was known that no corpse passed through Rehoboth gates after four o’clock.
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‘You’ll happen look in an’ see th’ owd woman afore yo’ go wom’,’ said Joseph to Mr. Penrose, as the minister finished his entry of the funeral in the chapel register, ’hoo’s nobbud cratchenly (shaky).’
Joseph and his wife lived in the lower room of a three-storied cottage at the end of the chapel, the second and third stories of the said cottage being utilized by the Rehoboth members as Sunday-schools.
Entering, Mr. Penrose saw the old woman crouching over the hearth and doing her best to feed the fast-dying fires of her vitality. As she raised her wrinkled face, crowned with white hair and covered with a coloured kerchief, a gray shawl wrapped round her lean and stooping shoulders, she smiled a welcome, and bade him be seated.