A Dark Night's Work, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter XIII.

Ellinor, having read the report of Dixon’s examination in the newspaper, bathed her eyes and forehead in cold water, and tried to still her poor heart’s beating, that she might be clear and collected enough to weigh the evidence.

Every line of it was condemnatory. One or two witnesses spoke of Dixon’s unconcealed dislike of Dunster, a dislike which Ellinor knew had been entertained by the old servant out of a species of loyalty to his master, as well as from personal distaste. The fleam was proved beyond all doubt to be Dixon’s; and a man, who had been stable-boy in Mr. Wilkins’s service, swore that on the day when Mr. Dunster was missed, and when the whole town was wondering what had become of him, a certain colt of Mr. Wilkins’s had needed bleeding, and that he had been sent by Dixon to the farrier’s for a horse-lancet, an errand which he had remarked upon at the time, as he knew that Dixon had a fleam of his own.

Mr. Osbaldistone was examined. He kept interrupting himself perpetually to express his surprise at the fact of so steady and well-conducted a man as Dixon being guilty of so heinous a crime, and was willing enough to testify to the excellent character which he had borne during all the many years he had been in his (Mr. Osbaldistone’s) service; but he appeared to be quite convinced by the evidence previously given of the prisoner’s guilt in the matter, and strengthened the case against him materially by stating the circumstance of the old man’s dogged unwillingness to have the slightest interference by cultivation with that particular piece of ground.

Here Ellinor shuddered. Before her, in that Roman bed-chamber, rose the fatal oblong she knew by heart — a little green moss or lichen, and thinly-growing blades of grass scarcely covering the caked and undisturbed soil under the old tree. Oh, that she had been in England when the surveyors of the railway between Ashcombe and Hamley had altered their line; she would have entreated, implored, compelled her trustees not to have sold that piece of ground for any sum of money whatever. She would have bribed the surveyors, done she knew not what — but now it was too late; she would not let her mind wander off to what might have been; she would force herself again to attend to the newspaper columns. There was little more: the prisoner had been asked if he could say anything to clear himself, and properly cautioned not to say anything to incriminate himself. The poor old man’s person was described, and his evident emotion. “The prisoner was observed to clutch at the rail before him to steady himself, and his colour changed so much at this part of the evidence that one of the turnkeys offered him a glass of water, which he declined. He is a man of a strongly-built frame, and with rather a morose and sullen cast of countenance.”

“My poor, poor Dixon!” said Ellinor, laying down the paper for an instant, and she was near crying, only she had resolved to shed no tears till she had finished all, and could judge of the chances. There were but a few lines more: “At one time the prisoner seemed to be desirous of alleging something in his defence, but he changed his mind, if such had been the case, and in reply to Mr. Gordon (the magistrate) he only said, ‘You’ve made a pretty strong case out again me, gentlemen, and it seems for to satisfy you; so I think I’ll not disturb your minds by saying anything more.’ Accordingly, Dixon now stands committed for trial for murder at the next Hellingford Assizes, which commence on March the seventh, before Baron Rushton and Mr. Justice Corbet.”

“Mr. Justice Corbet!” The words ran through Ellinor as though she had been stabbed with a knife, and by an irrepressible movement she stood up rigid. The young man, her lover in her youth, the old servant who in those days was perpetually about her — the two who had so often met in familiar if not friendly relations, now to face each other as judge and accused! She could not tell how much Mr. Corbet had conjectured from the partial revelation she had made to him of the impending shame that hung over her and hers. A day or two ago she could have remembered the exact words she had used in that memorable interview; but now, strive as she would, she could only recall facts, not words. After all, the Mr. Justice Corbet might not be Ralph. There was one chance in a hundred against the identity of the two.

While she was weighing probabilities in her sick dizzy mind, she heard soft steps outside her bolted door, and low voices whispering. It was the bedtime of happy people with hearts at ease. Some of the footsteps passed lightly on; but there was a gentle rap at Ellinor’s door. She pressed her two hot hands hard against her temples for an instant before she went to open the door. There stood Mrs. Forbes in her handsome evening dress, holding a lighted lamp in her hand.

“May I come in, my dear?” she asked. Ellinor’s stiff dry lips refused to utter the words of assent which indeed did not come readily from her heart.

“I am so grieved at this sad news which the canon brings. I can well understand what a shock it must be to you; we have just been saying it must be as bad for you as it would be to us if our old Donald should turn out to have been a hidden murderer all these years that he has lived with us; I really could have as soon suspected Donald as that white-haired respectable old man who used to come and see you at East Chester.”

Ellinor felt that she must say something. “It is a terrible shock — poor old man! and no friend near him, even Mr. Osbaldistone giving evidence again him. Oh, dear, dear! why did I ever come to Rome?”

“Now, my dear, you must not let yourself take an exaggerated view of the case. Sad and shocking as it is to have been so deceived, it is what happens to many of us, though not to so terrible a degree; and as to your coming to Rome having anything to do with it —”

(Mrs. Forbes almost smiled at the idea, so anxious was she to banish the idea of self-reproach from Ellinor’s sensitive mind, but Ellinor interrupted her abruptly:)

“Mrs. Forbes! did he — did Canon Livingstone tell you that I must leave tomorrow? I must go to England as fast as possible to do what I can for Dixon.”

“Yes, he told us you were thinking of it, and it was partly that made me force myself in upon you to-night. I think, my love, you are mistaken in feeling as if you were called upon to do more than what the canon tells me Miss Monro has already done in your name — engaged the best legal advice, and spared no expense to give the suspected man every chance. What could you do more even if you were on the spot? And it is very possible that the trial may have come on before you get home. Then what could you do? He would either have been acquitted or condemned; if the former, he would find public sympathy all in his favour; it always is for the unjustly accused. And if he turns out to be guilty, my dear Ellinor, it will be far better for you to have all the softening which distance can give to such a dreadful termination to the life of a poor man whom you have respected so long.”

But Ellinor spoke again with a kind of irritated determination, very foreign to her usual soft docility:

“Please just let me judge for myself this once. I am not ungrateful. God knows I don’t want to vex one who has been so kind to me as you have been, dear Mrs. Forbes; but I must go — and every word you say to dissuade me only makes me more convinced. I am going to Civita tomorrow. I shall be that much on the way. I cannot rest here.”

Mrs. Forbes looked at her in grave silence. Ellinor could not bear the consciousness of that fixed gaze. Yet its fixity only arose from Mrs. Forbes’ perplexity as to how best to assist Ellinor, whether to restrain her by further advice — of which the first dose had proved so useless — or to speed her departure. Ellinor broke on her meditations:

“You have always been so kind and good to me — go on being so — please, do! Leave me alone now, dear Mrs. Forbes, for I cannot bear talking about it, and help me to go tomorrow, and you do not know how I will pray to God to bless you!”

Such an appeal was irresistible. Mrs. Forbes kissed her very tenderly, and went to rejoin her daughters, who were clustered together in their mother’s bedroom awaiting her coming.

“Well, mamma, how is she? What does she say?”

“She is in a very excited state, poor thing! and has got so strong an impression that it is her duty to go back to England and do all she can for this wretched old man, that I am afraid we must not oppose her. I am afraid that she really must go on Thursday.”

Although Mrs. Forbes secured the services of a travelling-maid, Dr. Livingstone insisted on accompanying Ellinor to England, and it would have required more energy than she possessed at this time to combat a resolution which both words and manner expressed as determined. She would much rather have travelled alone with her maid; she did not feel the need of the services he offered; but she was utterly listless and broken down; all her interest was centred in the thought of Dixon and his approaching trial, and perplexity as to the mode in which she must do her duty.

They embarked late that evening in the tardy Santa Lucia, and Ellinor immediately went to her berth. She was not sea-sick; that might possibly have lessened her mental sufferings, which all night long tormented her. High-perched in an upper berth, she did not like disturbing the other occupants of the cabin till daylight appeared. Then she descended and dressed, and went on deck; the vessel was just passing the rocky coast of Elba, and the sky was flushed with rosy light, that made the shadows on the island of the most exquisite purple. The sea still heaved with yesterday’s storm, but the motion only added to the beauty of the sparkles and white foam that dimpled and curled on the blue waters. The air was delicious, after the closeness of the cabin, and Ellinor only wondered that more people were not on deck to enjoy it. One or two stragglers came up, time after time, and began pacing the deck. Dr. Livingstone came up before very long; but he seemed to have made a rule of not obtruding himself on Ellinor, excepting when he could be of some use. After a few words of common-place morning greeting, he, too, began to walk backwards and forwards, while Ellinor sat quietly watching the lovely island receding fast from her view — a beautiful vision never to be seen again by her mortal eyes.

Suddenly there was a shock and stound all over the vessel, her progress was stopped, and a rocking vibration was felt everywhere. The quarter-deck was filled with blasts of steam, which obscured everything. Sick people came rushing up out of their berths in strange undress; the steerage passengers — a motley and picturesque set of people, in many varieties of gay costume — took refuge on the quarter-deck, speaking loudly in all varieties of French and Italian patois. Ellinor stood up in silent, wondering dismay. Was the Santa Lucia going down on the great deep, and Dixon unaided in his peril? Dr. Livingstone was by her side in a moment. She could scarcely see him for the vapour, nor hear him for the roar of the escaping steam.

“Do not be unnecessarily frightened,” he repeated, a little louder. “Some accident has occurred to the engines. I will go and make instant inquiry, and come back to you as soon as I can. Trust to me.”

He came back to where she sat trembling.

“A part of the engine is broken, through the carelessness of these Neapolitan engineers; they say we must make for the nearest port — return to Civita, in fact.”

“But Elba is not many miles away,” said Ellinor. “If this steam were but away, you could see it still.”

“And if we were landed there we might stay on the island for many days; no steamer touches there; but if we return to Civita, we shall be in time for the Sunday boat.”

“Oh, dear, dear!” said Ellinor. “To-day is the second — Sunday will be the fourth — the assizes begin on the seventh; how miserably unfortunate!”

“Yes!” he said, “it is. And these things always appear so doubly unfortunate when they hinder our serving others! But it does not follow that because the assizes begin at Hellingford on the seventh, Dixon’s trial will come on so soon. We may still get to Marseilles on Monday evening; on by diligence to Lyons; it will — it must, I fear, be Thursday, at the earliest, before we reach Paris — Thursday, the eighth — and I suppose you know of some exculpatory evidence that has to be hunted up?”

He added this unwillingly; for he saw that Ellinor was jealous of the secresy she had hitherto maintained as to her reasons for believing Dixon innocent; but he could not help thinking that she, a gentle, timid woman, unaccustomed to action or business, would require some of the assistance which he would have been so thankful to give her; especially as this untoward accident would increase the press of time in which what was to be done would have to be done.

But no. Ellinor scarcely replied to his half-inquiry as to her reasons for hastening to England. She yielded to all his directions, agreed to his plans, but gave him none of her confidence, and he had to submit to this exclusion from sympathy in the exact causes of her anxiety.

Once more in the dreary sala, with the gaudy painted ceiling, the bare dirty floor, the innumerable rattling doors and windows! Ellinor was submissive and patient in demeanour, because so sick and despairing at heart. Her maid was ten times as demonstrative of annoyance and disgust; she who had no particular reason for wanting to reach England, but who thought it became her dignity to make it seem as though she had.

At length the weary time was over; and again they sailed past Elba, and arrived at Marseilles. Now Ellinor began to feel how much assistance it was to her to have Dr. Livingstone for a “courier,” as he had several times called himself.

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 22:18