A Dark Night's Work, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter XV.

When Ellinor awoke the clear light of dawn was fully in the room. She could not remember where she was; for so many mornings she had wakened up in strange places that it took her several minutes before she could make out the geographical whereabouts of the heavy blue moreen curtains, the print of the lord-lieutenant of the county on the wall, and all the handsome ponderous mahogany furniture that stuffed up the room. As soon as full memory came into her mind, she started up; nor did she go to bed again, although she saw by her watch on the dressing-table that it was not yet six o’clock. She dressed herself with the dainty completeness so habitual to her that it had become an unconscious habit, and then — the instinct was irrepressible — she put on her bonnet and shawl, and went down, past the servant on her knees cleaning the doorstep, out into the fresh open air; and so she found her way down the High Street to Hellingford Castle, the building in which the courts of assize were held — the prison in which Dixon lay condemned to die. She almost knew she could not see him; yet it seemed like some amends to her conscience for having slept through so many hours of the night if she made the attempt. She went up to the porter’s lodge, and asked the little girl sweeping out the place if she might see Abraham Dixon. The child stared at her, and ran into the house, bringing out her father, a great burly man, who had not yet donned either coat or waistcoat, and who, consequently, felt the morning air as rather nipping. To him Ellinor repeated her question.

“Him as is to be hung come Saturday se’nnight? Why, ma’am, I’ve nought to do with it. You may go to the governor’s house and try; but, if you’ll excuse me, you’ll have your walk for your pains. Them in the condemned cells is never seen by nobody without the sheriff’s order. You may go up to the governor’s house and welcome; but they’ll only tell you the same. Yon’s the governor’s house.”

Ellinor fully believed the man, and yet she went on to the house indicated, as if she still hoped that in her case there might be some exception to the rule, which she now remembered to have heard of before, in days when such a possible desire as to see a condemned prisoner was treated by her as a wish that some people might have, did have — people as far removed from her circle of circumstances as the inhabitants of the moon. Of course she met with the same reply, a little more abruptly given, as if every man was from his birth bound to know such an obvious regulation.

She went out past the porter, now fully clothed. He was sorry for her disappointment, but could not help saying, with a slight tone of exultation: “Well, you see I was right, ma’am!”

She walked as nearly round the castle as ever she could, looking up at the few high-barred windows she could see, and wondering in what part of the building Dixon was confined. Then she went into the adjoining churchyard, and sitting down upon a tombstone, she gazed idly at the view spread below her — a view which was considered as the lion of the place, to be shown to all strangers by the inhabitants of Hellingford. Ellinor did not see it, however; she only saw the blackness of that fatal night, the hurried work — the lanterns glancing to and fro. She only heard the hard breathing of those who are engaged upon unwonted labour; the few hoarse muttered words; the swaying of the branches to and fro. All at once the church clock above her struck eight, and then pealed out for distant labourers to cease their work for a time. Such was the old custom of the place. Ellinor rose up, and made her way back to Mr. Johnson’s house in High Street. The room felt close and confined in which she awaited her interview with Mr. Johnson, who had sent down an apology for having overslept himself, and at last made his appearance in a hurried half-awakened state, in consequence of his late hospitality of the night before.

“I am so sorry I gave you all so much trouble last night,” said Ellinor, apologetically. “I was overtired, and much shocked by the news I heard.”

“No trouble, no trouble, I am sure. Neither Mrs. Johnson nor I felt it in the least a trouble. Many ladies I know feel such things very trying, though there are others that can stand a judge’s putting on the black cap better than most men. I’m sure I saw some as composed as could be under Judge Corbet’s speech.”

“But about Dixon? He must not die, Mr. Johnson.”

“Well, I don’t know that he will,” said Mr. Johnson, in something of the tone of voice he would have used in soothing a child. “Judge Corbet said something about the possibility of a pardon. The jury did not recommend him to mercy: you see, his looks went so much against him, and all the evidence was so strong, and no defence, so to speak, for he would not furnish any information on which we could base defence. But the judge did give some hope, to my mind, though there are others that think differently.”

“I tell you, Mr. Johnson, he must not die, and he shall not. To whom must I go?”

“Whew! Have you got additional evidence?” with a sudden sharp glance of professional inquiry.

“Never mind,” Ellinor answered. “I beg your pardon . . . only tell me into whose hands the power of life and death has passed.”

“Into the Home Secretary’s — Sir Phillip Homes; but you cannot get access to him on such an errand. It is the judge who tried the case that must urge a reprieve — Judge Corbet.”

“Judge Corbet?”

“Yes; and he was rather inclined to take a merciful view of the whole case. I saw it in his charge. He’ll be the person for you to see. I suppose you don’t like to give me your confidence, or else I could arrange and draw up what will have to be said?”

“No. What I have to say must be spoken to the arbiter — to no one else. I am afraid I answered you impatiently just now. You must forgive me; if you knew all, I am sure you would.”

“Say no more, my dear lady. We will suppose you have some evidence not adduced at the trial. Well; you must go up and see the judge, since you don’t choose to impart it to any one, and lay it before him. He will doubtless compare it with his notes of the trial, and see how far it agrees with them. Of course you must be prepared with some kind of proof; for Judge Corbet will have to test your evidence.”

“It seems strange to think of him as the judge,” said Ellinor, almost to herself.

“Why, yes. He’s but a young judge. You knew him at Hamley, I suppose? I remember his reading there with Mr. Ness.”

“Yes, but do not let us talk more about that time. Tell me when can I see Dixon? I have been to the castle already, but they said I must have a sheriff’s order.”

“To be sure. I desired Mrs. Johnson to tell you so last night. Old Ormerod was dining here; he is clerk to the magistrates, and I told him of your wish. He said he would see Sir Henry Croper, and have the order here before ten. But all this time Mrs. Johnson is waiting breakfast for us. Let me take you into the dining-room.”

It was very hard work for Ellinor to do her duty as a guest, and to allow herself to be interested and talked to on local affairs by her host and hostess. But she felt as if she had spoken shortly and abruptly to Mr. Johnson in their previous conversation, and that she must try and make amends for it; so she attended to all the details about the restoration of the church, and the difficulty of getting a good music-master for the three little Miss Johnsons, with all her usual gentle good breeding and patience, though no one can tell how her heart and imagination were full of the coming interview with poor old Dixon.

By-and-by Mr. Johnson was called out of the room to see Mr. Ormerod, and receive the order of admission from him. Ellinor clasped her hands tight together as she listened with apparent composure to Mrs Johnson’s never-ending praise of the Hullah system. But when Mr. Johnson returned, she could not help interrupting her eulogy, and saying —

“Then I may go now?”

Yes, the order was there — she might go, and Mr. Johnson would accompany her, to see that she met with no difficulty or obstacle.

As they walked thither, he told her that some one — a turnkey, or some one — would have to be present at the interview; that such was always the rule in the case of condemned prisoners; but that if this third person was “obliging,” he would keep out of earshot. Mr. Johnson quietly took care to see that the turnkey who accompanied Ellinor was “obliging.”

The man took her across high-walled courts, along stone corridors, and through many locked doors, before they came to the condemned cells.

“I’ve had three at a time in here,” said he, unlocking the final door, “after Judge Morton had been here. We always called him the ‘Hanging Judge.’ But its five years since he died, and now there’s never more than one in at a time; though once it was a woman for poisoning her husband. Mary Jones was her name.”

The stone passage out of which the cells opened was light, and bare, and scrupulously clean. Over each door was a small barred window, and an outer window of the same description was placed high up in the cell, which the turnkey now opened.

Old Abraham Dixon was sitting on the side of his bed, doing nothing. His head was bent, his frame sunk, and he did not seem to care to turn round and see who it was that entered.

Ellinor tried to keep down her sobs while the man went up to him, and laying his hand on his shoulder, and lightly shaking him, he said:

“Here’s a friend come to see you, Dixon.” Then, turning to Ellinor, he added, “There’s some as takes it in this kind o’ stunned way, while others are as restless as a wild beast in a cage, after they’re sentenced.” And then he withdrew into the passage, leaving the door open, so that he could see all that passed if he chose to look, but ostentatiously keeping his eyes averted, and whistling to himself, so that he could not hear what they said to each other.

Dixon looked up at Ellinor, but then let his eyes fall on the ground again; the increasing trembling of his shrunken frame was the only sign he gave that he had recognised her.

She sat down by him, and took his large horny hand in hers. She wanted to overcome her inclination to sob hysterically before she spoke. She stroked the bony shrivelled fingers, on which her hot scalding tears kept dropping.

“Dunnot do that,” said he, at length, in a hollow voice. “Dunnot take on about it; it’s best as it is, missy.”

“No, Dixon, it’s not best. It shall not be. You know it shall not — cannot be.”

“I’m rather tired of living. It’s been a great strain and labour for me. I think I’d as lief be with God as with men. And you see, I were fond on him ever sin’ he were a little lad, and told me what hard times he had at school, he did, just as if I were his brother! I loved him next to Molly Greaves. Dear! and I shall see her again, I reckon, come next Saturday week! They’ll think well on me, up there, I’ll be bound; though I cannot say as I’ve done all as I should do here below.”

“But, Dixon,” said Ellinor, “you know who did this — this —”

“Guilty o’ murder,” said he. “That’s what they called it. Murder! And that it never were, choose who did it.”

“My poor, poor father did it. I am going up to London this afternoon; I am going to see the judge, and tell him all.”

“Don’t you demean yourself to that fellow, missy. It’s him as left you in the lurch as soon as sorrow and shame came nigh you.”

He looked up at her now, for the first time; but she went on as if she had not noticed those wistful, weary eyes.

“Yes! I shall go to him. I know who it is; and I am resolved. After all, he may be better than a stranger, for real help; and I shall never remember any — anything else, when I think of you, good faithful friend.”

“He looks but a wizened old fellow in his grey wig. I should hardly ha’ known him. I gave him a look, as much as to say, ‘I could tell tales o’ you, my lord judge, if I chose.’ I don’t know if he heeded me, though. I suppose it were for a sign of old acquaintance that he said he’d recommend me to mercy. But I’d sooner have death nor mercy, by long odds. Yon man out there says mercy means Botany Bay. It ‘ud be like killing me by inches, that would. It would. I’d liefer go straight to Heaven, than live on among the black folk.”

He began to shake again: this idea of transportation, from its very mysteriousness, was more terrifying to him than death. He kept on saying plaintively, “Missy, you’ll never let ’em send me to Botany Bay; I couldn’t stand that.”

“No, no!” said she. “You shall come out of this prison, and go home with me to East Chester; I promise you you shall. I promise you. I don’t yet quite know how, but trust in my promise. Don’t fret about Botany Bay. If you go there, I go too. I am so sure you will not go. And you know if you have done anything against the law in concealing that fatal night’s work, I did too, and if you are to be punished, I will be punished too. But I feel sure it will be right; I mean, as right as anything can be, with the recollection of that time present to us, as it must always be.” She almost spoke these last words to herself. They sat on, hand in hand for a few minutes more in silence.

“I thought you’d come to me. I knowed you were far away in foreign parts. But I used to pray to God. ‘Dear Lord God!’ I used to say, ‘let me see her again.’ I told the chaplain as I’d begin to pray for repentance, at after I’d done praying that I might see you once again: for it just seemed to take all my strength to say those words as I’ve named. And I thought as how God knew what was in my heart better than I could tell Him: how I was main and sorry for all as I’d ever done wrong; I allays were, at after it was done; but I thought as no one could know how bitter-keen I wanted to see you.”

Again they sank into silence. Ellinor felt as if she would fain be away and active in procuring his release; but she also perceived how precious her presence was to him; and she did not like to leave him a moment before the time allowed her. His voice had changed to a weak, piping old man’s quaver, and between the times of his talking he seemed to relapse into a dreamy state; but through it all he held her hand tight, as though afraid that she would leave him.

So the hour elapsed, with no more spoken words than those above. From time to time Ellinor’s tears dropped down upon her lap; she could not restrain them, though she scarce knew why she cried just then.

At length the turnkey said that the time allowed for the interview was ended. Ellinor spoke no word; but rose, and bent down and kissed the old man’s forehead, saying —

“I shall come back tomorrow. God keep and comfort you!”

So almost without an articulate word from him in reply (he rose up, and stood on his shaking legs, as she bade him farewell, putting his hand to his head with the old habitual mark of respect), she went her way, swiftly out of the prison, swiftly back with Mr. Johnson to his house, scarcely patient or strong enough in her hurry to explain to him fully all that she meant to do. She only asked him a few absolutely requisite questions; and informed him of her intention to go straight to London to see Judge Corbet.

Just before the railway carriage in which she was seated started on the journey, she bent forward, and put out her hand once more to Mr. Johnson. “To-morrow I will thank you for all,” she said. “I cannot now.”

It was about the same time that she had reached Hellingford on the previous night, that she arrived at the Great Western station on this evening — past eight o’clock. On the way she had remembered and arranged many things: one important question she had omitted to ask Mr. Johnson; but that was easily remedied. She had not enquired where she could find Judge Corbet; if she had, Mr. Johnson could probably have given her his professional address. As it was, she asked for a Post–Office Directory at the hotel, and looked out for his private dwelling — 128 Hyde Park Gardens.

She rang for a waiter.

“Can I send a messenger to Hyde Park Gardens?” she said, hurrying on to her business, tired and worn out as she was. “It is only to ask if Judge Corbet is at home this evening. If he is, I must go and see him.”

The waiter was a little surprised, and would gladly have had her name to authorise the enquiry but she could not bear to send it: it would be bad enough that first meeting, without the feeling that he, too, had had time to recall all the past days. Better to go in upon him unprepared, and plunge into the subject.

The waiter returned with the answer while she yet was pacing up and down the room restlessly, nerving herself for the interview.

“The messenger has been to Hyde Park Gardens, ma’am. The Judge and Lady Corbet are gone out to dinner.”

Lady Corbet! Of course Ellinor knew that he was married. Had she not been present at the wedding in East Chester Cathedral? But, somehow, these recent events had so carried her back to old times, that the intimate association of the names, “the Judge and Lady Corbet,” seemed to awaken her out of some dream.

“Oh, very well,” she said, just as if these thoughts were not passing rapidly through her mind. “Let me be called at seven tomorrow morning, and let me have a cab at the door to Hyde Park Gardens at eight.”

And so she went to bed; but scarcely to sleep. All night long she had the scenes of those old times, the happy, happy days of her youth, the one terrible night that cut all happiness short, present before her. She could almost have fancied that she heard the long-silent sounds of her father’s step, her father’s way of breathing, the rustle of his newspaper as he hastily turned it over, coming through the lapse of years; the silence of the night. She knew that she had the little writing-case of her girlhood with her, in her box. The treasures of the dead that it contained, the morsel of dainty sewing, the little sister’s golden curl, the half-finished letter to Mr. Corbet, were all there. She took them out, and looked at each separately; looked at them long — long and wistfully. “Will it be of any use to me?” she questioned of herself, as she was about to put her father’s letter back into its receptacle. She read the last words over again, once more:

“From my death-bed I adjure you to stand her friend; I will beg pardon on my knees for anything.”

“I will take it,” thought she. “I need not bring it out; most likely there will be no need for it, after what I shall have to say. All is so altered, so changed between us, as utterly as if it never had been, that I think I shall have no shame in showing it him, for my own part of it. While, if he sees poor papa’s, dear, dear papa’s suffering humility, it may make him think more gently of one who loved him once though they parted in wrath with each other, I’m afraid.”

So she took the letter with her when she drove to Hyde Park Gardens.

Every nerve in her body was in such a high state of tension that she could have screamed out at the cabman’s boisterous knock at the door. She got out hastily, before any one was ready or willing to answer such an untimely summons; paid the man double what he ought to have had; and stood there, sick, trembling, and humble.

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