Mary Barton, by Elizabeth Gaskell

XII. Old Alice’s Bairn,

“I lov’d him not; and yet now he is gone,

I feel I am alone.

I check’d him while he spoke; yet could he speak,

Alas! I would not check.

For reasons not to love him once I sought,

And wearied all my thought.”— W. S. LANDOR.

And now Mary had, as she thought, dismissed both her lovers. But they looked on their dismissals with very different eyes. He who loved her with all his heart and with all his soul, considered his rejection final. He did not comfort himself with the idea, which would have proved so well founded in his case, that women have second thoughts about casting off their lovers. He had too much respect for his own heartiness of love to believe himself unworthy of Mary; that mock humble conceit did not enter his head. He thought he did not “hit Mary’s fancy”; and though that may sound a trivial every-day expression, yet the reality of it cut him to the heart. Wild visions of enlistment, of drinking himself into forgetfulness, of becoming desperate in some way or another, entered his mind; but then the thought of his mother stood like an angel with a drawn sword in the way to sin. For, you know, “he was the only son of his mother, and she was a widow”; dependent on him for daily bread. So he could not squander away health and time, which were to him money wherewith to support her failing years. He went to his work, accordingly, to all outward semblance just as usual; but with a heavy, heavy heart within.

Mr. Carson, as we have seen, persevered in considering Mary’s rejection of him as merely a “charming caprice.” If she were at work, Sally Leadbitter was sure to slip a passionately loving note into her hand, and then so skilfully move away from her side, that Mary could not all at once return it, without making some sensation among the workwomen. She was even forced to take several home with her. But after reading one, she determined on her plan. She made no great resistance to receiving them from Sally, but kept them unopened, and occasionally returned them in a blank half-sheet of paper. But far worse than this, was the being so constantly waylaid as she went home by her persevering lover; who had been so long acquainted with all her habits, that she found it difficult to evade him. Late or early, she was never certain of being free from him. Go this way or that, he might come up some cross street when she had just congratulated herself on evading him for that day. He could not have taken a surer mode of making himself odious to her.

And all this time Jem Wilson never came! Not to see her — that she did not expect — but to see her father; to — she did not know what, but she had hoped he would have come on some excuse, just to see if she hadn’t changed her mind. He never came. Then she grew weary and impatient, and her spirits sank. The persecution of the one lover, and the neglect of the other, oppressed her sorely. She could not now sit quietly through the evening at her work; or, if she kept, by a strong effort, from pacing up and down the room, she felt as if she must sing to keep off thought while she sewed. And her songs were the maddest, merriest, she could think of. “Barbara Allen,” and such sorrowful ditties, did well enough for happy times; but now she required all the aid that could be derived from external excitement to keep down the impulse of grief.

And her father, too — he was a great anxiety to her, he looked so changed and so ill. Yet he would not acknowledge to any ailment. She knew, that be it as late as it would, she never left off work until (if the poor servants paid her pretty regularly for the odd jobs of mending she did for them) she had earned a few pence, enough for one good meal for her father on the next day. But very frequently all she could do in the morning, after her late sitting up at night, was to run with the work home, and receive the money from the person for whom it was done. She could not stay often to make purchases of food, but gave up the money at once to her father’s eager clutch; sometimes prompted by a savage hunger it is true, but more frequently by a craving for opium.

On the whole he was not so hungry as his daughter. For it was a long fast from the one o’clock dinner hour at Miss Simmonds’ to the close of Mary’s vigil, which was often extended to midnight. She was young, and had not yet learned to bear “clemming.”

One evening, as she sang a merry song over her work, stopping occasionally to sigh, the blind Margaret came groping in. It had been one of Mary’s additional sorrows that her friend had been absent from home, accompanying the lecturer on music in his round among the manufacturing towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire. Her grandfather, too, had seen this a good time for going his expeditions in search of specimens; so that the house had been shut up for several weeks.

“O Margaret, Margaret! how glad I am to see you. Take care. There now, you’re all right, that’s father’s chair. Sit down.”— She kissed her over and over again.

“It seems like the beginning o’ brighter times, to see you again, Margaret. Bless you! And how well you look!”

“Doctors always send ailing folk for change of air: and you know I’ve had plenty o’ that same lately.”

“You’ve been quite a traveller for sure! Tell us all about it, do, Margaret. Where have you been to, first place?”

“Eh, lass, that would take a long time to tell. Half o’er the world, I sometimes think. Bolton and Bury, and Owdham, and Halifax, and — but Mary, guess who I saw there? Maybe you know, though, so it’s not fair guessing.”

“No, I dunnot. Tell me, Margaret, for I cannot abide waiting and guessing.”

“Well, one night as I were going fra’ my lodgings wi’ the help on a lad as belonged to th’ landlady, to find the room where I were to sing, I heard a cough before me, walking along. Thinks I, that’s Jem Wilson’s cough, or I’m much mistaken. Next time came a sneeze and cough, and then I were certain. First I hesitated whether I should speak, thinking if it were a stranger he’d maybe think me forrard.41 But I knew blind folks must not be nesh about using their tongues, so says I, ‘Jem Wilson, is that you?’ And sure enough it was, and nobody else. Did you know he were in Halifax, Mary?”

41 Forrard; forward.

“No,” she answered, faintly and sadly; for Halifax was all the same to her heart as the Antipodes; equally inaccessible by humble penitent looks and maidenly tokens of love.

“Well, he’s there, however: he’s putting up an engine for some folks there, for his master. He’s doing well, for he’s getten four or five men under him; we’d two or three meetings, and he telled me all about his invention for doing away wi’ the crank, or somewhat. His master’s bought it from him, and ta’en out a patent, and Jem’s a gentleman for life wi’ the money his master gied him. But you’ll ha’ heard all this, Mary?”

No! she had not.

“Well, I thought it all happened afore he left Manchester, and then in course you’d ha’ known. But maybe it were all settled after he got to Halifax; however, he’s gotten two or three hunder pounds for his invention. But what’s up with you, Mary? you’re sadly out of sorts. You’ve never been quarrelling wi’ Jem, surely?”

Now Mary cried outright; she was weak in body, and unhappy in mind, and the time was come when she might have the relief of telling her grief. She could not bring herself to confess how much of her sorrow was caused by her having been vain and foolish; she hoped that need never be known, and she could not bear to think of it.

“O Margaret! do you know Jem came here one night when I were put out, and cross. Oh, dear! dear! I could bite my tongue out when I think on it. And he told me how he loved me, and I thought I did not love him, and I told him I didn’t; and, Margaret — he believed me, and went away so sad, and so angry; and now, I’d do anything — I would indeed”; her sobs choked the end of her sentence. Margaret looked at her with sorrow, but with hope; for she had no doubt in her own mind, that it was only a temporary estrangement,

“Tell me, Margaret,” said Mary, taking her apron down from her eyes, and looking at Margaret with eager anxiety, “what can I do to bring him back to me? Should I write to him?”

“No,” replied her friend, “that would not do. Men are so queer, they like to have a’ the courting to themselves.”

“But I did not mean to write him a courting letter,” said Mary, somewhat indignantly.

“If you wrote at all, it would be to give him a hint you’d taken the rue, and would be very glad to have him now. I believe now he’d rather find that out himself.”

“But he won’t try,” said Mary, sighing. “How can he find it out when he’s at Halifax?”

“If he’s a will he’s a way, depend upon it. And you would not have him if he’s not a will to you, Mary! No, dear!” changing her tone from the somewhat hard way in which sensible people too often speak, to the soft accents of tenderness which come with such peculiar grace from them, “you must just wait and be patient. You may depend upon it, all will end well, and better than if you meddled in it now.”

“But it’s so hard to be patient,” pleaded Mary.

“Ay, dear; being patient is the hardest work we, any of us, have to do through life, I take it. Waiting is far more difficult than doing. I’ve known that about my sight, and many a one has known it in watching the sick; but it’s one of God’s lessons we all must learn, one way or another.” After a pause —“Have ye been to see his mother of late?”

“No; not for some weeks. When last I went she was so frabbit42 with me, that I really thought she wished I’d keep away.”

42 Frabbit; ill-tempered.

“Well! if I were you I’d go. Jem will hear on’t, and it will do you far more good in his mind than writing a letter, which, after all, you would find a tough piece of work when you came to settle to it. ‘T would be hard to say neither too much nor too little. But I must be going, grandfather is at home, and it’s our first night together, and he must not be sitting wanting me any longer.”

She rose up from her seat, but still delayed going.

“Mary! I’ve somewhat else I want to say to you, and I don’t rightly know how to begin. You see, grandfather and I know what bad times is, and we know your father is out of work, and I’m getting more money than I can well manage; and, dear, would you just take this bit o’ gold, and pay me back in good times?” The tears stood in Margaret’s eyes as she spoke.

“Dear Margaret, we’re not so bad pressed as that.” (The thought of her father and his ill looks, and his one meal a day, rushed upon Mary.) “And yet, dear, if it would not put you out o’ your way — I would work hard to make it up to you; — but would not your grandfather be vexed?”

“Not he, wench! It were more his thought than mine, and we have gotten ever so many more at home, so don’t hurry yourself about paying. It’s hard to be blind, to be sure, else money comes in so easily now to what it used to do; and it’s downright pleasure to earn it, for I do so like singing.”

“I wish I could sing,” said Mary, looking at the sovereign.

“Some has one kind of gifts, and some another. Many’s the time when I could see, that I longed for your beauty, Mary! We’re like childer, ever wanting what we han not got. But now I must say just one more word. Remember, if you’re sore pressed for money, we shall take it very unkind if you donnot let us know. Good-bye to ye.”

In spite of her blindness she hurried away, anxious to rejoin her grandfather, and desirous also to escape from Mary’s expressions of gratitude.

Her visit had done Mary good in many ways. It had strengthened her patience and her hope; it had given her confidence in Margaret’s sympathy; and last, and really least in comforting power (of so little value are silver and gold in comparison to love, that gift in every one’s power to bestow), came the consciousness of the money-value of the sovereign she held in her hand. The many things it might purchase! First of all came the thought of the comfortable supper for her father that very night; and acting instantly upon the idea, she set off in hopes that all the provision shops might not yet be closed, although it was so late.

That night the cottage shone with unusual light and fire gleam; and the father and daughter sat down to a meal they thought almost extravagant. It was so long since they had had enough to eat.

“Food gives heart,” say the Lancashire people; and the next day Mary made time to go and call on Mrs. Wilson, according to Margaret’s advice. She found her quite alone, and more gracious than she had been the last time Mary had visited her. Alice was gone out, she said.

“She would just step up to the post-office, all for no earthly use. For it were to ask if they hadn’t a letter lying there for her from her foster-son, Will Wilson, the sailor-lad.”

“What made her think there were a letter?” asked Mary.

“Why, yo see, a neighbour as has been in Liverpool, telled us Will’s ship were come in. Now he said last time he were in Liverpool, he’d ha’ come to ha’ seen Alice, but his ship had but a week holiday, and hard work for the men in that time, too. So Alice makes sure he’ll come this, and has had her hand behind her ear at every noise in th’ street, thinking it were him. And today she were neither to have nor to hold, but off she would go to th’ post, and see if he had na sent her a line to th’ old house near yo. I tried to get her to give up going, for let alone her deafness she’s getten so dark, she cannot see five yards afore her; but no, she would go, poor old body.”

“I did not know her sight failed her; she used to have good eyes enough when she lived near us.”

“Ay, but it’s gone lately a good deal. But you never ask after Jem “— anxious to get in a word on the subject nearest her heart.

“No,” replied Mary, blushing scarlet. “How is he?”

“I cannot justly say how he is, seeing he’s at Halifax; but he were very well when he wrote last Tuesday. Han ye heard o’ his good luck?”

Rather to her disappointment, Mary owned she had heard of the sum his master had paid him for his invention.

“Well! and did not Margaret tell you what he’d done wi’ it? It’s just like him, though, ne’er to say a word about it. Why, when he were paid, what does he do but get his master to help him to buy an income for me and Alice. He had her name put down for her life; but, poor thing, she’ll not be long to the fore, I’m thinking. She’s sadly failed of late. And so, Mary, yo see, we’re two ladies o’ property. It’s a matter o’ twenty pound a year, they tell me. I wish the twins had lived, bless ’em,” said she, dropping a few tears. “They should ha’ had the best o’ schooling, and their bellyfuls o’ food. I suppose they’re better off in heaven, only I should so like to see ’em.”

Mary’s heart filled with love at this new proof of Jem’s goodness; but she could not talk about it. She took Jane Wilson’s hand, and pressed it with affection; and then turned the subject to Will, her sailor nephew. Jane was a little bit sorry, but her prosperity had made her gentler, and she did not resent what she felt at Mary’s indifference to Jem and his merits.

“He’s been in Africa, and that neighbourhood, I believe. He’s a fine chap, but he’s not getten Jem’s hair. His has too much o’ the red in it. He sent Alice (but, maybe, she telled you) a matter o’ five pound when he were over before: but that were nought to an income, yo know.”

“It’s not every one that can get a hundred or two at a time,” said Mary.

“No! no! that’s true enough. There’s not many a one like Jem. That’s Alice’s step,” said she, hastening to open the door to her sister-inlaw. Alice looked weary, and sad, and dusty. The weariness and the dust would not have been noticed either by her, or the others, if it had not been for the sadness.

“No letters?” said Mrs. Wilson.

“No, none! I must just wait another day to hear fra’ my lad. It’s very dree work, waiting,” said Alice.

Margaret’s words came into Mary’s mind. Every one has their time and kind of waiting.

“If I but knew he were safe, and not drowned!” spoke Alice. “If I but knew he WERE drowned, I would ask grace to say, Thy will be done. It’s the waiting.”

“It’s hard work to be patient to all of us,” said Mary; “I know I find it so, but I did not know one so good as you did, Alice; I shall not think so badly of myself for being a bit impatient, now I’ve heard you say you find it difficult.”

The idea of reproach to Alice was the last in Mary’s mind; and Alice knew it was. Nevertheless, she said —

“Then, my dear, I beg your pardon, and God’s pardon, too, if I’ve weakened your faith, by showing you how feeble mine was. Half our life’s spent in waiting, and it ill becomes one like me, wi’ so many mercies, to grumble. I’ll try and put a bridle o’er my tongue, and my thoughts too.” She spoke in a humble and gentle voice, like one asking forgiveness.

“Come, Alice,” interposed Mrs. Wilson, “don’t fret yoursel for e’er a trifle wrong said here or there. See! I’ve put th’ kettle on, and you and Mary shall ha’ a dish o’ tea in no time.”

So she bustled about, and brought out a comfortable-looking substantial loaf, and set Mary to cut bread and butter, while she rattled out the tea-cups — always a cheerful sound.

Just as they were sitting down, there was a knock heard at the door, and without waiting for it to be opened from the inside, some one lifted the latch, and in a man’s voice asked, if one George Wilson lived there?

Mrs. Wilson was entering on a long and sorrowful explanation of his having once lived there, but of his having dropped down dead; when Alice, with the instinct of love (for in all usual and common instances sight and hearing failed to convey impressions to her until long after other people had received them), arose, and tottered to the door.

“My bairn! — my own dear bairn!” she exclaimed, falling on Will Wilson’s neck.

You may fancy the hospitable and welcoming commotion that ensued; how Mrs. Wilson laughed, and talked, and cried, all together, if such a thing can be done; and how Mary gazed with wondering pleasure at her old playmate; now a dashing, bronzed-looking, ringleted sailor, frank, and hearty, and affectionate.

But it was something different from common to see Alice’s joy at once more having her foster-child with her. She did not speak, for she really could not; but the tears came coursing down her old withered cheeks, and dimmed the horn spectacles she had put on, in order to pry lovingly into his face. So what with her failing sight, and her tear-blinded eyes, she gave up the attempt of learning his face by heart through the medium of that sense, and tried another. She passed her sodden, shrivelled hands, all trembling with eagerness, over his manly face, bent meekly down in order that she might more easily make her strange inspection. At last, her soul was satisfied.

After tea, Mary feeling sure there was much to be said on both sides, at which it would be better none should be present, not even an intimate friend like herself, got up to go away. This seemed to arouse Alice from her dreamy consciousness of exceeding happiness, and she hastily followed Mary to the door. There, standing outside, with the latch in her hand, she took hold of Mary’s arm, and spoke nearly the first words she had uttered since her nephew’s return.

“My dear! I shall never forgive mysel, if my wicked words to-night are any stumbling-block in your path. See how the Lord has put coals of fire on my head! O Mary, don’t let my being an unbelieving Thomas weaken your faith. Wait patiently on the Lord, whatever your trouble may be.”

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 22:17