Mary Barton, by Elizabeth Gaskell

XIII. A Traveller’s Tales.

“The mermaid sat upon the rocks

All day long,

Admiring her beauty and combing her locks,

And singing a mermaid song.

“And hear the mermaid’s song you may,

As sure as sure can be,

If you will but follow the sun all day,

And souse with him into the sea.”

— W. S. LANDOR.

It was perhaps four or five days after the events mentioned in the last chapter, that one evening, as Mary stood lost in reverie at the window, she saw Will Wilson enter the court, and come quickly up to her door. She was glad to see him, for he had always been a friend of hers, perhaps too much like her in character ever to become anything nearer or dearer. She opened the door in readiness to receive his frank greeting, which she as frankly returned.

“Come, Mary! on with bonnet and shawl, or whatever rigging you women require before leaving the house. I’m sent to fetch you, and I can’t lose time when I’m under orders.”

“Where am I to go to?” asked Mary, as her heart leaped up at the thought of who might be waiting for her.

“Not very far,” replied he. “Only to old Job Legh’s round the corner there. Aunt would have me come and see these new friends of hers, and then we meant to ha’ come on here to see you and your father, but the old gentleman seems inclined to make a night of it, and have you all there. Where is your father? I want to see him. He must come too.”

“He’s out, but I’ll leave word next door for him to follow me; that’s to say, if he comes home afore long.” She added hesitatingly, “Is any one else at Job’s?”

“No! My aunt Jane would not come, for some maggot or other; and as for Jem! I don’t know what you’ve all been doing to him, but he’s as down-hearted a chap as I’d wish to see. He’s had his sorrows sure enough, poor lad! But it’s time for him to be shaking off his dull looks, and not go moping like a girl.”

“Then he’s come fra’ Halifax, is he?” asked Mary.

“Yes! his body’s come, but I think he’s left his heart behind him. His tongue I’m sure he has, as we used to say to childer, when they would not speak. I try to rouse him up a bit, and I think he likes having me with him, but still he’s as gloomy and as dull as can be. ‘T was only yesterday he took me to the works, and you’d ha’ thought us two Quakers as the spirit hadn’t moved, all the way down we were so mum. It’s a place to craze a man, certainly; such a noisy black hole! There were one or two things worth looking at, the bellows for instance, or the gale they called a bellows. I could ha’ stood near it a whole day; and if I’d a berth in that place, I should like to be bellows-man, if there is such a one. But Jem weren’t diverted even with that; he stood as grave as a judge while it blew my hat out o’ my hand. He’s lost all relish for his food, too, which frets my aunt sadly. Come! Mary, aren’t you ready?”

She had not been able to gather if she were to see Jem at Job Legh’s; but when the door was opened, she at once saw and felt he was not there. The evening then would be a blank; at least so she thought for the first five minutes; but she soon forgot her disappointment in the cheerful meeting of old friends, all, except herself, with some cause for rejoicing at that very time. Margaret, who could not be idle, was knitting away, with her face looking full into the room, away from her work. Alice sat meek and patient with her dimmed eyes and gentle look, trying to see and to hear, but never complaining; indeed, in her inner self she was blessing God for her happiness; for the joy of having her nephew, her child, near her, was far more present to her mind, than her deprivations of sight and hearing.

Job was in the full glory of host and hostess too, for by a tacit agreement he had roused himself from his habitual abstraction, and had assumed many of Margaret’s little household duties. While he moved about he was deep in conversation with the young sailor, trying to extract from him any circumstances connected with the natural history of the different countries he had visited.

“Oh! if you are fond of grubs, and flies, and beetles, there’s no place for ’em like Sierra Leone. I wish you’d had some of ours; we had rather too much of a good thing; we drank them with our drink, and could scarcely keep from eating them with our food. I never thought any folk could care for such fat green beasts as those, or I would ha’ brought you them by the thousand. A plate full o’ peas soup would ha’ been full enough for you, I dare say; it were often too full for us.”

“I would ha’ given a good deal for some on ’em,” said Job.

“Well, I knew folk at home liked some o’ the queer things one meets with abroad; but I never thought they’d care for them nasty slimy things. I were always on the look-out for a mermaid, for that, I knew, were a curiosity.”

“You might ha’ looked long enough,” said Job, in an undertone of contempt, which, however, the quick ears of the sailor caught.

“Not so long, master, in some latitudes, as you think. It stands to reason th’ sea hereabouts is too cold for mermaids; for women here don’t go half naked on account o’ climate. But I’ve been in lands where muslin were too hot to wear on land, and where the sea were more than milk-warm; and though I’d never the good luck to see a mermaid in that latitude, I know them that has.”

“Do tell us about it,” cried Mary.

“Pooh, pooh!” said Job, the naturalist.

Both speeches determined Will to go on with his story. What could a fellow who had never been many miles from home know about the wonders of the deep, that he should put him down in that way?

“Well, it were Jack Harris, our third mate last voyage, as many and many a time telled us all about it. You see he were becalmed off Chatham Island (that’s in the Great Pacific, and a warm enough latitude for mermaids, and sharks, and such like perils). So some of the men took the long-boat, and pulled for the island to see what it were like; and when they got near, they heard a puffing, like a creature come up to take breath; you’ve never heard a diver? No! Well; you’ve heard folks in th’ asthma, and it were for all the world like that. So they looked around, and what should they see but a mermaid, sitting on a rock, and sunning herself. The water is always warmer when it’s rough, you know, so I suppose in the calm she felt it rather chilly, and had come up to warm herself.”

“What was she like?” asked Mary breathlessly.

Job took his pipe off the chimney-piece, and began to smoke with very audible puffs, as if the story were not worth listening to.

“Oh! Jack used to say she was for all the world as beautiful as any of the wax ladies in the barbers’ shops; only, Mary, there were one little difference; her hair was bright grass-green.”

“I should not think that was pretty,” said Mary hesitatingly; as if not liking to doubt the perfection of anything belonging to such an acknowledged beauty.

“Oh! but it is when you’re used to it. I always think when first we get sight of land, there’s no colour so lovely as grass-green. However, she had green hair sure enough: and were proud enough of it, too; for she were combing it out full length when first they saw her. They all thought she were a fair prize, and maybe as good as a whale in ready money (they were whale-fishers, you know). For some folk think a deal of mermaids, whatever other folk do.” This was a hit at Job, who retaliated in a series of sonorous spittings and puffs.

“So, as I were saying, they pulled towards her, thinking to catch her. She were all the while combing her beautiful hair, and beckoning to them, while with the other hand she held a looking-glass.”

“How many hands had she?” asked Job.

“Two, to be sure, just like any other woman,” answered Will indignantly.

“Oh! I thought you said she beckoned with one hand, and combed her hair with another, and held a looking-glass with her third,” said Job, with provoking quietness.

“No! I didn’t! at least, if I did, I meant she did one thing after another, as anyone but” (here he mumbled a word or two) “could understand. Well, Mary,” turning very decidedly towards her, “when she saw them coming near, whether it were she grew frightened at their fowling-pieces, as they had on board for a bit o’ shooting on the island, or whether it were she were just a fickle jade as did not rightly know her own mind (which, seeing one half of her was woman, I think myself was most probably), but when they were only about two oars’ length from the rock where she sat, down she plopped into the water, leaving nothing but her hinder end of a fish tail sticking up for a minute, and then that disappeared too.”

“And did they never see her again?” asked Mary.

“Never so plain; the man who had the second watch one night declared he saw her swimming round the ship, and holding up her glass for him to look in; and then he saw the little cottage near Aber in Wales (where his wife lived) as plain as ever he saw it in life, and his wife standing outside, shading her eyes as if she were looking for him. But Jack Harris gave him no credit, for he said he were always a bit of a romancer, and beside that, were a home-sick, down-hearted chap.”

“I wish they had caught her,” said Mary, musing.

“They got one thing as belonged to her,” replied Will, “and that I’ve often seen with my own eyes, and I reckon it’s a sure proof of the truth of their story, for them that wants proof.”

“What was it?” asked Margaret, almost anxious her grandfather should be convinced.

“Why, in her hurry she left her comb on the rock, and one o’ the men spied it; so they thought that were better than nothing, and they rowed there and took it, and Jack Harris had it on board the John Cropper, and I saw him comb his hair with it every Sunday morning.”

“What was it like?” asked Mary eagerly; her imagination running on coral combs, studded with pearls.

“Why, if it had not had such a strange yarn belonging to it, you’d never ha’ noticed it from any other small-tooth comb.”

“I should rather think not,” sneered Job Legh.

The sailor bit his lips to keep down his anger against an old man. Margaret felt very uneasy, knowing her grandfather so well, and not daring to guess what caustic remark might come next to irritate the young sailor guest.

Mary, however, was too much interested by the wonders of the deep to perceive the incredulity with which Job Legh received Wilson’s account of the mermaid, and when he left off, half offended, and very much inclined not to open his lips again through the evening, she eagerly said —

“Oh, do tell us something more of what you hear and see on board ship. Do, Will!”

“What’s the use, Mary, if folk won’t believe one. There are things I saw with my own eyes, that some people would pish and pshaw at, as if I were a baby to be put down by cross noises. But I’ll tell you, Mary,” with an emphasis on YOU, “some more of the wonders of the sea, sin’ you’re not too wise to believe me. I have seen a fish fly.”

This did stagger Mary. She had heard of mermaids as signs of inns and as sea-wonders, but never of flying fish. Not so Job. He put down his pipe, and nodding his head as a token of approbation, he said —

“Ay! ay! young man. Now you’re speaking truth.”

“Well, now, you’ll swallow that, old gentleman. You’ll credit me when I say I’ve seen a critter half fish, half bird, and you won’t credit me when I say there be such beasts as mermaids, half fish, half woman. To me, one’s just as strange as t’other.”

“You never saw the mermaid yoursel,” interposed Margaret gently. But “love me, love my dog,” was Will Wilson’s motto, only his version was, “Believe me, believe Jack Harris”; and the remark was not so soothing to him as it was intended to have been.

“It’s the Exocetus; one of the Malacopterygii Abdominales,” said Job, much interested.

“Ay, there you go! you’re one o’ them folks as never knows beasts unless they’re called out o’ their names. Put ’em in Sunday clothes, and you know ’em, but in their work-a-day English you never know nought about ’em. I’ve met wi’ many o’ your kidney; and if I’d ha’ known it, I’d ha’ christened poor Jack’s mermaid wi’ some grand gibberish of a name. Mermaidicus Jack Harrisensis; that’s just like their new-fangled words. D’ye believe there’s such a thing as the Mermaidicus, master?” asked Will, enjoying his own joke uncommonly, as most people do.

“Not I! tell me about the”—

“Well!” said Will, pleased at having excited the old gentleman’s faith and credit at last, “it were on this last voyage, about a day’s sail from Madeira, that one of our men”—

“Not Jack Harris, I hope,” murmured Job.

“Called me,” continued Will, not noticing the interruption, “to see the what d’ye call it — flying fish I say it is. It were twenty feet out o’ water, and it flew near on to a hundred yards. But I say, old gentleman, I ha’ gotten one dried, and if you’ll take it, why, I’ll give it you; only,” he added, in a lower tone, “I wish you’d just gie me credit for the Mermaidicus.”

I really believe, if the assuming faith in the story of the mermaid had been made the condition of receiving the flying fish, Job Legh, sincere man as he was, would have pretended belief; he was so much delighted at the idea of possessing this specimen. He won the sailor’s heart by getting up to shake both his hands in his vehement gratitude, puzzling poor old Alice, who yet smiled through her wonder; for she understood the action to indicate some kindly feeling towards her nephew.

Job wanted to prove his gratitude, and was puzzled how to do it. He feared the young man would not appreciate any of his duplicate Araneides; not even the great American Mygale, one of his most precious treasures; or else he would gladly have bestowed any duplicate on the donor of a real dried Exocetus. What could he do for him? He could ask Margaret to sing. Other folks beside her old doting grandfather thought a deal of her songs. So Margaret began some of her noble old-fashioned songs. She knew no modern music (for which her auditors might have been thankful), but she poured her rich voice out in some of the old canzonets she had lately learnt while accompanying the musical lecturer on his tour.

Mary was amused to see how the young sailor sat entranced; mouth, eyes, all open, in order to catch every breath of sound. His very lids refused to wink, as if afraid in that brief proverbial interval to lose a particle of the rich music that floated through the room. For the first time the idea crossed Mary’s mind that it was possible the plain little sensible Margaret, so prim and demure, might have power over the heart of the handsome, dashing spirited Will Wilson.

Job, too, was rapidly changing his opinion of his new guest. The flying fish went a great way, and his undisguised admiration for Margaret’s singing carried him still further.

It was amusing enough to see these two, within the hour so barely civil to each other, endeavouring now to be ultra-agreeable. Will, as soon as he had taken breath (a long, deep gasp of admiration) after Margaret’s song, sidled up to Job, and asked him in a sort of doubting tone —

“You wouldn’t like a live Manx cat, would ye, master?”

“A what?” exclaimed Job.

“I don’t know its best name,” said Will humbly. “But we call ’em just Manx cats. They’re cats without tails.”

Now Job, in all his natural history, had never heard of such animals; so Will continued —

“Because I’m going, afore joining my ship, to see mother’s friends in the island, and would gladly bring you one, if so be you’d like to have it. They look as queer and out o’ nature as flying fish, or”— he gulped the words down that should have followed. “Especially when you see ’em walking a roof-top, right again the sky, when a cat, as is a proper cat, is sure to stick her tail stiff out behind, like a slack-rope dancer a-balancing; but these cats having no tail, cannot stick it out, which captivates some people uncommonly. If yo’ll allow me, I’ll bring one for Miss there,” jerking his head at Margaret. Job assented with grateful curiosity, wishing much to see the tailless phenomenon.

“When are you going to sail?” asked Mary.

“I cannot justly say; our ship’s bound for America next voyage, they tell me. A messmate will let me know when her sailing-day is fixed; but I’ve got to go to th’ Isle o’ Man first. I promised uncle last time I were in England to go this next time. I may have to hoist the blue Peter any day; so, make much of me while you have me, Mary.”

Job asked him if he had been in America.

“Haven’t I! North and South both! This time we’re bound to North. Yankee–Land as we call it, where Uncle Sam lives.”

“Uncle who?” said Mary.

“Oh, it’s a way sailors have of speaking. I only mean I’m going to Boston, U.S., that’s Uncle Sam.”

Mary did not understand, so she left him and went to sit by Alice, who could not hear conversation unless expressly addressed to her. She had sat patiently silent the greater part of the night, and now greeted Mary with a quiet smile.

“Where’s yo’r father?” asked she.

“I guess he’s at his Union! he’s there most evenings.”

Alice shook her head; but whether it were that she did not hear, or that she did not quite approve of what she heard, Mary could not make out. She sat silently watching Alice, and regretting over her dimmed and veiled eyes, formerly so bright and speaking. As if Alice understood by some other sense what was passing in Mary’s mind, she turned suddenly round, and answered Mary’s thought.

“Yo’re mourning for me, my dear? and there’s no need, Mary. I’m as happy as a child. I sometimes think I am a child, whom the Lord is hushabying to my long sleep. For when I were a nurse-girl, my missis always telled me to speak very soft and low, and to darken the room that her little one might go to sleep; and now all noises are hushed and still to me, and the bonny earth seems dim and dark, and I know it’s my Father lulling me away to my long sleep. I’m very well content; and yo mustn’t fret for me. I’ve had well-nigh every blessing in life I could desire.”

Mary thought of Alice’s long-cherished, fond wish to revisit the home of her childhood, so often and often deferred, and now probably never to take place. Or if it did, how changed from the fond anticipation of what it was to have been! It would be a mockery to the blind and deaf Alice.

The evening came quickly to an end. There was the humble cheerful meal, and then the bustling, merry farewell, and Mary was once more in the quietness and solitude of her own dingy, dreary-looking home; her father still out, the fire extinguished, and her evening’s task of work lying all undone upon the dresser. But it had been a pleasant little interlude to think upon. It had distracted her attention for a few hours from the pressure of many uneasy thoughts, of the dark, heavy, oppressive times, when sorrow and want seemed to surround her on every side; of her father, his changed and altered looks, telling so plainly of broken health, and an embittered heart; of the morrow, and the morrow beyond that, to be spent in that close monotonous workroom, with Sally Leadbitter’s odious whispers hissing in her ear; and of the hunted look, so full of dread, from Miss Simmonds’ door-step up and down the street, lest her persecuting lover should be near; for he lay in wait for her with wonderful perseverance, and of late had made himself almost hateful, by the unmanly force which he had used to detain her to listen to him, and the indifference with which he exposed her to the remarks of the passers-by, any one of whom might circulate reports which it would be terrible for her father to hear — and worse than death should they reach Jem Wilson. And all this she had drawn upon herself by her giddy flirting. Oh! how she loathed the recollection of the hot summer evening, when, worn out by stitching and sewing, she had loitered homewards with weary languor, and first listened to the voice of the tempter.

And Jem Wilson! O Jem, Jem, why did you not come to receive some of the modest looks and words of love which Mary longed to give you, to try and make up for the hasty rejection which you as hastily took to be final, though both mourned over it with many tears. But day after day passed away, and patience seemed of no avail; and Mary’s cry was ever the old moan of the Moated Grange —

“‘Why comes he not?’ she said,

  ‘I am aweary, aweary.

  I would that I were dead.’”

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