Mary Barton, by Elizabeth Gaskell

XIX. Jem Wilson Arrested on Suspicion,

“Deeds to be hid which were not hid,

Which, all confused, I could not know,

Whether I suffered or I did,

For all seemed guilt, remorse, or woe.”

— COLERIDGE.

I left Mary, on that same Thursday night which left its burden of woe at Mr. Carson’s threshold, haunted with depressing thoughts. All through the night she tossed restlessly about, trying to get quit of the ideas that harassed her, and longing for the light when she could rise, and find some employment. But just as dawn began to appear, she became more quiet, and fell into a sound heavy sleep, which lasted till she was sure it was late in the morning, by the full light that shone in.

She dressed hastily, and heard the neighbouring church clock strike eight. It was far too late to do as she had planned (after inquiring how Alice was, to return and tell Margaret), and she accordingly went in to inform the latter of her change of purpose, and the cause of it; but on entering the house she found Job sitting alone, looking sad enough. She told him what she came for.

“Margaret, wench! why, she’s been gone to Wilson’s these two hours. Ay! sure, you did say last night you would go; but she could na rest in her bed, so was off betimes this morning.”

Mary could do nothing but feel guilty of her long morning nap, and hasten to follow Margaret’s steps; for late as it was, she felt she could not settle well to her work, unless she learnt how kind good Alice Wilson was going on.

So, eating her crust-of-bread breakfast, she passed rapidly along the street. She remembered afterwards the little groups of people she had seen, eagerly hearing, and imparting news; but at the time her only care was to hasten on her way, in dread of a reprimand from Miss Simmonds.

She went into the house at Jane Wilson’s, her heart at the instant giving a strange knock, and sending the rosy flush into her face, at the thought that Jem might possibly be inside the door. But I do assure you, she had not thought of it before. Impatient and loving as she was, her solicitude about Alice on that hurried morning had not been mingled with any thought of him.

Her heart need not have leaped, her colour need not have rushed so painfully to her cheeks, for he was not there. There was the round table, with a cup and saucer, which had evidently been used, and there was Jane Wilson sitting on the other side, crying quietly, while she ate her breakfast with a sort of unconscious appetite. And there was Mrs. Davenport washing away at a night-cap or so, which, by their simple, old-world make, Mary knew at a glance were Alice’s. But nothing — no one else.

Alice was much the same, or rather better of the two, they told her: at any rate she could speak, though it was sad rambling talk. Would Mary like to see her?

Of course she would. Many are interested by seeing their friends under the new aspect of illness; and among the poor there is no wholesome fear of injury or excitement to restrain this wish.

So Mary went upstairs, accompanied by Mrs. Davenport, wringing the suds off her hands, and speaking in a loud whisper far more audible than her usual voice.

“I mun be hastening home, but I’ll come again to-night, time enough to iron her cap; ‘twould be a sin and a shame if we let her go dirty now she’s ill, when she’s been so rare and clean all her life long. But she’s sadly forsaken, poor thing! She’ll not know you, Mary; she knows none of us.”

The room upstairs held two beds, one superior in the grandeur of four posts and checked curtains to the other, which had been occupied by the twins in their brief lifetime. The smaller had been Alice’s bed since she had lived there; but with the natural reverence to one “stricken of God and afflicted,” she had been installed, since her paralytic stroke the evening before, in the larger and grander bed; while Jane Wilson had taken her short broken rest on the little pallet.

Margaret came forwards to meet her friend, whom she half expected, and whose step she knew. Mrs. Davenport returned to her washing.

The two girls did not speak; the presence of Alice awed them into silence. There she lay with the rosy colour, absent from her face since the days of childhood, flushed once more into it by her sickness nigh unto death. She lay on the affected side, and with her other arm she was constantly sawing the air, not exactly in a restless manner, but in a monotonous, incessant way, very trying to a watcher. She was talking away, too, almost as constantly, in a low indistinct tone. But her face, her profiled countenance, looked calm and smiling, even interested by the ideas that were passing through her clouded mind.

“Listen!” said Margaret, as she stooped her head down to catch the muttered words more distinctly.

“What will mother say? The bees are turning homeward for th’ last time, and we’ve a terrible long bit to go yet. See! here’s a linnet’s nest in this gorse-bush. Th’ hen bird is on it. Look at her bright eyes, she won’t stir. Ay! we mun hurry home. Won’t mother be pleased with the bonny lot of heather we’ve got! Make haste, Sally, maybe we shall have cockles for supper. I saw th’ cockleman’s donkey turn up our way fra’ Arnside.”

Margaret touched Mary’s hand, and the pressure in return told her that they understood each other; that they knew how in this illness to the old, world-weary woman, God had sent her a veiled blessing: she was once more in the scenes of her childhood, unchanged and bright as in those long departed days; once more with the sister of her youth, the playmate of fifty years ago, who had for nearly as many years slept in a grassy grave in the little churchyard beyond Burton.

Alice’s face changed; she looked sorrowful, almost penitent.

“O Sally! I wish we’d told her. She thinks we were in church all morning, and we’ve gone on deceiving her. If we’d told her at first how it was — how sweet th’ hawthorn smelt through the open church door, and how we were on th’ last bench in the aisle, and how it were the first butterfly we’d seen this spring, and how it flew into th’ very church itself; oh! mother is so gentle, I wish we’d told her. I’ll go to her next time she comes in sight, and say, ‘Mother, we were naughty last Sabbath.’”

She stopped, and a few tears came stealing down the old withered cheek, at the thought of the temptation and deceit of her childhood. Surely many sins could not have darkened that innocent child-like spirit since. Mary found a red-spotted pocket-handkerchief, and put it into the hand which sought about for something to wipe away the trickling tears. She took it with a gentle murmur.

“Thank you, mother.”

Mary pulled Margaret away from the bed.

“Don’t you think she’s happy, Margaret?”

“Ay! that I do, bless her. She feels no pain, and knows nought of her present state. Oh! that I could see, Mary! I try and be patient with her afore me, but I’d give aught I have to see her, and see what she wants. I am so useless! I mean to stay here as long as Jane Wilson is alone; and I would fain be here all to-night, but”—

“I’ll come,” said Mary decidedly.

“Mrs. Davenport said she’d come again, but she’s hardworked all day”—

“I’ll come,” repeated Mary.

“Do!” said Margaret, “and I’ll be here till you come. Maybe, Jem and you could take th’ night between you, and Jane Wilson might get a bit of sound sleep in his bed; for she were up and down the better part of last night, and just when she were in a sound sleep this morning, between two and three, Jem came home, and th’ sound o’ his voice roused her in a minute.”

“Where had he been till that time o’ night?” asked Mary.

“Nay! it were none of my business; and, indeed, I never saw him till he came in here to see Alice. He were in again this morning, and seemed sadly downcast. But you’ll, maybe, manage to comfort him to-night, Mary,” said Margaret, smiling, while a ray of hope glimmered in Mary’s heart, and she almost felt glad, for an instant, of the occasion which would at last bring them together. Oh! happy night! when would it come? Many hours had yet to pass.

Then she saw Alice, and repented, with a bitter self-reproach. But she could not help having gladness in the depths of her heart, blame herself as she would. So she tried not to think, as she hurried along to Miss Simmonds’, with a dancing step of lightness.

She was late — that she knew she should be. Miss Simmonds was vexed and cross. That also she had anticipated, and had intended to smooth her raven down by extraordinary diligence and attention. But there was something about the girls she did not understand — had not anticipated. They stopped talking when she came in; or rather, I should say, stopped listening, for Sally Leadbitter was the talker to whom they were hearkening with deepest attention. At first they eyed Mary, as if she had acquired some new interest to them since the day before. Then they began to whisper; and, absorbed as Mary had been in her own thoughts, she could not help becoming aware that it was of her they spoke.

At last Sally Leadbitter asked Mary if she had heard the news?

“No! What news?” answered she.

The girls looked at each other with gloomy mystery. Sally went on.

“Have you not heard that young Mr. Carson was murdered last night?”

Mary’s lips could not utter a negative, but no one who looked at her pale and terror-stricken face could have doubted that she had not heard before of the fearful occurrence.

Oh, it is terrible, that sudden information, that one you have known has met with a bloody death! You seem to shrink from the world where such deeds can be committed, and to grow sick with the idea of the violent and wicked men of earth. Much as Mary had learned to dread him lately, now he was dead (and dead in such a manner) her feeling was that of oppressive sorrow for him.

The room went round and round, and she felt as though she should faint; but Miss Simmonds came in, bringing a waft of fresher air as she opened the door, to refresh the body, and the certainty of a scolding for inattention to brace the sinking mind. She, too, was full of the morning’s news.

“Have you heard any more of this horrid affair, Miss Barton?” asked she, as she settled to her work.

Mary tried to speak; at first she could not, and when she succeeded in uttering a sentence, it seemed as though it were not her own voice that spoke.

“No, ma’am, I never heard of it till this minute.”

“Dear! that’s strange, for every one is up about it. I hope the murderer will be found out, that I do. Such a handsome young man to be killed as he was. I hope the wretch that did it may be hanged as high as Haman.”

One of the girls reminded them that the assizes came on next week.

“Ay,” replied Miss Simmonds, “and the milkman told me they will catch the wretch, and have him tried and hung in less than a week. Serve him right, whoever he is. Such a handsome young man as he was.”

Then each began to communicate to Miss Simmonds the various reports they had heard.

Suddenly she burst out —

“Miss Barton! as I live, dropping tears on that new silk gown of Mrs. Hawkes’! Don’t you know they will stain, and make it shabby for ever? Crying like a baby, because a handsome young man meets with an untimely end. For shame of yourself, miss! Mind your character and your work, if you please. Or if you must cry” (seeing her scolding rather increased the flow of Mary’s tears, than otherwise), “take this print to cry over. That won’t be marked like this beautiful silk,” rubbing it, as if she loved it, with a clean pocket-handkerchief, in order to soften the edges of the hard round drops.

Mary took the print, and, naturally enough, having had leave given her to cry over it, rather checked the inclination to weep.

Everybody was full of the one subject. The girl sent out to match silk, came back with the account gathered at the shop, of the coroner’s inquest then sitting; the ladies who called to speak about gowns first began about the murder, and mingled details of that, with directions for their dresses. Mary felt as though the haunting horror were a nightmare, a fearful dream, from which awakening would relieve her. The picture of the murdered body, far more ghastly than the reality, seemed to swim in the air before her eyes. Sally Leadbitter looked and spoke of her, almost accusingly, and made no secret now of Mary’s conduct, more blamable to her fellow-workwomen for its latter changeableness, than for its former giddy flirting.

“Poor young gentleman,” said one, as Sally recounted Mary’s last interview with Mr. Carson.

“What a shame!” exclaimed another, looking indignantly at Mary.

“That’s what I call regular jilting,” said a third. “And he lying cold and bloody in his coffin now!”

Mary was more thankful than she could express, when Miss Simmonds returned, to put a stop to Sally’s communications, and to check the remarks of the girls.

She longed for the peace of Alice’s sick-room. No more thinking with infinite delight of her anticipated meeting with Jem; she felt too much shocked for that now; but longing for peace and kindness, for the images of rest and beauty, and sinless times long ago, which the poor old woman’s rambling presented, she wished to be as near death as Alice; and to have struggled through this world, whose sufferings she had early learnt, and whose crimes now seemed pressing close upon her. Old texts from the Bible, that her mother used to read (or rather spell out) aloud in the days of childhood, came up to her memory. “Where the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest.” “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes,” etc. And it was to that world Alice was hastening! Oh! that she were Alice!

I must return to the Wilsons’ house, which was far from being the abode of peace that Mary was picturing it to herself. You remember the reward Mr. Carson offered for the apprehension of the murderer of his son? It was in itself a temptation, and to aid its efficacy came the natural sympathy for the aged parents mourning for their child, for the young man cut off in the flower of his days; and besides this, there is always a pleasure in unravelling a mystery, in catching at the gossamer clue which will guide to certainty. This feeling, I am sure, gives much impetus to the police. Their senses are ever and always on the qui-vive, and they enjoy the collecting and collating evidence, and the life of adventure they experience: a continual unwinding of Jack Sheppard romances, always interesting to the vulgar and uneducated mind, to which the outward signs and tokens of crime are ever exciting.

There was no lack of clue or evidence at the coroner’s inquest that morning. The shot, the finding of the body, the subsequent discovery of the gun, were rapidly deposed to; and then the policeman who had interrupted the quarrel between Jem Wilson and the murdered young man was brought forward, and gave his evidence, clear, simple, and straightforward. The coroner had no hesitation, the jury had none, but the verdict was cautiously worded. “Wilful murder against some person unknown.”

This very cautiousness, when he deemed the thing so sure as to require no caution, irritated Mr. Carson. It did not soothe him that the superintendent called the verdict a mere form — exhibited a warrant empowering him to seize the body of Jem Wilson committed on suspicion — declared his intention of employing a well-known officer in the Detective Service to ascertain the ownership of the gun, and to collect other evidence, especially as regarded the young woman, about whom the policeman deposed that the quarrel had taken place; Mr. Carson was still excited and irritable; restless in body and mind. He made every preparation for the accusation of Jem the following morning before the magistrates: he engaged attorneys skilled in criminal practice to watch the case and prepare briefs; he wrote to celebrated barristers coming the Northern Circuit, to bespeak their services. A speedy conviction, a speedy execution, seemed to be the only things that would satisfy his craving thirst for blood. He would have fain been policeman, magistrate, accusing speaker, all; but most of all, the judge, rising with full sentence of death on his lips.

That afternoon, as Jane Wilson had begun to feel the effect of a night’s disturbed rest, evinced in frequent droppings off to sleep, while she sat by her sister-inlaw’s bedside, lulled by the incessant crooning of the invalid’s feeble voice, she was startled by a man speaking in the house-place below, who, wearied of knocking at the door, without obtaining any answer, had entered and was calling lustily for —

“Missis! missis!”

When Mrs. Wilson caught a glimpse of the intruder through the stair-rails, she at once saw he was a stranger, a working-man, it might be a fellow-labourer with her son, for his dress was grimy enough for the supposition. He held a gun in his hand.

“May I make bold to ask if this gun belongs to your son?”

She first looked at the man, and then, weary and half asleep, not seeing any reason for refusing to answer the inquiry, she moved forward to examine it, talking while she looked for certain old-fashioned ornaments on the stock. “It looks like his; ay, it is his, sure enough. I could speak to it anywhere by these marks. You see it were his grandfather’s as were gamekeeper to some one up in th’ north; and they don’t make guns so smart nowadays. But, how comed you by it? He sets great store on it. Is he bound for th’ shooting-gallery? He is not, for sure, now his aunt is so ill, and me left all alone”; and the immediate cause of her anxiety being thus recalled to her mind, she entered on a long story of Alice’s illness, interspersed with recollections of her husband’s and her children’s deaths.

The disguised policeman listened for a minute or two, to glean any further information he could; and then, saying he was in a hurry, he turned to go away. She followed him to the door, still telling him her troubles, and was never struck, until it was too late to ask the reason, with the unaccountableness of his conduct, in carrying the gun away with him. Then, as she heavily climbed the stairs, she put away the wonder and the thought about his conduct, by determining to believe he was some workman with whom her son had made some arrangement about shooting at the gallery; or mending the old weapon; or something or other. She had enough to fret her, without moidering herself about old guns. Jem had given it to him to bring it to her; so it was safe enough; or, if it was not, why she should be glad never to set eyes on it again, for she could not abide firearms, they were so apt to shoot people.

So, comforting herself for the want of thought in not making further inquiry, she fell off into another dose, feverish, dream-haunted, and unrefreshing.

Meanwhile, the policeman walked off with his prize, with an odd mixture of feelings; a little contempt, a little disappointment, and a good deal of pity. The contempt and the disappointment were caused by the widow’s easy admission of the gun being her son’s property, and her manner of identifying it by the ornaments. He liked an attempt to baffle him; he was accustomed to it; it gave some exercise to his wits and his shrewdness. There would be no fun in fox-hunting, if Reynard yielded himself up without any effort to escape. Then, again, his mother’s milk was yet in him, policeman, officer of the Detective Service though he was; and he felt sorry for the old woman, whose “softness” had given such material assistance in identifying her son as the murderer. However, he conveyed the gun, and the intelligence he had gained, to the superintendent; and the result was, that, in a short time afterwards, three policemen went to the works at which Jem was foreman, and announced their errand to the astonished overseer, who directed them to the part of the foundry where Jem was then superintending a casting.

Dark, black were the walls, the ground, the faces around them, as they crossed the yard. But, in the furnace-house, a deep and lurid red glared over all; the furnace roared with mighty flame. The men, like demons, in their fire-and-soot colouring, stood swart around, awaiting the moment when the tons of solid iron should have melted down into fiery liquid, fit to be poured, with still, heavy sound, into the delicate moulding of fine black sand, prepared to receive it. The heat was intense, and the red glare grew every instant more fierce; the policemen stood awed with the novel sight. Then, black figures, holding strange-shaped bucket-shovels, came athwart the deep-red furnace light, and clear and brilliant flowed forth the iron into the appropriate mould. The buzz of voices rose again; there was time to speak, and gasp, and wipe the brows; and then one by one, the men dispersed to some other branch of their employment.

No. B72 pointed out Jem as the man he had seen engaged in a scuffle with Mr. Carson, and then the other two stepped forward and arrested him, stating of what he was accused, and the grounds of the accusation. He offered no resistance, though he seemed surprised; but calling a fellow-workman to him, he briefly requested him to tell his mother he had got into trouble, and could not return home at present. He did not wish her to hear more at first.

So Mrs. Wilson’s sleep was next interrupted in almost an exactly similar way to the last, like a recurring nightmare.

“Missis! missis!” some one called out from below.

Again it was a workman, but this time a blacker-looking one than before.

“What don ye want?” said she peevishly.

“Only nothing but”— stammered the man, a kind-hearted matter-of-fact person, with no invention, but a great deal of sympathy.

“Well, speak out, can’t ye, and ha’ done with it?”

“Jem’s in trouble,” said he, repeating Jem’s very words, as he could think of no others.

“Trouble?” said the mother, in a high-pitched voice of distress. “Trouble! God help me, trouble will never end, I think. What d’ye mean by trouble? Speak out, man, can’t ye? Is he ill? My boy! tell me, is he ill?” in a hurried voice of terror.

“Na, na, that’s not it. He’s well enough. All he bade me say was, ‘Tell mother I’m in trouble, and can’t come home tonight.’”

“Not come home to-night! And what am I to do with Alice? I can’t go on, wearing my life out wi’ watching. He might come and help me.”

“I tell you he can’t,” said the man.

“Can’t, and he is well, you say? Stuff! It’s just that he’s getten like other young men, and wants to go a-larking. But I’ll give it him when he comes back.”

The man turned to go; he durst not trust himself to speak in Jem’s justification. But she would not let him off.

She stood between him and the door, as she said —

“Yo shall not go till yo’ve told me what he’s after. I can see plain enough you know, and I’ll know too, before I’ve done.”

“You’ll know soon enough, missis!”

“I’ll know now, I tell ye. What’s up that he can’t come home and help me nurse? Me, as never got a wink o’ sleep last night wi’ watching.”

“Well, if you will have it out,” said the poor badgered man, “the police have got hold on him.”

“On my Jem!” said the enraged mother. “You’re a downright liar, and that’s what you are. My Jem, as never did harm to any one in his life. You’re a liar, that’s what you are.”

“He’s done harm enough now,” said the man, angry in his turn, “for there’s good evidence he murdered young Carson, as was shot last night.”

She staggered forward to strike the man for telling the terrible truth; but the weakness of old age, of motherly agony, overcame her, and she sank down on a chair, and covered her face. He could not leave her.

When next she spoke, it was in an imploring, feeble, child-like voice.

“O master, say you’re only joking. I ax your pardon if I have vexed ye, but please say you’re only joking. You don’t know what Jem is to me.”

She looked humbly, anxiously up to him.

“I wish I were only joking, missis; but it’s true as I say. They’ve taken him up on charge of murder. It were his gun as were found near th’ place; and one o’ the police heard him quarrelling with Mr. Carson a few days back, about a girl.”

“About a girl!” broke in the mother, once more indignant, though too feeble to show it as before. “My Jem was as steady as”— she hesitated for a comparison wherewith to finish, and then repeated, “as steady as Lucifer, and he were an angel, you know. My Jem was not one to quarrel about a girl.”

“Ay, but it was that, though. They’d got her name quite pat. The man had heard all they said. Mary Barton was her name, whoever she may be.”

“Mary Barton! the dirty hussy! to bring my Jem into trouble of this kind. I’ll give it her well when I see her: that I will. Oh! my poor Jem!” rocking herself to and fro. “And what about the gun? What did ye say about that?”

“His gun were found on th’ spot where the murder were done.”

“That’s a lie for one, then. A man has got the gun now, safe and sound. I saw it not an hour ago.”

The man shook his head.

“Yes, he has indeed. A friend o’ Jem’s, as he’d lent it to.”

“Did you know the chap?” asked the man, who was really anxious for Jem’s exculpation, and caught a gleam of hope from her last speech.

“No! I can’t say as I did. But he were put on as a workman.”

“It’s maybe only one of them policemen, disguised.”

“Nay; they’d never go for to do that, and trick me into telling on my own son. It would be like seething a kid in its mother’s milk; and that th’ Bible forbids.”

“I don’t know,” replied the man.

Soon afterwards he went away, feeling unable to comfort, yet distressed at the sight of sorrow; she would fain have detained him, but go he would. And she was alone.

She never for an instant believed Jem guilty: she would have doubted if the sun were fire, first: but sorrow, desolation, and at times anger, took possession of her mind. She told the unconscious Alice, hoping to rouse her to sympathy; and then was disappointed, because, still smiling and calm, she murmured of her mother, and the happy days of infancy.

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