Mary Barton, by Elizabeth Gaskell

XXIII. The Sub-Poena.

“And must it then depend on this poor eye

And this unsteady hand, whether the bark,

That bears my all of treasured hope and love,

Shall find a passage through these frowning rocks

To some fair port where peace and safety smile —

Or whether it shall blindly dash against them,

And miserably sink? Heaven be my help;

And clear my eye and nerve my trembling hand!”

—“THE CONSTANT WOMAN.”

Her heart beating, her head full of ideas, which required time and solitude to be reduced into order, Mary hurried home. She was like one who finds a jewel of which he cannot all at once ascertain the value, but who hides his treasure until some quiet hour when he may ponder over the capabilities its possession unfolds. She was like one who discovers the silken clue which guides to some bower of bliss, and secure of the power within his grasp, has to wait for a time before he may thread the labyrinth.

But no jewel, no bower of bliss was ever so precious to miser or lover as was the belief which now pervaded Mary’s mind that Jem’s innocence might be proved, without involving any suspicion of that other — that dear one, so dear, although so criminal — on whose part in this cruel business she dared not dwell even in thought. For if she did there arose the awful question — if all went against Jem the innocent, if judge and jury gave the verdict forth which had the looming gallows in the rear, what ought she to do, possessed of her terrible knowledge? Surely not to inculpate her father — and yet — and yet — she almost prayed for the blessed unconsciousness of death or madness, rather than that awful question should have to be answered by her.

But now a way seemed opening, opening yet more clear. She was thankful she had thought of the alibi, and yet more thankful to have so easily obtained the clue to Jem’s whereabouts that miserable night. The bright light that her new hope threw over all seemed also to make her thankful for the early time appointed for the trial. It would be easy to catch Will Wilson on his return from the Isle of Man, which he had planned should be on the Monday; and on the Tuesday all would be made clear — all that she dared to wish to be made clear.

She had still to collect her thoughts and freshen her memory enough to arrange how to meet with Will — for to the chances of a letter she would not trust; to find out his lodgings when in Liverpool; to try and remember the name of the ship in which he was to sail: and the more she considered these points, the more difficulty she found there would be in ascertaining these minor but important facts. For you are aware that Alice, whose memory was clear and strong on all points in which her heart was interested, was lying in a manner senseless: that Jane Wilson was (to use her own word, so expressive to a Lancashire ear) “dazed”; that is to say, bewildered, lost in the confusion of terrifying and distressing thoughts; incapable of concentrating her mind; and at the best of times Will’s proceedings were a matter of little importance to her (or so she pretended), she was so jealous of aught which distracted attention from her pearl of price, her only son Jem. So Mary felt hopeless of obtaining any intelligence of the sailor’s arrangements from her.

Then, should she apply to Jem himself? No! she knew him too well. She felt how thoroughly he must ere now have had it in his power to exculpate himself at another’s expense. And his tacit refusal so to do, had assured her of what she had never doubted, that the murderer was safe from any impeachment of his. But then neither would he consent, she feared, to any steps which might tend to prove himself innocent. At any rate, she could not consult him. He was removed to Kirkdale, and time pressed. Already it was Saturday at noon. And even if she could have gone to him, I believe she would not. She longed to do all herself; to be his liberator, his deliverer; to win him life, though she might never regain his lost love by her own exertions! And oh! how could she see him to discuss a subject in which both knew who was the bloodstained man; and yet whose name might not be breathed by either, so dearly with all his faults, his sins, was he loved by both.

All at once, when she had ceased to try and remember, the name of Will’s ship flashed across her mind. The John Cropper.

He had named it, she had been sure, all along. He had named it in his conversation with her that last, that fatal Thursday evening. She repeated it over and over again, through a nervous dread of again forgetting it. The John Cropper.

And then, as if she were rousing herself out of some strange stupor, she bethought her of Margaret. Who so likely as Margaret to treasure every little particular respecting Will, now Alice was dead to all the stirring purposes of life?

She had gone thus far in her process of thought, when a neighbour stepped in; she with whom they had usually deposited the house-key, when both Mary and her father were absent from home, and who consequently took upon herself to answer all inquiries, and receive all messages which any friends might make, or leave, on finding the house shut up.

“Here’s somewhat for you, Mary! A policeman left it.”

A bit of parchment.

Many people have a dread of those mysterious pieces of parchment. I am one. Mary was another. Her heart misgave her as she took it, and looked at the unusual appearance of the writing, which, though legible enough, conveyed no idea to her, or rather her mind shut itself up against receiving any idea, which after all was rather a proof she had some suspicion of the meaning that awaited her.

“What is it?” asked she, in a voice from which all the pith and marrow seemed extracted.

“Nay! how should I know? Policeman said he’d call again towards evening, and see if you’d getten it. He were loth to leave it, though I telled him who I was, and all about my keeping th’ key, and taking messages.”

“What is it about?” asked Mary again, in the same hoarse, feeble voice, and turning it over in her fingers, as if she dreaded to inform herself of its meaning.

“Well! yo can read word of writing and I cannot, so it’s queer I should have to tell you. But my master says it’s a summons for yo to bear witness again Jem Wilson, at th’ trial at Liverpool Assize.”

“God pity me!” said Mary faintly, as white as a sheet.

“Nay, wench, never take on so. What yo can say will go little way either to help or to hinder, for folk say he’s certain to be hung; and sure enough, it was t’other one as was your sweetheart.”

Mary was beyond any pang this speech would have given at another time. Her thoughts were all busy picturing to herself the terrible occasion of their next meeting — not as lovers meet should they meet!

“Well!” said the neighbour, seeing no use in remaining with one who noticed her words or her presence so little, “thou’lt tell policeman thou’st getten his precious bit of paper. He seemed to think I should be keeping it for mysel; he’s the first as has ever misdoubted me about giving messages, or notes. Good-day.”

She left the house, but Mary did not know it. She sat still with the parchment in her hand.

All at once she started up. She would take it to Job Legh and ask him to tell her the true meaning, for it could not be THAT.

So she went, and choked out her words of inquiry.

“It’s a sub-poena,” he replied, turning the parchment over with the air of a connoisseur; for Job loved hard words, and lawyer-like forms, and even esteemed himself slightly qualified for a lawyer, from the smattering of knowledge he had picked up from an odd volume of Blackstone that he had once purchased at a bookstall.

“A sub-poena — what is that?” gasped Mary, still in suspense.

Job was struck with her voice, her changed miserable voice, and peered at her countenance from over his spectacles.

“A sub-poena is neither more nor less than this, my dear. It’s a summonsing you to attend, and answer such questions as may be asked of you regarding the trial of James Wilson, for the murder of Henry Carson; that’s the long and short of it, only more elegantly put, for the benefit of them who knows how to value the gift of language. I’ve been a witness beforetime myself; there’s nothing much to be afeard on; if they are impudent, why, just you be impudent, and give ’em tit for tat.”

“Nothing much to be afeard on!” echoed Mary, but in such a different tone.

“Ay, poor wench, I see how it is. It’ll go hard with thee a bit, I dare say; but keep up thy heart. Yo cannot have much to tell ’em, that can go either one way or th’ other. Nay! maybe thou may do him a bit o’ good, for when they set eyes on thee, they’ll see fast enough how he came to be so led away by jealousy; for thou’rt a pretty creature, Mary, and one look at thy face will let ’em into th’ secret of a young man’s madness, and make ’em more ready to pass it over.”

“O Job, and won’t you ever believe me when I tell you he’s innocent? Indeed, and indeed I can prove it; he was with Will all that night; he was, indeed, Job!”

“My wench! whose word hast thou for that?” said Job pityingly.

“Why! his mother told me, and I’ll get Will to bear witness to it. But, oh! Job” (bursting into tears), “it is hard if you won’t believe me. How shall I clear him to strangers, when those who know him, and ought to love him, are so set against his being innocent?”

“God knows, I’m not against his being innocent,” said Job solemnly. “I’d give half my remaining days on earth — I’d give them all, Mary (and but for the love I bear to my poor blind girl, they’d be no great gift), if I could save him. You’ve thought me hard, Mary, but I’m not hard at bottom, and I’ll help you if I can; that I will, right or wrong,” he added; but in a low voice, and coughed the uncertain words away the moment afterwards.

“O Job! if you will help me,” exclaimed Mary, brightening up (though it was but a wintry gleam after all), “tell me what to say, when they question me; I shall be so gloppened,46 I shan’t know what to answer.”

46 Gloppened; terrified.

“Thou canst do nought better than tell the truth. Truth’s best at all times, they say; and for sure it is when folk have to do with lawyers; for they’re ‘cute and cunning enough to get it out sooner or later, and it makes folk look like Tom Noddies, when truth follows falsehood, against their will.”

“But I don’t know the truth; I mean — I can’t say rightly what I mean; but I’m sure, if I were pent up, and stared at by hundreds of folk, and asked ever so simple a question, I should be for answering it wrong; if they asked me if I had seen you on a Saturday, or a Tuesday, or any day, I should have clean forgotten all about it, and say the very thing I should not.”

“Well, well, don’t go for to get such notions into your head; they’re what they call ‘narvous,’ and talking on ’em does no good. Here’s Margaret! bless the wench! Look, Mary, how well she guides hersel.”

Job fell to watching his grand-daughter, as with balancing, measured steps, timed almost as if to music, she made her way across the street.

Mary shrank as if from a cold blast — shrank from Margaret! The blind girl, with her reserve, her silence, seemed to be a severe judge; she, listening, would be such a check to the trusting earnestness of confidence, which was beginning to unlock the sympathy of Job. Mary knew herself to blame; felt her errors in every fibre of her heart; but yet she would rather have had them spoken about, even in terms of severest censure, than have been treated in the icy manner in which Margaret had received her that morning.

“Here’s Mary,” said Job, almost as if he wished to propitiate his grand-daughter, “come to take a bit of dinner with us, for I’ll warrant she’s never thought of cooking any for herself today; and she looks as wan and pale as a ghost.”

It was calling out the feeling of hospitality, so strong and warm in most of those who have little to offer, but whose heart goes eagerly and kindly with that little. Margaret came towards Mary with a welcoming gesture, and a kinder manner by far than she had used in the morning.

“Nay, Mary, thou know’st thou’st getten naught at home,” urged Job.

And Mary, faint and weary, and with a heart too aching-full of other matters to be pertinacious in this, withdrew her refusal.

They ate their dinner quietly; for to all it was an effort to speak: and after one or two attempts they had subsided into silence.

When the meal was ended Job began again on the subject they all had at heart.

“Yon poor lad at Kirkdale will want a lawyer to see they don’t put on him, but do him justice. Hast thought of that?”

Mary had not, and felt sure his mother had not.

Margaret confirmed this last supposition.

“I’ve but just been there, and poor Jane is like one dateless; so many griefs come on her at once. One time she seems to make sure he’ll be hung; and if I took her in that way, she flew out (poor body!) and said that in spite of what folks said, there were them as could, and would prove him guiltless. So I never knew where to have her. The only thing she was constant in, was declaring him innocent.”

“Mother-like!” said Job.

“She meant Will, when she spoke of them that could prove him innocent. He was with Will on Thursday night, walking a part of the way with him to Liverpool; now the thing is to lay hold on Will and get him to prove this.” So spoke Mary, calm, from the earnestness of her purpose.

“Don’t build too much on it, my dear,” said Job.

“I do build on it,” replied Mary, “because I know it’s the truth, and I mean to try and prove it, come what may. Nothing you can say will daunt me, Job, so don’t you go and try. You may help, but you cannot hinder me doing what I’m resolved on.”

They respected her firmness of determination, and Job almost gave in to her belief, when he saw how steadfastly she was acting upon it. Oh! surest way of conversion to our faith, whatever it may be- regarding either small things, or great — when it is beheld as the actuating principle, from which we never swerve! When it is seen that, instead of overmuch profession, it is worked into the life, and moves every action!

Mary gained courage as she instinctively felt she had made way with one at least of her companions.

“Now I’m clear about this much,” she continued, “he was with Will when the — shot was fired.”—(she could not bring herself to say, when the murder was committed, when she remembered WHO it was that, she had every reason to believe, was the taker-away of life)—“Will can prove this: I must find Will. He wasn’t to sail till Tuesday. There’s time enough. He was to come back from his uncle’s, in the Isle of Man, on Monday. I must meet him in Liverpool, on that day, and tell him what has happened, and how poor Jem is in trouble, and that he must prove an alibi, come Tuesday. All this I can and will do, though perhaps I don’t clearly know how, just at present. But surely God will help me. When I know I’m doing right, I will have no fear, but put my trust in Him; for I’m acting for the innocent and good, and not for my own self, who have done so wrong. I have no fear when I think of Jem, who is so good.”

She stopped, oppressed with the fulness of her heart. Margaret began to love her again; to see in her the same sweet, faulty, impulsive, lovable creature she had known in the former Mary Barton, but with more of dignity, self-reliance, and purpose.

Mary spoke again.

“Now I know the name of Will’s vessel — the John Cropper; and I know that she is bound to America. That is something to know. But I forgot, if I ever heard, where he lodges in Liverpool. He spoke of his landlady, as a good, trustworthy woman; but if he named her name, it has slipped my memory. Can you help me, Margaret?”

She appealed to her friend calmly and openly, as if perfectly aware of, and recognising the unspoken tie which bound her and Will together; she asked her in the same manner in which she would have asked a wife where her husband dwelt. And Margaret replied in the like calm tone, two spots of crimson on her cheeks alone bearing witness to any internal agitation.

“He lodges at a Mrs. Jones’, Milk–House Yard, out of Nicholas Street. He has lodged there ever since he began to go to sea; she is a very decent kind of woman, I believe.”

“Well, Mary! I’ll give you my prayers” said Job. “It’s not often I pray regular, though I often speak a word to God, when I’m either very happy or very sorry; I’ve catched myself thanking Him at odd hours when I’ve found a rare insect, or had a fine day for an out; but I cannot help it, no more than I can talking to a friend. But this time I’ll pray regular for Jem, and for you. And so will Margaret, I’ll be bound. Still, wench! what think yo of a lawyer? I know one, Mr. Cheshire, who’s rather given to th’ insect line — and a good kind o’ chap. He and I have swopped specimens many’s the time, when either of us had a duplicate. He’ll do me a kind turn I’m sure. I’ll just take my hat, and pay him a visit.”

No sooner said, than done.

Margaret and Mary were left alone. And this seemed to bring back the feeling of awkwardness, not to say estrangement.

But Mary, excited to an unusual pitch of courage, was the first to break silence.

“O Margaret!” said she, “I see — I feel how wrong you think I have acted; you cannot think me worse than I think myself, now my eyes are opened.” Here her sobs came choking up her voice.

“Nay,” Margaret began, “I have no right to”—

“Yes, Margaret, you have a right to judge; you cannot help it; only in your judgment remember mercy, as the Bible says. You, who have been always good, cannot tell how easy it is at first to go a little wrong, and then how hard it is to go back. Oh! I little thought when I was first pleased with Mr. Carson’s speeches, how it would all end; perhaps in the death of him I love better than life.”

She burst into a passion of tears. The feelings pent up through the day would have vent. But checking herself with a strong effort, and looking up at Margaret as piteously as if those calm, stony eyes could see her imploring face, she added —

“I must not cry; I must not give way; there will be time enough for that hereafter, if — I only wanted you to speak kindly to me, Margaret, for I am very, very wretched; more wretched than any one can ever know; more wretched, I sometimes fancy, than I have deserved — but that’s wrong, isn’t it, Margaret? Oh! I have done wrong, and I am punished: you cannot tell how much.”

Who could resist her voice, her tones of misery, of humility? Who would refuse the kindness for which she begged so penitently? Not Margaret. The old friendly manner came back. With it, maybe, more of tenderness.

“Oh! Margaret, do you think he can be saved; do you think they can find him guilty, if Will comes forward as a witness? Won’t that be a good alibi?”

Margaret did not answer for a moment.

“Oh, speak! Margaret,” said Mary, with anxious impatience.

“I know nought about law, or alibis,” replied Margaret meekly; “but, Mary, as grandfather says, aren’t you building too much on what Jane Wilson has told you about his going with Will? Poor soul, she’s gone dateless, I think, with care, and watching, and overmuch trouble; and who can wonder? Or Jem may have told her he was going, by way of a blind.”

“You don’t know Jem,” said Mary, starting from her seat in a hurried manner, “or you would not say so.”

“I hope I may be wrong! but think, Mary, how much there is against him. The shot was fired with his gun; he it was as threatened Mr. Carson not many days before; he was absent from home at that very time, as we know, and, as I’m much afeard, some one will be called on to prove; and there’s no one else to share suspicion with him.”

Mary heaved a deep sigh.

“But, Margaret, he did not do it,” Mary again asserted.

Margaret looked unconvinced.

“I can do no good, I see, by saying so, for none on you believe me, and I won’t say so again till I can prove it. Monday morning I’ll go to Liverpool. I shall be at hand for the trial. O dear! dear! And I will find Will; and then, Margaret, I think you’ll be sorry for being so stubborn about Jem.”

“Don’t fly off, dear Mary; I’d give a deal to be wrong. And now I’m going to be plain spoken. You’ll want money. Them lawyers is no better than a sponge for sucking up money; let alone your hunting out Will, and your keep in Liverpool, and what not. You must take some of the mint I’ve got laid by in the old tea-pot. You have no right to refuse, for I offer it to Jem, not to you; it’s for his purposes you’re to use it.”

“I know — I see. Thank you, Margaret; you’re a kind one at any rate. I take it for Jem; and I’ll do my very best with it for him. Not all, though; don’t think I’ll take all. They’ll pay me for my keep. I’ll take this,” accepting a sovereign from the hoard which Margaret produced out of its accustomed place in the cupboard. “Your grandfather will pay the lawyer, I’ll have nought to do with him,” shuddering as she remembered Job’s words, about lawyers’ skill in always discovering the truth, sooner or later; and knowing what was the secret she had to hide.

“Bless you! don’t make such ado about it,” said Margaret, cutting short Mary’s thanks. “I sometimes think there’s two sides to the commandment; and that we may say, ‘Let others do unto you, as you would do unto them,’ for pride often prevents our giving others a great deal of pleasure, in not letting them be kind, when their hearts are longing to help; and when we ourselves should wish to do just the same, if we were in their place. Oh! how often I’ve been hurt, by being coldly told by persons not to trouble myself about their care, or sorrow, when I saw them in great grief, and wanted to be of comfort. Our Lord Jesus was not above letting folk minister to Him, for He knew how happy it makes one to do aught for another. It’s the happiest work on earth.”

Mary had been too much engrossed by watching what was passing in the street to attend very closely to that which Margaret was saying. From her seat she could see out of the window pretty plainly, and she caught sight of a gentleman walking alongside of Job, evidently in earnest conversation with him, and looking keen and penetrating enough to be a lawyer. Job was laying down something to be attended to she could see, by his uplifted forefinger, and his whole gesture; then he pointed and nodded across the street to his own house, as if inducing his companion to come in. Mary dreaded lest he should, and she be subjected to a closer cross-examination than she had hitherto undergone, as to why she was so certain that Jem was innocent. She feared he was coming; he stepped a little towards the spot. No! it was only to make way for a child, tottering along, whom Mary had overlooked. Now Job took him by the button, so earnestly familiar had he grown. The gentleman looked “fidging fain” to be gone, but submitted in a manner that made Mary like him in spite of his profession. Then came a volley of last words, answered by briefest nods, and monosyllables; and then the stranger went off with redoubled quickness of pace, and Job crossed the street with a little satisfied air of importance on his kindly face.

“Well! Mary,” said he on entering, “I’ve seen the lawyer, not Mr. Cheshire though; trials for murder, it seems, are not his line o’ business. But he gived me a note to another ‘torney; a fine fellow enough, only too much of a talker! I could hardly get a word in, he cut me so short. However, I’ve just been going over the principal points again to him; maybe you saw us! I wanted him just to come over and speak to you himsel, Mary, but he was pressed for time; and he said your evidence would not be much either here or there. He’s going to the ‘sizes first train on Monday morning, and will see Jem, and hear the ins and outs from him, and he’s gived me his address, Mary, and you and Will are to call on him (Will ‘special) on Monday at two o’clock. Thou’rt taking it in, Mary; thou’rt to call on him in Liverpool at two, Monday afternoon?”

Job had reason to doubt if she fully understood him; for all this minuteness of detail, these satisfactory arrangements, as he considered them, only seemed to bring the circumstances in which she was placed more vividly home to Mary. They convinced her that it was real, and not all a dream, as she had sunk into fancying it for a few minutes, while sitting in the old accustomed place, her body enjoying the rest, and her frame sustained by food, and listening to Margaret’s calm voice. The gentleman she had just beheld would see and question Jem in a few hours, and what would be the result?

Monday: that was the day after tomorrow, and on Tuesday, life and death would be tremendous realities to her lover; or else death would be an awful certainty to her father.

No wonder Job went over his main points again —

“Monday; at two o’clock, mind; and here’s his card. ‘Mr. Bridgnorth, 41, Renshaw Street, Liverpool.’ He’ll be lodging there.”

Job ceased talking, and the silence roused Mary up to thank him.

“You’re very kind, Job; very. You and Margaret won’t desert me, come what will.”

“Pooh! pooh! wench; don’t lose heart, just as I’m beginning to get it. He seems to think a deal on Will’s evidence. You’re sure, girls, you’re under no mistake about Will?”

“I’m sure,” said Mary, “he went straight from here, purposing to go to see his uncle at the Isle of Man, and be back Sunday night, ready for the ship sailing on Tuesday.”

“So am I,” said Margaret. “And the ship’s name was the John Cropper, and he lodged where I told Mary before. Have you got it down, Mary?” Mary wrote it on the back of Mr. Bridgnorth’s card.

“He was not over-willing to go,” said she as she wrote, “for he knew little about his uncle, and said he didn’t care if he never know’d more. But he said kinsfolk was kinsfolk, and promises was promises, so he’d go for a day or so, and then it would be over.”

Margaret had to go and practise some singing in town; so, though loth to depart and be alone, Mary bade her friends good-bye.

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