Mary Barton, by Elizabeth Gaskell

XXV. Mrs. Wilson’s Determination.

“Something there was, what, none presumed to say,

Clouds lightly passing on a smiling day —

Whispers and hints which went from ear to ear,

And mixed reports no judge on earth could clear.”

— CRABBE.

“Curious conjectures he may always make,

And either side of dubious questions take.”

— IBID.

Mary went home. Oh! how her head did ache, and how dizzy her brain was growing! But there would be time enough she felt for giving way hereafter.

So she sat quiet and still by an effort; sitting near the window, and looking out of it, but seeing nothing, when all at once she caught sight of something which roused her up, and made her draw back.

But it was too late. She had been seen.

Sally Leadbitter flaunted into the little dingy room, making it gaudy with the Sunday excess of colouring in her dress.

She was really curious to see Mary; her connection with a murderer seemed to have made her into a sort of lusus naturae, and was almost, by some, expected to have made a change in her personal appearance, so earnestly did they stare at her. But Mary had been too much absorbed the last day or two to notice this.

Now Sally had a grand view, and looked her over and over (a very different thing from looking her through and through), and almost learnt her off by heart:—“Her every-day gown (Hoyle’s print you know, that lilac thing with the high body) she was so fond of; a little black silk handkerchief just knotted round her neck, like a boy; her hair all taken back from her face, as if she wanted to keep her head cool — she would always keep that hair of hers so long; and her hands twitching continually about”—

Such particulars would make Sally into a Gazette Extraordinary the next morning at the workroom and were worth coming for, even if little else could be extracted from Mary.

“Why, Mary!” she began. “Where have you hidden yourself? You never showed your face all yesterday at Miss Simmonds’s. You don’t fancy we think any the worse of you for what’s come and gone. Some on us, indeed, were a bit sorry for the poor young man, as lies stiff and cold for your sake, Mary; but we shall ne’er cast it up against you. Miss Simmonds, too, will be mighty put out if you don’t come, for there’s a deal of mourning, agait.”

“I can’t,” Mary said, in a low voice. “I don’t mean ever to come again.”

“Why, Mary!” said Sally, in unfeigned surprise. “To be sure, you’ll have to be in Liverpool, Tuesday, and maybe Wednesday; but after that you’ll surely come, and tell us all about it. Miss Simmonds knows you’ll have to be off those two days. But between you and me, she’s a bit of a gossip, and will like hearing all how and about the trial, well enough to let you off very easy for your being absent a day or two. Besides, Betsy Morgan was saying yesterday, she shouldn’t wonder but you’d prove quite an attraction to customers. Many a one would come and have their gowns made by Miss Simmonds just to catch a glimpse at you, at after the trial’s over. Really, Mary, you’ll turn out quite a heroine.”

The little fingers twitched worse than ever; the large soft eyes looked up pleadingly into Sally’s face; but she went on in the same strain, not from any unkind or cruel feeling towards Mary, but solely because she was incapable of comprehending her suffering.

She had been shocked, of course, at Mr. Carson’s death, though at the same time the excitement was rather pleasant than otherwise; and dearly now would she have enjoyed the conspicuous notice which Mary was sure to receive.

“How shall you like being cross-examined, Mary?”

“Not at all,” answered Mary, when she found she must answer.

“La! what impudent fellows those lawyers are! And their clerks, too, not a bit better. I shouldn’t wonder” (in a comforting tone, and really believing she was giving comfort) “if you picked up a new sweetheart in Liverpool. What gown are you going in, Mary?”

“Oh, I don’t know and don’t care,” exclaimed Mary, sick and weary of her visitor.

“Well, then! take my advice, and go in that blue merino. It’s old to be sure, and a bit worn at elbows, but folk won’t notice that, and th’ colour suits you. Now mind, Mary. And I’ll lend you my black-watered scarf,” added she really good-naturedly, according to her sense of things, and withal, a little bit pleased at the idea of her pet article of dress figuring away on the person of a witness at a trial for murder. “I’ll bring it tomorrow before you start.”

“No, don’t!” said Mary; “thank you, but I don’t want it.”

“Why, what can you wear? I know all your clothes as well as I do my own, and what is there you can wear? Not your old plaid shawl, I do hope? You would not fancy this I have on, more nor the scarf, would you?” said she, brightening up at the thought, and willing to lend it, or anything else.

“O Sally! don’t go on talking a-that-ns; how can I think on dress at such a time? When it’s a matter of life and death to Jem?”

“Bless the girl! It’s Jem, is it? Well now, I thought there was some sweetheart in the background, when you flew off so with Mr. Carson. Then what, in the name of goodness, made him shoot Mr. Harry? After you had given up going with him, I mean? Was he afraid you’d be on again?”

“How dare you say he shot Mr. Harry?” asked Mary, firing up from the state of languid indifference into which she had sunk while Sally had been settling about her dress. “But it’s no matter what you think as did not know him. What grieves me is, that people should go on thinking him guilty as did know him,” she said, sinking back into her former depressed tone and manner.

“And don’t you think he did it?” asked Sally.

Mary paused; she was going on too fast with one so curious and so unscrupulous. Besides, she remembered how even she herself had, at first, believed him guilty; and she felt it was not for her to cast stones at those who, on similar evidence, inclined to the same belief. None had given him much benefit of a doubt. None had faith in his innocence. None but his mother; and the heart loved more than the head reasoned, and her yearning affection had never for an instant entertained the idea that her Jem was a murderer. But Mary disliked the whole conversation; the subject, the manner in which it was treated, were all painful, and she had a repugnance to the person with whom she spoke.

She was thankful, therefore, when Job Legh’s voice was heard at the door, as he stood with the latch in his hand, talking to a neighbour, and when Sally jumped up in vexation and said, “There’s that old fogey coming in here, as I’m alive! Did your father set him to look after you while he was away? or what brings the old chap here? However, I’m off; I never could abide either him or his prim grand-daughter. Good-bye, Mary.”

So far in a whisper, then louder, “If you think better of my offer about the scarf, Mary, just step in tomorrow before nine, and you’re quite welcome to it.”

She and Job passed each other at the door, with mutual looks of dislike, which neither took any pains to conceal.

“Yon’s a bold, bad girl,” said Job to Mary.

“She’s very good-natured,” replied Mary, too honourable to abuse a visitor, who had only that instant crossed her threshold, and gladly dwelling on the good quality most apparent in Sally’s character.

“Ay, ay! good-natured, generous, jolly, full of fun; there are a number of other names for the good qualities the devil leaves his children, as baits to catch gudgeons with. D’ye think folk could be led astray by one who was every way bad? Howe’er, that’s not what I came to talk about. I’ve seen Mr. Bridgnorth, and he is in a manner the same mind as we; he thinks it would have an awkward look, and might tell against the poor lad on his trial; still if she’s ill she’s ill, and it can’t be helped.”

“I don’t know if she’s so bad as all that,” said Mary, who began to dread her part in doing anything which might tell against her poor lover. “Will you come and see her, Job? The doctor seemed to say as I liked, not as he thought.”

“That’s because he had no great thought on the subject, either one way or t’other,” replied Job, whose contempt for medical men pretty nearly equalled his respect for lawyers. “But I’ll go and welcome. I han not seen th’ ould ladies since their sorrows, and it’s but manners to go and ax after them. Come along.”

The room at Mrs. Wilson’s had that still, changeless look you must have often observed in the house of sickness or mourning. No particular employment going on; people watching and waiting rather than acting, unless in the more sudden and violent attacks: what little movement is going on, so noiseless and hushed; the furniture all arranged and stationary, with a view to the comfort of the afflicted; the window-blinds drawn down to keep out the disturbing variety of a sunbeam; the same saddened serious look on the faces of the indwellers: you fall back into the same train of thought with all these associations, and forget the street, the outer world, in the contemplation of the one stationary, absorbing interest within.

Mrs. Wilson sat quietly in her chair, with just the same look Mary had left on her face; Mrs. Davenport went about with creaking shoes which made all the more noise from her careful and lengthened tread, annoying the ears of those who were well, in this instance, far more than the dull senses of the sick and the sorrowful. Alice’s voice still was going on cheerfully in the upper room with incessant talking and little laughs to herself, or perhaps in sympathy with her unseen companions; “unseen,” I say, in preference to “fancied,” for who knows whether God does not permit the forms of those who were dearest when living, to hover round the bed of the dying?

Job spoke, and Mrs. Wilson answered.

So quietly that it was unnatural under the circumstances. It made a deeper impression on the old man than any token of mere bodily illness could have done. If she had raved in delirium, or moaned in fever, he could have spoken after his wont, and given his opinion, his advice, and his consolation: now he was awed into silence.

At length he pulled Mary aside into a corner of the house-place, where Mrs. Wilson was sitting, and began to talk to her.

“Yo’re right, Mary! She’s no ways fit to go to Liverpool, poor soul. Now I’ve seen her I only wonder the doctor could ha’ been unsettled in his mind at th’ first. Choose how it goes wi’ poor Jem, she cannot go. One way or another it will soon be over; the best to leave her in the state she is till then.”

“I was sure you would think so,” said Mary.

But they were reckoning without their host. They esteemed her senses gone, while, in fact, they were only inert, and could not convey impressions rapidly to the overburdened, troubled brain. They had not noticed that her eyes had followed them (mechanically it seemed at first) as they had moved away to the corner of the room; that her face, hitherto so changeless, had begun to work with one or two of the old symptoms of impatience.

But when they were silent she stood up, and startled them almost as if a dead person had spoken, by saying clearly and decidedly —

“I go to Liverpool. I hear you and your plans; and I tell you I shall go to Liverpool. If my words are to kill my son, they have already gone forth out of my mouth, and nought can bring them back. But I will have faith. Alice (up above) has often telled me I wanted faith, and now I will have it. They cannot — they will not kill my child, my only child. I will not be afeard. Yet oh! I am so sick with terror. But if he is to die, think ye not that I will see him again; ay! see him at his trial? When all are hating him, he shall have his poor mother near him, to give him all the comfort, eyes, and looks, and tears, and a heart that is dead to all but him, can give; his poor mother, who knows how free he is from sin — in the sight of man at least. They’ll let me go to him, maybe, the very minute it’s over; and I know many Scripture texts (though you would not think it), that may keep up his heart. I missed seeing him ere he went to yon prison, but nought shall keep me away again one minute when I can see his face; for maybe the minutes are numbered, and the count but small. I know I can be a comfort to him, poor lad. You would not think it, now, but he’d always speak as kind and soft to me as if he were courting me, like. He loved me above a bit; and am I to leave him now to dree all the cruel slander they’ll put upon him? I can pray for him at each hard word they say against him, if I can do nought else; and he’ll know what his mother is doing for him, poor lad, by the look on my face.”

Still they made some look, or gesture of opposition to her wishes. She turned sharp round on Mary, the old object of her pettish attacks, and said, “Now, wench! once for all, I tell you this. HE could never guide me; and he’d sense enough not to try. What he could na do, don’t you try. I shall go to Liverpool tomorrow, and find my lad, and stay with him through thick and thin; and if he dies, why, perhaps, God of His mercy will take me too. The grave is a sure cure for an aching heart!”

She sank back in her chair, quite exhausted by the sudden effort she had made; but if they even offered to speak, she cut them short (whatever the subject might be), with the repetition of the same words, “I shall go to Liverpool.”

No more could be said, the doctor’s opinion had been so undecided; Mr. Bridgnorth had given his legal voice in favour of her going, and Mary was obliged to relinquish the idea of persuading her to remain at home, if, indeed, under all the circumstances, it could be thought desirable.

“Best way will be,” said Job, “for me to hunt out Will, early tomorrow morning, and yo, Mary, come at after with Jane Wilson. I know a decent woman where yo two can have a bed, and where we may meet together when I’ve found Will, afore going to Mr. Bridgnorth’s at two o’clock; for, I can tell him, I’ll not trust none of his clerks for hunting up Will, if Jem’s life’s to depend on it.”

Now Mary disliked this plan inexpressibly; her dislike was partly grounded on reason, and partly on feeling. She could not bear the idea of deputing to any one the active measures necessary to be taken in order to save Jem. She felt as if they were her duty, her right. She durst not trust to any one the completion of her plan: they might not have energy, or perseverance, or desperation enough to follow out the slightest chance; and her love would endow her with all these qualities independently of the terrible alternative which awaited her in case all failed and Jem was condemned. No one could have her motives; and consequently no one could have her sharpened brain, her despairing determination. Besides (only that was purely selfish), she could not endure the suspense of remaining quiet, and only knowing the result when all was accomplished.

So with vehemence and impatience she rebutted every reason Job adduced for his plan; and of course, thus opposed, by what appeared to him wilfulness, he became more resolute, and angry words were exchanged, and a feeling of estrangement rose up between them, for a time, as they walked homewards.

But then came in Margaret with her gentleness, like an angel of peace, so calm and reasonable, that both felt ashamed of their irritation, and tacitly left the decision to her (only, by the way, I think Mary could never have submitted if it had gone against her, penitent and tearful as was her manner now to Job, the good old man who was helping her to work for Jem, although they differed as to the manner).

“Mary had better go,” said Margaret to her grandfather, in a low tone; “I know what she’s feeling, and it will be a comfort to her soon, maybe, to think she did all she could herself. She would, perhaps, fancy it might have been different; do, grandfather, let her.”

Margaret had still, you see, little or no belief in Jem’s innocence and besides, she thought if Mary saw Will, and heard herself from him that Jem had not been with him that Thursday night, it would in a measure break the force of the blow which was impending.

“Let me lock up house, grandfather, for a couple of days, and go and stay with Alice. It’s but little one like me can do, I know” (she added softly); “but, by the blessing o’ God, I’ll do it and welcome; and here comes one kindly use o’ money, I can hire them as will do for her what I cannot. Mrs. Davenport is a willing body, and one who knows sorrow and sickness, and I can pay her for her time, and keep her there pretty near altogether. So let that be settled. And you take Mrs. Wilson, dear grandad, and let Mary go find Will, and you can all meet together at after, and I’m sure I wish you luck.”

Job consented with only a few dissenting grunts; but on the whole with a very good grace for an old man who had been so positive only a few minutes before.

Mary was thankful for Margaret’s interference. She did not speak, but threw her arms round Margaret’s neck, and put up her rosy-red mouth to be kissed; and even Job was attracted by the pretty, child-like gesture; and when she drew near him, afterwards, like a little creature sidling up to some person whom it feels to have offended, he bent down and blessed her, as if she had been a child of his own.

To Mary the old man’s blessing came like words of power.

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