Mary Barton, by Elizabeth Gaskell

XXXVII. Details Connected with the Murder.

“The rich man dines, while the poor man pines,

And eats his heart away;

‘They teach us lies,’ he sternly cries,

‘Would BROTHERS do as they?’”

— The Dream.

Mr. Carson stood at one of the breathing-moments of life. The object of the toils, the fears, and the wishes of his past years, was suddenly hidden from his sight — vanished into the deep mystery which circumscribes existence. Nay, even the vengeance which he had cherished, taken away from before his eyes, as by the hand of God.

Events like these would have startled the most thoughtless into reflection, much more such a man as Mr. Carson, whose mind, if not enlarged, was energetic; indeed, whose very energy, having been hitherto the cause of the employment of his powers in only one direction, had prevented him from becoming largely and philosophically comprehensive in his views.

But now the foundations of his past life were razed to the ground, and the place they had once occupied was sown with salt, to be rebuilt no more for ever. It was like the change from this Life to that other hidden one, when so many of the motives which have actuated all our earthly existence, will have become more fleeting than the shadows of a dream. With a wrench of his soul from the past, so much of which was as nothing, and worse than nothing to him now, Mr. Carson took some hours, after he had witnessed the death of his son’s murderer, to consider his situation.

But suddenly, while he was deliberating, and searching for motives which should be effective to compel him to exertion and action once more; while he contemplated the desire after riches, social distinction, a name among the merchant-princes amidst whom he moved, and saw these false substances fade away into the shadows they truly are, and one by one disappear into the grave of his son — suddenly, I say, the thought arose within him that more yet remained to be learned about the circumstances and feelings which had prompted John Barton’s crime; and when once this mournful curiosity was excited, it seemed to gather strength in every moment that its gratification was delayed. Accordingly he sent a message to summon Job Legh and Jem Wilson, from whom he promised himself some elucidation of what was as yet unexplained; while he himself set forth to call on Mr. Bridgnorth, whom he knew to have been Jem’s attorney, with a glimmering suspicion intruding on his mind, which he strove to repel, that Jem might have had some share in his son’s death.

He had returned before his summoned visitors arrived; and had time enough to recur to the evening on which John Barton had made his confession. He remembered with mortification how he had forgotten his proud reserve, and his habitual concealment of his feelings, and had laid bare his agony of grief in the presence of these two men who were coming to see him by his desire; and he entrenched himself behind stiff barriers of self-control, through which he hoped no appearance of emotion would force its way in the conversation he anticipated.

Nevertheless, when the servant announced that two men were there by appointment to speak to him, and he had desired that they might be shown into the library where he sat, any watcher might have perceived by the trembling hands, and shaking head, not only how much he was aged by the occurrences of the last few weeks, but also how much he was agitated at the thought of the impending interview.

But he so far succeeded in commanding himself at first, as to appear to Jem Wilson and Job Legh one of the hardest and most haughty men they had ever spoken to, and to forfeit all the interest which he had previously excited in their minds by his unreserved display of deep and genuine feeling.

When he had desired them to be seated, he shaded his face with his hand for an instant before speaking.

“I have been calling on Mr. Bridgnorth this morning,” said he, at last; “as I expected, he can give me but little satisfaction on some points respecting the occurrence on the 18th of last month which I desire to have cleared up. Perhaps you two can tell me what I want to know. As intimate friends of Barton’s you probably know, or can conjecture a good deal. Have no scruple as to speaking the truth. What you say in this room shall never be named again by me. Besides, you are aware that the law allows no one to be tried twice for the same offence.”

He stopped for a minute, for the mere act of speaking was fatiguing to him after the excitement of the last few days.

Job Legh took the opportunity of speaking.

“I’m not going to be affronted either for myself or Jem at what you’ve just now been saying about the truth. You don’t know us, and there’s an end on’t; only it’s as well for folk to think others good and true until they’re proved contrary. Ask what you like, sir, I’ll answer for it we’ll either tell truth or hold our tongues.”

“I beg your pardon,” said Mr. Carson, slightly bowing his head. “What I wish to know was,” referring to a slip of paper he held in his hand, and shaking so much he could hardly adjust his glasses to his eyes, “whether you, Wilson, can explain how Barton came possessed of your gun. I believe you refused this explanation to Mr. Bridgnorth?”

“I did, sir! If I had said what I knew then, I saw it would criminate Barton, and so I refused telling aught. To you, sir, now I will tell everything and anything; only it is but little. The gun was my father’s before it was mine, and long ago he and John Barton had a fancy for shooting at the gallery; and they used always to take this gun, and brag that though it was old-fashioned it was sure.”

Jem saw with self-upbraiding pain how Mr. Carson winced at these last words, but at each irrepressible and involuntary evidence of feeling, the hearts of the two men warmed towards him. Jem went on speaking.

“One day in the week — I think it was on the Wednesday — yes, it was — it was on St. Patrick’s day, I met John just coming out of our house, as I were going to my dinner. Mother was out, and he’d found no one in. He said he’d come to borrow the old gun, and that he’d have made bold, and taken it, but it was not to be seen. Mother was afraid of it, so after father’s death (for while he were alive, she seemed to think he could manage it) I had carried it to my own room. I went up and fetched it for John, who stood outside the door all the time.”

“What did he say he wanted it for?” asked Mr. Carson hastily.

“I don’t think he spoke when I gave it him. At first he muttered something about the shooting gallery, and I never doubted but that it was for practice there, as I knew he had done years before.”

Mr. Carson had strung up his frame to an attitude of upright attention while Jem was speaking; now the tension relaxed, and he sank back in his chair, weak and powerless.

He rose up again, however, as Jem went on, anxious to give every particular which could satisfy the bereaved father.

“I never knew for what he wanted the gun till I was taken up — I do not know yet why he wanted it. No one would have had me get out of the scrape by implicating an old friend — my father’s old friend, and the father of the girl I loved. So I refused to tell Mr. Bridgnorth aught about it, and would not have named it now to any one but you.”

Jem’s face became very red at the allusion he made to Mary, but his honest, fearless eyes had met Mr. Carson’s penetrating gaze unflinchingly, and had carried conviction of his innocence and truthfulness. Mr. Carson felt certain that he had heard all that Jem could tell. Accordingly he turned to Job Legh.

“You were in the room the whole time while Barton was speaking to me, I think?”

“Yes, sir,” answered Job.

“You’ll excuse my asking plain and direct questions; the information I am gaining is really a relief to my mind, I don’t know how, but it is — will you tell me if you had any idea of Barton’s guilt in this matter before?”

“None whatever, so help me God!” said Job solemnly. “To tell truth (and axing your forgiveness, Jem), I had never got quite shut of the notion that Jem here had done it. At times I was as clear of his innocence as I was of my own; and whenever I took to reasoning about it, I saw he could not have been the man that did it. Still I never thought of Barton.”

“And yet by his confession he must have been absent at the time,” said Mr. Carson, referring to his slip of paper.

“Ay, and for many a day after — I can’t rightly say how long. But still, you see, one’s often blind to many a thing that lies right under one’s nose, till it’s pointed out. And till I heard what John Barton had to say yon night, I could not have seen what reason he had for doing it; while in the case of Jem, any one who looked at Mary Barton might have seen a cause for jealousy clear enough.”

“Then you believe that Barton had no knowledge of my son’s unfortunate”— he looked at Jem —“of his attentions to Mary Barton. This young man, Wilson, has heard of them, you see.”

“The person who told me said clearly she neither had, nor would tell Mary’s father,” interposed Jem. “I don’t believe he’d ever heard of it; he weren’t a man to keep still in such a matter, if he had.”

“Besides,” said Job, “the reason he gave on his death-bed, so to speak, was enough; ‘specially to those who knew him.”

“You mean his feelings regarding the treatment of the workmen by the masters; you think he acted from motives of revenge, in consequence of the part my son had taken in putting down the strike?”

“Well, sir,” replied Job, “it’s hard to say: John Barton was not a man to take counsel with people; nor did he make many words about his doings. So I can only judge from his way of thinking and talking in general, never having heard him breathe a syllable concerning this matter in particular. You see he were sadly put about to make great riches and great poverty square with Christ’s Gospel”— Job paused, in order to try and express what was clear enough in his own mind, as to the effect produced on John Barton by the great and mocking contrasts presented by the varieties of human condition. Before he could find suitable words to explain his meaning, Mr. Carson spoke. “You mean he was an Owenite; all for equality and community of goods, and that kind of absurdity.”

“No, no! John Barton was no fool. No need to tell him that were all men equal to-night, some would get the start by rising an hour earlier tomorrow. Nor yet did he care for goods, nor wealth — no man less, so that he could get daily bread for him and his; but what hurt him sore, and rankled in him as long as I knew him (and, sir, it rankles in many a poor man’s heart far more than the want of any creature-comforts, and puts a sting into starvation itself), was that those who wore finer clothes, and eat better food, and had more money in their pockets, kept him at arm’s length, and cared not whether his heart was sorry or glad; whether he lived or died — whether he was bound for heaven or hell. It seemed hard to him that a heap of gold should part him and his brother so far asunder. For he was a loving man before he grew mad with seeing such as he was slighted, as if Christ Himself had not been poor. At one time, I’ve heard him say, he felt kindly towards every man, rich or poor, because he thought they were all men alike. But latterly he grew aggravated with the sorrows and suffering that he saw, and which he thought the masters might help if they would.”

“That’s the notion you’ve all of you got,” said Mr. Carson. “Now, how in the world can we help it? We cannot regulate the demand for labour. No man or set of men can do it. It depends on events which God alone can control. When there is no market for our goods, we suffer just as much as you can do.”

“Not as much, I’m sure, sir; though I’m not given to Political Economy, I know that much. I’m wanting in learning, I’m aware; but I can use my eyes. I never see the masters getting thin and haggard for want of food; I hardly ever see them making much change in their way of living, though I don’t doubt they’ve got to do it in bad times. But it’s in things for show they cut short; while for such as me, it’s in things for life we’ve to stint. For sure, sir, you’ll own it’s come to a hard pass when a man would give aught in the world for work to keep his children from starving, and can’t get a bit, if he’s ever so willing to labour. I’m not up to talking as John Barton would have done, but that’s clear to me at any rate.”

“My good man, just listen to me. Two men live in solitude; one produces loaves of bread, the other coats — or what you will. Now, would it not be hard if the bread-producer were forced to give bread for the coats, whether he wanted them or not, in order to furnish employment to the other? That is the simple form of the case; you’ve only to multiply the numbers. There will come times of great changes in the occupation of thousands, when improvements in manufactures and machinery are made. It’s all nonsense talking — it must be so!”

Job Legh pondered a few moments.

“It’s true it was a sore time for the hand-loom weavers when power-looms came in: them new-fangled things make a man’s life like a lottery; and yet I’ll never misdoubt that power-looms and railways, and all such-like inventions, are the gifts of God. I have lived long enough, too, to see that it is a part of His plan to send suffering to bring out a higher good; but surely it’s also a part of His plan that so much of the burden of the suffering as can be should be lightened by those whom it is His pleasure to make happy, and content in their own circumstances. Of course it would take a deal more thought and wisdom than me, or any other man has, to settle out of hand how this should be done. But I’m clear about this, when God gives a blessing to be enjoyed, He gives it with a duty to be done; and the duty of the happy is to help the suffering to bear their woe.”

“Still facts have proved, and are daily proving, how much better it is for every man to be independent of help, and self-reliant,” said Mr. Carson thoughtfully.

“You can never work facts as you would fixed quantities, and say, given two facts, and the product is so and so. God has given men feelings and passions which cannot be worked into the problem, because they are for ever changing and uncertain. God has also made some weak; not in any one way, but in all. One is weak in body, another in mind, another in steadiness of purpose, a fourth can’t tell right from wrong, and so on; or if he can tell the right, he wants strength to hold by it. Now, to my thinking, them that is strong in any of God’s gifts is meant to help the weak — be hanged to the facts! I ask your pardon, sir; I can’t rightly explain the meaning that is in me. I’m like a tap as won’t run, but keeps letting it out drop by drop, so that you’ve no notion of the force of what’s within.”

Job looked and felt very sorrowful at the want of power in his words, while the feeling within him was so strong and clear.

“What you say is very true, no doubt,” replied Mr. Carson; “but how would you bring it to bear upon the masters’ conduct — on my particular case?” added he gravely.

“I’m not learned enough to argue. Thoughts come into my head that I’m sure are as true as Gospel, though maybe they don’t follow each other like the Q.E.D. of a Proposition. The masters has it on their own conscience — you have it on yours, sir, to answer for to God whether you’ve done, and are doing all in your power to lighten the evils that seem always to hang on the trades by which you make your fortunes. It’s no business of mine, thank God. John Barton took the question in hand, and his answer to it was NO! Then he grew bitter, and angry, and mad; and in his madness he did a great sin, and wrought a great woe; and repented him with tears of blood, and will go through his penance humbly and meekly in t’other place, I’ll be bound. I never seed such bitter repentance as his that last night.”

There was a silence of many minutes. Mr. Carson had covered his face, and seemed utterly forgetful of their presence; and yet they did not like to disturb him by rising to leave the room.

At last he said, without meeting their sympathetic eyes —

“Thank you both for coming — and for speaking candidly to me. I fear, Legh, neither you nor I have convinced each other, as to the power, or want of power, in the masters to remedy the evils the men complain of.”

“I’m loth to vex you, sir, just now; but it was not the want of power I was talking on; what we all feel sharpest is the want of inclination to try and help the evils which come like blights at times over the manufacturing places, while we see the masters can stop work and not suffer. If we saw the masters try for our sakes to find a remedy — even if they were long about it — even if they could find no help, and at the end of all could only say, ‘Poor fellows, our hearts are sore for ye; we’ve done all we could, and can’t find a cure,’— we’d bear up like men through bad times. No one knows till they have tried, what power of bearing lies in them, if once they believe that men are caring for their sorrows and will help if they can. If fellow-creatures can give nought but tears and brave words, we take our trials straight from God, and we know enough of His love to put ourselves blind into His hands. You say our talk has done no good. I say it has. I see the view you take of things from the place where you stand. I can remember that, when the time comes for judging you; I shan’t think any longer, does he act right on my views of a thing, but does he act right on his own. It has done me good in that way. I’m an old man, and may never see you again; but I’ll pray for you, and think on you and your trials, both of your great wealth, and of your son’s cruel death, many and many a day to come; and I’ll ask God to bless both to you now and for evermore. Amen. Farewell!”

Jem had maintained a manly and dignified reserve ever since he had made his open statement of all he knew. Now both the men rose and bowed low, looking at Mr. Carson with the deep human interest they could not fail to take in one who had endured and forgiven a deep injury; and who struggled hard, as it was evident he did, to bear up like a man under his affliction.

He bowed low in return to them. Then he suddenly came forward and shook them by the hand; and thus, without a word more, they parted.

There are stages in the contemplation and endurance of great sorrow, which endow men with the same earnestness and clearness of thought that in some of old took the form of Prophecy. To those who have large capability of loving and suffering, united with great power of firm endurance, there comes a time in their woe, when they are lifted out of the contemplation of their individual case into a searching inquiry into the nature of their calamity, and the remedy (if remedy there be) which may prevent its recurrence to others as well as to themselves.

Hence the beautiful, noble efforts which are from time to time brought to light, as being continuously made by those who have once hung on the cross of agony, in order that others may not suffer as they have done; one of the grandest ends which sorrow can accomplish; the sufferer wrestling with God’s messenger until a blessing is left behind, not for one alone but for generations.

It took time before the stern nature of Mr. Carson was compelled to the recognition of this secret of comfort, and that same sternness prevented his reaping any benefit in public estimation from the actions he performed; for the character is more easily changed than the habits and manners originally formed by that character, and to his dying day Mr. Carson was considered hard and cold by those who only casually saw him or superficially knew him. But those who were admitted into his confidence were aware, that the wish that lay nearest to his heart was that none might suffer from the cause from which he had suffered; that a perfect understanding, and complete confidence and love, might exist between masters and men; that the truth might be recognised that the interests of one were the interests of all, and, as such, required the consideration and deliberation of all; that hence it was most desirable to have educated workers, capable of judging, not mere machines of ignorant men: and to have them bound to their employers by the ties of respect and affection, not by mere money bargains alone; in short, to acknowledge the Spirit of Christ as the regulating law between both parties.

Many of the improvements now in practice in the system of employment in Manchester, owe their origin to short, earnest sentences spoken by Mr. Carson. Many and many yet to be carried into execution, take their birth from that stern, thoughtful mind, which submitted to be taught by suffering.

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