“I saw where stark and cold he lay,
Beneath the gallows-tree,
And every one did point and say,
‘’Twas there he died for thee!’
. . .
“Oh! weeping heart! Oh! bleeding heart!
What boots thy pity now?
Bid from his eyes that shade depart,
That death-damp from his brow!”
—“THE BIRTLE TRAGEDY.”
So there was no more peace in the house of sickness except to Alice, the dying Alice.
But Mary knew nothing of the afternoon’s occurrences; and gladly did she breathe in the fresh air, as she left Miss Simmonds’ house, to hasten to the Wilsons’. The very change, from the indoor to the outdoor atmosphere, seemed to alter the current of her thoughts. She thought less of the dreadful subject which had so haunted her all day; she cared less for the upbraiding speeches of her fellow-workwomen; the old association of comfort and sympathy received from Alice gave her the idea that, even now, her bodily presence would soothe and compose those who were in trouble, changed, unconscious, and absent though her spirit might be.
Then, again, she reproached herself a little for the feeling of pleasure she experienced, in thinking that he whom she dreaded could never more beset her path; in the security with which she could pass each street corner — each shop, where he used to lie in ambush. Oh! beating heart! was there no other little thought of joy lurking within, to gladden the very air without! Was she not going to meet, to see, to hear Jem; and could they fail at last to understand each other’s loving hearts!
She softly lifted the latch, with the privilege of friendship. HE was not there, but his mother was standing by the fire, stirring some little mess or other. Never mind! he would come soon: and with an unmixed desire to do her graceful duty to all belonging to him, she stepped lightly forwards, unheard by the old lady, who was partly occupied by the simmering, bubbling sound of her bit of cookery; but more with her own sad thoughts, and wailing, half-uttered murmurings.
Mary took off bonnet and shawl with speed, and advancing, made Mrs. Wilson conscious of her presence, by saying —
“Let me do that for you. I’m sure you mun be tired.”
Mrs. Wilson slowly turned round, and her eyes gleamed like those of a pent-up wild beast, as she recognised her visitor.
“And is it thee that dares set foot in this house, after what has come to pass? Is it not enough to have robbed me of my boy with thy arts and thy profligacy, but thou must come here to crow over me — me — his mother? Dost thou know where he is, thou bad hussy, with thy great blue eyes and yellow hair, to lead men on to ruin? Out upon thee with thy angel’s face, thou whited sepulchre! Dost thou know where Jem is, all through thee?”
“No!” quivered out poor Mary, scarcely conscious that she spoke, so daunted, so terrified was she by the indignant mother’s greeting.
“He’s lying in th’ New Bailey,” slowly and distinctly spoke the mother, watching the effect of her words, as if believing in their infinite power to pain. “There he lies, waiting to take his trial for murdering young Mr. Carson.”
There was no answer; but such a blanched face, such wild, distended eyes, such trembling limbs, instinctively seeking support!
“Did you know Mr. Carson as now lies dead?” continued the merciless woman. “Folk say you did, and knew him but too well. And that for the sake of such as you, my precious child shot yon chap. But he did not. I know he did not. They may hang him, but his mother will speak to his innocence with her last dying breath.”
She stopped more from exhaustion than want of words. Mary spoke, but in so changed and choked a voice that the old woman almost started. It seemed as if some third person must be in the room, the voice was so hoarse and strange.
“Please say it again. I don’t quite understand you. What has Jem done? Please to tell me.”
“I never said he had done it. I said, and I’ll swear, that he never did do it. I don’t care who heard ’em quarrel, or if it is his gun as were found near the body. It’s not my own Jem as would go for to kill any man, choose how a girl had jilted him. My own good Jem, as was a blessing sent upon the house where he was born.” Tears came into the mother’s burning eyes as her heart recurred to the days when she had rocked the cradle of her “first-born”; and then, rapidly passing over events, till the full consciousness of his present situation came upon her, and perhaps annoyed at having shown any softness of character in the presence of the Delilah who had lured him to his danger, she spoke again, and in a sharp tone.
“I told him, and told him to leave off thinking on thee; but he wouldn’t be led by me. Thee! wench! thou wert not good enough to wipe the dust off his feet. A vile, flirting quean as thou art. It’s well thy mother does not know (poor body) what a good-for-nothing thou art.”
“Mother! O mother!” said Mary, as if appealing to the merciful dead. “But I was not good enough for him! I know I was not,” added she, in a voice of touching humility.
For through her heart went tolling the ominous, prophetic words he had used when he had last spoken to her —
“Mary! you’ll maybe hear of me as a drunkard, and maybe as a thief, and maybe as a murderer. Remember! when all are speaking ill of me, yo will have no right to blame me, for it’s your cruelty that will have made me what I feel I shall become.”
And she did not blame him, though she doubted not his guilt; she felt how madly she might act if once jealous of him, and how much cause had she not given him for jealousy, miserable guilty wretch that she was! Speak on, desolate mother. Abuse her as you will. Her broken spirit feels to have merited all.
But her last humble, self-abased words had touched Mrs. Wilson’s heart, sore as it was; and she looked at the snow-pale girl with those piteous eyes, so hopeless of comfort, and she relented in spite of herself.
“Thou seest what comes of light conduct, Mary! It’s thy doing that suspicion has lighted on him, who is as innocent as the babe unborn. Thou’lt have much to answer for if he’s hung. Thou’lt have my death too at thy door!”
Harsh as these words seem, she spoke them in a milder tone of voice than she had yet used. But the idea of Jem on the gallows, Jem dead, took possession of Mary, and she covered her eyes with her wan hands, as if indeed to shut out the fearful sight.
She murmured some words, which, though spoken low, as if choked up from the depths of agony, Jane Wilson caught. “My heart is breaking,” said she feebly. “My heart is breaking.”
“Nonsense!” said Mrs. Wilson. “Don’t talk in that silly way. My heart has a better right to break than yours, and yet I hold up, you see. But, oh dear! oh dear!” with a sudden revulsion of feeling, as the reality of the danger in which her son was placed pressed upon her. “What am I saying? How could I hold up if thou wert gone, Jem? Though I’m as sure as I stand here of thy innocence, if they hang thee, my lad, I will lie down and die!”
She wept aloud with bitter consciousness of the fearful chance awaiting her child. She cried more passionately still.
Mary roused herself up.
“Oh, let me stay with you, at any rate, till we know the end. Dearest Mrs. Wilson, mayn’t I stay?”
The more obstinately and upbraidingly Mrs. Wilson refused, the more Mary pleaded, with ever the same soft entreating cry, “Let me stay with you.” Her stunned soul seem to bound its wishes, for the hour at least, to remaining with one who loved and sorrowed for the same human being that she did.
But no. Mrs. Wilson was inflexible.
“I’ve, maybe, been a bit hard on you, Mary, I’ll own that. But I cannot abide you yet with me. I cannot but remember it’s your giddiness as has wrought this woe. I’ll stay with Alice, and perhaps Mrs. Davenport may come help a bit. I cannot put up with you about me. Good-night. To-morrow I may look on you different, maybe. Good-night.”
And Mary turned out of the house, which had been HIS home, where HE was loved, and mourned for, into the busy, desolate, crowded street, where they were crying halfpenny broadsides, giving an account of the bloody murder, the coroner’s inquest, and a raw-head-and-bloody-bones picture of the suspected murderer, James Wilson.
But Mary heard not; she heeded not. She staggered on like one in a dream. With hung head and tottering steps, she instinctively chose the shortest cut to that home which was to her, in her present state of mind, only the hiding-place of four walls, where she might vent her agony, unseen and unnoticed by the keen unkind world without, but where no welcome, no love, no sympathising tears awaited her.
As she neared that home, within two minutes’ walk of it, her impetuous course was arrested by a light touch on her arm, and turning hastily she saw a little Italian boy with his humble show-box, a white mouse, or some such thing. The setting sun cast its red glow on his face, otherwise the olive complexion would have been very pale; and the glittering tear-drops hung on the long-curled eye-lashes. With his soft voice and pleading looks, he uttered, in his pretty broken English, the words —
“Hungry! so hungry.”
And as if to aid by gesture the effect of the solitary word, he pointed to his mouth, with its white quivering lips.
Mary answered him impatiently, “O lad, hunger is nothing — nothing!”
And she rapidly passed on. But her heart upbraided her the next minute with her unrelenting speech, and she hastily entered her door and seized the scanty remnant of food which the cupboard contained, and she retraced her steps to the place where the little hopeless stranger had sunk down by his mute companion in loneliness and starvation, and was raining down tears as he spoke in some foreign tongue, with low cries for the far distant “Mamma mia!”
With the elasticity of heart belonging to childhood he sprang up as he saw the food the girl brought; she whose face, lovely in its woe, had tempted him first to address her; and, with the graceful courtesy of his country, he looked up and smiled while he kissed her hand, and then poured forth his thanks, and shared her bounty with his little pet companion. She stood an instant, diverted from the thought of her own grief by the sight of his infantine gladness; and then bending down and kissing his smooth forehead, she left him, and sought to be alone with her agony once more.
She re-entered the house, locked the door, and tore off her bonnet, as if greedy of every moment which took her from the full indulgence of painful, despairing thought.
Then she threw herself on the ground, yes, on the hard flags she threw her soft limbs down; and the comb fell out of her hair, and those bright tresses swept the dusty floor, while she pillowed and hid her face on her arms, and burst forth into loud, suffocating sobs.
O earth! thou didst seem but a dreary dwelling-place for thy poor child that night. None to comfort, none to pity! And self-reproach gnawing at her heart.
Oh, why did she ever listen to the tempter? Why did she ever give ear to her own suggestions, and cravings after wealth and grandeur? Why had she thought it a fine thing to have a rich lover?
She — she had deserved it all: but he was the victim — he, the beloved. She could not conjecture, she could not even pause to think who had revealed, or how he had discovered her acquaintance with Harry Carson. It was but too clear, some way or another, he had learnt all; and what would he think of her? No hope of his love — oh, that she would give up, and be content: it was his life, his precious life, that was threatened! Then she tried to recall the particulars, which, when Mrs. Wilson had given them, had fallen but upon a deafened ear — something about a gun, a quarrel, which she could not remember clearly. Oh, how terrible to think of his crime, his blood-guiltiness; he who had hitherto been so good, so noble, and now an assassin! And then she shrank from him in thought; and then, with bitter remorse, clung more closely to his image with passionate self-upbraiding. Was it not she who had led him to the pit into which he had fallen? Was she to blame him? She to judge him? Who could tell how maddened he might have been by jealousy; how one moment’s uncontrollable passion might have led him to become a murderer! And she had blamed him in her heart after his last deprecating, imploring, prophetic speech!
Then she burst out crying afresh; and when weary of crying, fell to thinking again. The gallows! The gallows! Black it stood against the burning light which dazzled her shut eyes, press on them as she would. Oh! she was going mad; and for awhile she lay outwardly still, but with the pulses careering through her head with wild vehemence.
And then came a strange forgetfulness of the present, in thought of the long-past times; — of those days when she hid her face on her mother’s pitying, loving bosom, and heard tender words of comfort, be her grief or her error what it might; — of those days when she had felt as if her mother’s love was too mighty not to last for ever; — of those days when hunger had been to her (as to the little stranger she had that evening relieved) something to be thought about, and mourned over; — when Jem and she had played together; he, with the condescension of an older child, and she, with unconscious earnestness, believing that he was as much gratified with important trifles as she was; — when her father was a cheery-hearted man, rich in the love of his wife, and the companionship of his friend; — when (for it still worked round to that), when mother was alive, and HE was not a murderer.
And then Heaven blessed her unaware, and she sank from remembering, to wandering, unconnected thought, and thence to sleep. Yes! it was sleep, though in that strange posture, on that hard cold bed; and she dreamt of the happy times of long ago, and her mother came to her, and kissed her as she lay, and once more the dead were alive again in that happy world of dreams. All was restored to the gladness of childhood, even to the little kitten which had been her playmate and bosom friend then, and which had been long forgotten in her waking hours. All the loved ones were there!
She suddenly wakened! Clear and wide awake! Some noise had startled her from sleep. She sat up, and put her hair (still wet with tears) back from her flushed cheeks, and listened. At first she could only hear her beating heart. All was still without, for it was after midnight, such hours of agony had passed away; but the moon shone clearly in at the unshuttered window, making the room almost as light as day, in its cold ghastly radiance. There was a low knock at the door! A strange feeling crept over Mary’s heart, as if something spiritual were near; as if the dead, so lately present in her dreams, were yet gliding and hovering round her, with their dim, dread forms. And yet, why dread? Had they not loved her? — and who loved her now? Was she not lonely enough to welcome the spirits of the dead, who had loved her while here? If her mother had conscious being, her love for her child endured. So she quieted her fears, and listened — listened still.
“Mary! Mary! open the door!” as a little movement on her part seemed to tell the being outside of her wakeful, watchful state. They were the accents of her mother’s voice; the very south-country pronunciation, that Mary so well remembered; and which she had sometimes tried to imitate when alone, with the fond mimicry of affection.
So, without fear, without hesitation, she rose and unbarred the door. There, against the moonlight, stood a form, so closely resembling her dead mother, that Mary never doubted the identity, but exclaiming (as if she were a terrified child, secure of safety when near the protecting care of its parent)—
“O mother! mother! you are come at last?” she threw herself, or rather fell, into the trembling arms of her long-lost, unrecognised aunt, Esther.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09