“Like a bark upon the sea,
Life is floating over death;
Above, below, encircling thee,
Danger lurks in every breath.
“Parted art thou from the grave
Only by a plank most frail;
Tossed upon the restless wave,
Sport of every fickle gale.
“Let the skies be e’er so clear,
And so calm and still the sea,
Shipwreck yet has he to fear
Who life’s voyager will be.”
The early trains for Liverpool, on Monday morning, were crowded by attorneys, attorneys’ clerks, plaintiffs, defendants, and witnesses, all going to the Assizes. They were a motley assembly, each with some cause for anxiety stirring at his heart; though, after all, that is saying little or nothing, for we are all of us in the same predicament through life; each with a fear and a hope from childhood to death. Among the passengers there was Mary Barton, dressed in the blue gown and obnoxious plaid shawl.
Common as railroads are now in all places as a means of transit, and especially in Manchester, Mary had never been on one before; and she felt bewildered by the hurry, the noise of people, and bells, and horns; the whiz and the scream of the arriving trains.
The very journey itself seemed to her a matter of wonder. She had a back seat, and looked towards the factory-chimneys, and the cloud of smoke which hovers over Manchester, with a feeling akin to the “Heimweh.” She was losing sight of the familiar objects of her childhood for the first time; and unpleasant as those objects are to most, she yearned after them with some of the same sentiment which gives pathos to the thoughts of the emigrant.
The cloud-shadows which give beauty to Chat–Moss, the picturesque old houses of Newton, what were they to Mary, whose heart was full of many things? Yet she seemed to look at them earnestly as they glided past; but she neither saw nor heard.
She neither saw nor heard till some well-known names fell upon her ear.
Two lawyers’ clerks were discussing the cases to come on that Assizes; of course, “the murder case,” as it had come to be termed, held a conspicuous place in their conversation.
They had no doubt of the result.
“Juries are always very unwilling to convict on circumstantial evidence, it is true,” said one, “but here there can hardly be any doubt.”
“If it had not been so clear a case,” replied the other, “I should have said they were injudicious in hurrying on the trial so much. Still, more evidence might have been collected.”
“They tell me,” said the first speaker —“the people in Gardener’s office, I mean — that it was really feared the old gentleman would have gone out of his mind, if the trial had been delayed. He was with Mr. Gardener as many as seven times on Saturday, and called him up at night to suggest that some letter should be written, or something done to secure the verdict.”
“Poor old man,” answered his companion, “who can wonder? — an only son — such a death — the disagreeable circumstances attending it; I had not time to read the Guardian on Saturday, but I understand it was some dispute about a factory girl.”
“Yes, some such person. Of course she’ll be examined, and Williams will do it in style. I shall slip out from our court to hear him, if I can hit the nick of time.”
“And if you can get a place, you mean, for depend upon it the court will be crowded.”
“Ay, ay, the ladies (sweet souls) will come in shoals to hear a trial for murder, and see the murderer, and watch the judge put on his black cap.”
“And then go home and groan over the Spanish ladies who take delight in bull-fights —‘such unfeminine creatures!’”
Then they went on to other subjects.
It was but another drop to Mary’s cup; but she was nearly in that state which Crabbe describes —
“For when so full the cup of sorrows flows,
Add but a drop it instantly o’erflows.”
And now they were in the tunnel! — and now they were in Liverpool; and she must rouse herself from the torpor of mind and body which was creeping over her; the result of much anxiety and fatigue, and several sleepless nights.
She asked a policeman the way to Milk House Yard, and following his directions with the savoir faire of a town-bred girl, she reached a little court leading out of a busy, thronged street, not far from the Docks.
When she entered the quiet little yard, she stopped to regain her breath, and to gather strength, for her limbs trembled, and her heart beat violently.
All the unfavourable contingencies she had, until now, forbidden herself to dwell upon, came forward to her mind — the possibility, the bare possibility, of Jem being an accomplice in the murder — the still greater possibility that he had not fulfilled his intention of going part of the way with Will, but had been led off by some little accidental occurrence from his original intention; and that he had spent the evening with those, whom it was now too late to bring forward as witnesses.
But sooner or later she must know the truth; so, taking courage, she knocked at the door of a house.
“Is this Mrs. Jones’s?” she inquired.
“Next door but one,” was the curt answer.
And even this extra minute was a reprieve.
Mrs. Jones was busy washing, and would have spoken angrily to the person who knocked so gently at the door, if anger had been in her nature; but she was a soft, helpless kind of woman, and only sighed over the many interruptions she had had to her business that unlucky Monday morning.
But the feeling which would have been anger in a more impatient temper, took the form of prejudice against the disturber, whoever he or she might be.
Mary’s fluttered and excited appearance strengthened this prejudice in Mrs. Jones’s mind, as she stood, stripping the soap-suds off her arms, while she eyed her visitor, and waited to be told what her business was.
But no words would come. Mary’s voice seemed choked up in her throat.
“Pray what do you want, young woman?” coldly asked Mrs. Jones at last.
“I want — oh! is Will Wilson here?”
“No, he is not,” replied Mrs. Jones, inclining to shut the door in her face.
“Is he not come back from the Isle of Man?” asked Mary, sickening.
“He never went; he stayed in Manchester too long; as perhaps you know, already.”
And again the door seemed closing.
But Mary bent forwards with suppliant action (as some young tree bends, when blown by the rough, autumnal wind), and gasped out —
“Tell me — tell — me — where is he?”
Mrs. Jones suspected some love affair, and, perhaps, one of not the most creditable kind; but the distress of the pale young creature before her was so obvious and so pitiable, that were she ever so sinful, Mrs. Jones could no longer uphold her short, reserved manner.
“He’s gone this very morning, my poor girl. Step in, and I’ll tell you about it.”
“Gone!” cried ‘Mary. “How gone? I must see him — it’s a matter of life and death: he can save the innocent from being hanged — he cannot be gone — how gone?”
“Sailed, my dear! sailed in the John Cropper this very blessed morning.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55