“Oh, had he lived,
Replied Rusilla, never penitence
Had equalled his! full well I knew his heart,
Vehement in all things. He would on himself
Have wreaked such penance as had reached the height
Of fleshy suffering — yea, which being told,
With its portentous rigour should have made
The memory of his fault o’erpowered and lost,
In shuddering pity and astonishment,
Fade like a feeble horror.”
— SOUTHEY’S Roderick.
As Mary was turning into the street where the Wilsons lived, Jem overtook her. He came upon her suddenly, and she started. “You’re going to see mother?” he asked tenderly, placing her arm within his, and slackening his pace.
“Yes, and you too. O Jem, is it true? tell me.”
She felt rightly that he would guess the meaning of her only half-expressed inquiry. He hesitated a moment before he answered her.
“Darling, it is; it’s no use hiding it — if you mean that I’m no longer to work at Duncombe’s foundry. It’s no time (to my mind) to have secrets from each other, though I did not name it yesterday, thinking you might fret. I shall soon get work again, never fear.”
“But why did they turn you off, when the jury had said you were innocent?”
“It was not just to say turned off, though I don’t think I could have well stayed on. A good number of the men managed to let out they should not like to work under me again; there were some few who knew me well enough to feel I could not have done it, but more were doubtful; and one spoke to young Mr. Duncombe, hinting at what they thought.”
“O Jem! what a shame!” said Mary, with mournful indignation.
“Nay, darling! I’m not for blaming them. Poor fellows like them have nought to stand upon and be proud of but their character, and it’s fitting they should take care of that, and keep that free from soil and taint.”
“But you — what could they get but good from you? They might have known you by this time.”
“So some do; the overlooker, I’m sure, would know I’m innocent. Indeed, he said as much today; and he said he had had some talk with old Mr. Duncombe, and they thought it might be better if I left Manchester for a bit; they’d recommend me to some other place.”
But Mary could only shake her head in a mournful way, and repeat her words —
“They might have known thee better, Jem.”
Jem pressed the little hand he held between his own work-hardened ones. After a minute or two, he asked —
“Mary, art thou much bound to Manchester? Would it grieve thee sore to quit the old smoke-jack?”
“With thee?” she asked, in a quiet, glancing way.
“Ay, lass! Trust me, I’ll never ask thee to leave Manchester while I’m in it. Because I have heard fine things of Canada; and our overlooker has a cousin in the foundry line there. Thou knowest where Canada is, Mary?”
“Not rightly — not now, at any rate; — but with thee, Jem,” her voice sunk to a soft, low whisper, “anywhere”—
What was the use of a geographical description?
“But father!” said Mary, suddenly breaking that delicious silence with the one sharp discord in her present life.
She looked up at her lover’s grave face; and then the message her father had sent flashed across her memory.
“O Jem, did I tell you? Father sent word he wished to speak with you. I was to bid you come to him at eight to-night. What can he want, Jem?”
“I cannot tell,” replied he. “At any rate, I’ll go. It’s no use troubling ourselves to guess,” he continued, after a pause for a few minutes, during which they slowly and silently paced up and down the by-street, into which he had led her when their conversation began. “Come and see mother, and then I’ll take thee home, Mary. Thou wert all in a tremble when first I came up to thee; thou’rt not fit to be trusted home by thyself,” said he, with fond exaggeration of her helplessness.
Yet a little more lovers’ loitering! a few more words, in themselves nothing — to you nothing — but to those two, what tender passionate language can I use to express the feelings which thrilled through that young man and maiden, as they listened to the syllables made dear and lovely through life by that hour’s low-whispered talk.
It struck the half-hour past seven.
“Come and speak to mother; she knows you’re to be her daughter, Mary, darling.”
So they went in. Jane Wilson was rather chafed at her son’s delay in returning home, for as yet he had managed to keep her in ignorance of his dismissal from the foundry; and it was her way to prepare some little pleasure, some little comfort for those she loved; and if they, unwittingly, did not appear at the proper time to enjoy her preparation, she worked herself up into a state of fretfulness which found vent in upbraidings as soon as ever the objects of her care appeared, thereby marring the peace which should ever be the atmosphere of a home, however humble; and causing a feeling almost amounting to loathing to arise at the sight of the “stalled ox,” which, though an effect and proof of careful love, has been the cause of so much disturbance.
Mrs. Wilson at first sighed, and then grumbled to herself, over the increasing toughness of the potato-cakes she had made for her son’s tea.
The door opened, and he came in; his face brightening into proud smiles, Mary Barton hanging on his arm, blushing and dimpling, with eyelids veiling the happy light of her eyes — there was around the young couple a radiant atmosphere — a glory of happiness.
Could his mother mar it? Could she break into it with her Martha-like cares? Only for one moment did she remember her sense of injury — her wasted trouble — and then her whole woman’s heart heaving with motherly love and sympathy, she opened her arms, and received Mary into them, as shedding tears of agitated joy, she murmured in her ear —
“Bless thee, Mary, bless thee! Only make him happy, and God bless thee for ever!”
It took some of Jem’s self-command to separate those whom he so much loved, and who were beginning, for his sake, to love one another so dearly. But the time for his meeting John Barton drew on: and it was a long way to his house.
As they walked briskly thither they hardly spoke; though many thoughts were in their minds.
The sun had not long set, but the first faint shade of twilight was over all; and when they opened the door, Jem could hardly perceive the objects within by the waning light of day, and the flickering fire-blaze.
But Mary saw all at a glance.
Her eye, accustomed to what was usual in the aspect of the room, saw instantly what was unusual — saw and understood it all.
Her father was standing behind his habitual chair; holding by the back of it as if for support. And opposite to him there stood Mr. Carson; the dark outline of his stern figure looming large against the light of the fire in that little room.
Behind her father sat Job Legh, his head in his hands, and resting his elbow on the little family table, listening evidently; but as evidently deeply affected by what he heard.
There seemed to be some pause in the conversation. Mary and Jem stood at the half-open door, not daring to stir; hardly to breathe.
“And have I heard you aright?” began Mr. Carson, with his deep quivering voice. “Man! have I heard you aright? Was it you, then, that killed my boy? my only son?”—(he said these last few words almost as if appealing for pity, and then he changed his tone to one more vehement and fierce). “Don’t dare to think that I shall be merciful, and spare you, because you have come forward to accuse yourself. I tell you I will not spare you the least pang the law can inflict — you, who did not show pity on my boy, shall have none from me.”
“I did not ask for any,” said John Barton, in a low voice.
“Ask, or not ask, what care I? You shall be hanged — hanged — man!” said he, advancing his face, and repeating the word with slow, grinding emphasis, as if to infuse some of the bitterness of his soul into it.
John Barton gasped, but not with fear. It was only that he felt it terrible to have inspired such hatred, as was concentrated into every word, every gesture of Mr. Carson’s.
“As for being hanged, sir, I know it’s all right and proper. I dare say it’s bad enough; but I tell you what, sir,” speaking with an outburst, “if you’d hanged me the day after I’d done the deed, I would have gone down on my knees and blessed you. Death! Lord, what is it to Life? To such a life as I’ve been leading this fortnight past. Life at best is no great thing; but such a life as I have dragged through since that night,” he shuddered at the thought. “Why, sir, I’ve been on the point of killing myself this many a time to get away from my own thoughts. I didn’t! and I’ll tell you why. I didn’t know but that I should be more haunted than ever with the recollection of my sin. Oh! God above only can tell the agony with which I’ve repented me of it, and part perhaps because I feared He would think I were impatient of the misery He sent as punishment — far, far worse misery than any hanging, sir.”
He ceased from excess of emotion.
Then he began again.
“Sin’ that day (it may be very wicked, sir, but it’s the truth) I’ve kept thinking and thinking if I were but in that world where they say God is, He would, maybe, teach me right from wrong, even if it were with many stripes. I’ve been sore puzzled here. I would go through hell-fire if I could but get free from sin at last, it’s such an awful thing. As for hanging, that’s just nought at all.”
His exhaustion compelled him to sit down. Mary rushed to him. It seemed as if till then he had been unaware of her presence.
“Ay, ay, wench!” said he feebly, “is it thee? Where’s Jem Wilson?”
Jem came forward.
John Barton spoke again, with many a break and gasping pause —
“Lad! thou hast borne a deal for me. It’s the meanest thing I ever did to leave thee to bear the brunt. Thou, who wert as innocent of any knowledge of it as the babe unborn. I’ll not bless thee for it. Blessing from such as me would not bring thee any good. Thou’lt love Mary, though she is my child.”
He ceased, and there was a pause for a few seconds.
Then Mr. Carson turned to go.
When his hand was on the latch of the door, he hesitated for an instant.
“You can have no doubt for what purpose I go. Straight to the police-office, to send men to take care of you, wretched man, and your accomplice. To-morrow morning your tale shall be repeated to those who can commit you to gaol, and before long you shall have the opportunity of trying how desirable hanging is.”
“O sir!” said Mary, springing forward, and catching hold of Mr. Carson’s arm, “my father is dying. Look at him, sir. If you want Death for Death you have it. Don’t take him away from me these last hours. He must go alone through Death, but let me be with him as long as I can. O sir! if you have any mercy in you, leave him here to die.”
John himself stood up, stiff and rigid, and replied —
“Mary, wench! I owe him summit. I will go die, where, and as he wishes me. Thou hast said true, I am standing side by side with Death; and it matters little where I spend the bit of time left of life. That time I must pass wrestling with my soul for a character to take into the other world. I’ll go where you see fit, sir. He’s innocent,” faintly indicating Jem, as he fell back in his chair.
“Never fear! They cannot touch him,” said Job Legh, in a low voice.
But as Mr. Carson was on the point of leaving the house with no sign of relenting about him, he was again stopped by John Barton, who had risen once more from his chair, and stood supporting himself on Jem, while he spoke.
“Sir, one word! My hairs are grey with suffering, and yours with years”—
“And have I had no suffering?” asked Mr. Carson, as if appealing for sympathy, even to the murderer of his child.
And the murderer of his child answered to the appeal, and groaned in spirit over the anguish he had caused.
“Have I had no inward suffering to blanch these hairs? Have not I toiled and struggled even to these years with hopes in my heart that all centred in my boy? I did not speak of them, but were they not there? I seemed hard and cold; and so I might be to others, but not to him! — who shall ever imagine the love I bore to him? Even he never dreamed how my heart leapt up at the sound of his footstep, and how precious he was to his poor old father. And he is gone — killed — out of the hearing of all loving words — out of my sight for ever. He was my sunshine, and now it is night! Oh, my God! comfort me, comfort me!” cried the old man aloud.
The eyes of John Barton grew dim with tears.
Rich and poor, masters and men, were then brothers in the deep suffering of the heart; for was not this the very anguish he had felt for little Tom, in years so long gone by, that they seemed like another life!
The mourner before him was no longer the employer; a being of another race, eternally placed in antagonistic attitude; going through the world glittering like gold, with a stony heart within, which knew no sorrow but through the accidents of Trade; no longer the enemy, the oppressor, but a very poor and desolate old man.
The sympathy for suffering, formerly so prevalent a feeling with him, again filled John Barton’s heart, and almost impelled him to speak (as best he could) some earnest, tender words to the stern man, shaking in his agony.
But who was he, that he should utter sympathy or consolation? The cause of all this woe.
Oh, blasting thought! Oh, miserable remembrance! He had forfeited all right to bind up his brother’s wounds.
Stunned by the thought, he sank upon the seat, almost crushed with the knowledge of the consequences of his own action; for he had no more imagined to himself the blighted home, and the miserable parents, than does the soldier, who discharges his musket, picture to himself the desolation of the wife, and the pitiful cries of the helpless little ones, who are in an instant to be made widowed and fatherless.
To intimidate a class of men, known only to those below them as desirous to obtain the greatest quantity of work for the lowest wages — at most to remove an overbearing partner from an obnoxious firm, who stood in the way of those who struggled as well as they were able to obtain their rights — this was the light in which John Barton had viewed his deed; and even so viewing it, after the excitement had passed away, the Avenger, the sure Avenger, had found him out.
But now he knew that he had killed a man, and a brother — now he knew that no good thing could come out of this evil, even to the sufferers whose cause he had so blindly espoused.
He lay across the table, broken-hearted. Every fresh quivering sob of Mr. Carson’s stabbed him to his soul.
He felt execrated by all; and as if he could never lay bare the perverted reasonings which had made the performance of undoubted sin appear a duty. The longing to plead some faint excuse grew stronger and stronger. He feebly raised his head, and looking at Job Legh, he whispered out —
“I did not know what I was doing, Job Legh; God knows I didn’t! O sir!” said he wildly, almost throwing himself at Mr. Carson’s feet, “say you forgive me the anguish I now see I have caused you. I care not for pain, or death, you know I don’t; but oh, man! forgive me the trespass I have done!”
“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us,” said Job, solemnly and low, as if in prayer: as if the words were suggested by those John Barton had used.
Mr. Carson took his hands away from his face. I would rather see death than the ghastly gloom which darkened that countenance.
“Let my trespasses be unforgiven, so that I may have vengeance for my son’s murder.”
There are blasphemous actions as well as blasphemous words: all unloving, cruel deeds, are acted blasphemy.
Mr. Carson left the house. And John Barton lay on the ground as one dead.
They lifted him up, and almost hoping that that deep trance might be to him the end of all earthly things, they bore him to his bed.
For a time they listened with divided attention to his faint breathings; for in each hasty hurried step that echoed in the street outside, they thought they heard the approach of the officers of justice.
When Mr. Carson left the house he was dizzy with agitation; the hot blood went careering through his frame. He could not see the deep blue of the night-heavens for the fierce pulses which throbbed in his head. And partly to steady and calm himself, he leaned against a railing, and looked up into those calm majestic depths with all their thousand stars.
And by-and-by his own voice returned upon him, as if the last words he had spoken were being uttered through all that infinite space; but in their echoes there was a tone of unutterable sorrow.
“Let my trespasses be unforgiven, so that I may have vengeance for my son’s murder.”
He tried to shake off the spiritual impression made by this imagination. He was feverish and ill — and no wonder.
So he turned to go homewards; not, as he had threatened, to the police-office. After all (he told himself), that would do in the morning. No fear of the man’s escaping, unless he escaped to the grave.
So he tried to banish the phantom voices and shapes which came unbidden to his brain, and to recall his balance of mind by walking calmly and slowly, and noticing everything which struck his senses.
It was a warm soft evening in spring, and there were many persons in the streets. Among others a nurse with a little girl in her charge, conveying her home from some children’s gaiety; a dance most likely, for the lovely little creature was daintily decked out in soft, snowy muslin; and her fairy feet tripped along by her nurse’s side as if to the measure of some tune she had lately kept time to.
Suddenly up behind her there came a rough, rude errand-boy, nine or ten years of age; a giant he looked by the fairy-child, as she fluttered along. I don’t know how it was, but in some awkward way he knocked the poor little girl down upon the hard pavement as he brushed rudely past, not much caring whom he hurt, so that he got along.
The child arose, sobbing with pain; and not without cause, for blood was dropping down from the face, but a minute before so fair and bright — dropping down on the pretty frock, making those scarlet marks so terrible to little children.
The nurse, a powerful woman, had seized the boy, just as Mr. Carson (who had seen the whole transaction) came up.
“You naughty little rascal! I’ll give you to a policeman, that I will! Do you see how you’ve hurt the little girl? Do you?” accompanying every sentence with a violent jerk of passionate anger.
The lad looked hard and defying; but withal terrified at the threat of the policeman, those ogres of our streets to all unlucky urchins. The nurse saw it, and began to drag him along, with a view of making what she called “a wholesome impression.”
His terror increased and with it his irritation; when the little sweet face, choking away its sobs, pulled down nurse’s head and said —
“Please, dear nurse, I’m not much hurt; it was very silly to cry, you know. He did not mean to do it. HE DID NOT KNOW WHAT HE WAS DOING, did you, little boy? Nurse won’t call a policeman, so don’t be frightened.” And she put up her little mouth to be kissed by her injurer, just as she had been taught to do at home to “make peace.”
“That lad will mind, and be more gentle for the time to come, I’ll be bound, thanks to that little lady,” said a passer-by, half to himself, and half to Mr. Carson, whom he had observed to notice the scene.
The latter took no apparent heed of the remark, but passed on. But the child’s pleading reminded him of the low, broken voice he had so lately heard, penitently and humbly urging the same extenuation of his great guilt.
“I did not know what I was doing.”
He had some association with those words; he had heard, or read of that plea somewhere before. Where was it?
“Could it be?”—
He would look when he got home. So when he entered his house he went straight and silently upstairs to his library, and took down the great, large, handsome Bible, all grand and golden, with its leaves adhering together from the bookbinder’s press, so little had it been used.
On the first page (which fell open to Mr. Carson’s view) were written the names of his children, and his own.
“Henry John, son of the above John and Elizabeth Carson.
Born Sept. 29th, 1815.”
To make the entry complete, his death should now be added. But the page became hidden by the gathering mist of tears.
Thought upon thought, and recollection upon recollection came crowding in, from the remembrance of the proud day when he had purchased the costly book, in order to write down the birth of the little babe of a day old.
He laid his head down on the open page, and let the tears fall slowly on the spotless leaves.
His son’s murderer was discovered; had confessed his guilt, and yet (strange to say) he could not hate him with the vehemence of hatred he had felt, when he had imagined him a young man, full of lusty life, defying all laws, human and divine. In spite of his desire to retain the revengeful feeling he considered as a duty to his dead son, something of pity would steal in for the poor, wasted skeleton of a man, the smitten creature, who had told him of his sin, and implored his pardon that night.
In the days of his childhood and youth, Mr. Carson had been accustomed to poverty; but it was honest, decent poverty; not the grinding squalid misery he had remarked in every part of John Barton’s house, and which contrasted strangely with the pompous sumptuousness of the room in which he now sat. Unaccustomed wonder filled his mind at the reflection of the different lots of the brethren of mankind.
Then he roused himself from his reverie, and turned to the object of his search — the Gospel, where he half expected to find the tender pleading: “They know not what they do.”
It was murk midnight by this time, and the house was still and quiet. There was nothing to interrupt the old man in his unwonted study.
Years ago, the Gospel had been his task-book in learning to read. So many years ago, that he had become familiar with the events before he could comprehend the Spirit that made the Life.
He fell to the narrative now afresh, with all the interest of a little child. He began at the beginning, and read on almost greedily, understanding for the first time the full meaning of the story. He came to the end; the awful End. And there were the haunting words of pleading.
He shut the book, and thought deeply.
All night long, the Archangel combated with the Demon.
All night long, others watched by the bed of Death. John Barton had revived to fitful intelligence. He spoke at times with even something of his former energy; and in the racy Lancashire dialect he had always used when speaking freely.
“You see I’ve so often been hankering after the right way; and it’s a hard one for a poor man to find. At least it’s been so to me. No one learned me, and no one telled me. When I was a little chap they taught me to read, and then they never gave no books; only I heard say the Bible was a good book. So when I grew thoughtful, and puzzled, I took to it. But you’d never believe black was black, or night was night, when you saw all about you acting as if black was white, and night was day. It’s not much I can say for myself in t’other world. God forgive me; but I can say this, I would fain have gone after the Bible rules if I’d seen folk credit it; they all spoke up for it, and went and did clean contrary. In those days I would ha’ gone about wi’ my Bible, like a little child, my finger in th’ place, and asking the meaning of this or that text, and no one told me. Then I took out two or three texts as clear as glass, and I tried to do what they bid me do. But I don’t know how it was, masters and men, all alike cared no more for minding those texts, than I did for th’ Lord Mayor of London; so I grew to think it must be a sham put upon poor ignorant folk, women, and such like.
“It was not long I tried to live Gospel-wise, but it was liker heaven than any other bit of earth has been. I’d old Alice to strengthen me; but every one else said, ‘Stand up for thy rights, or thou’lt never get ’em’; and wife and children never spoke, but their helplessness cried aloud, and I was driven to do as others did — and then Tom died. You know all about that — I’m getting scant o’ breath, and blind-like.”
Then again he spoke, after some minutes of hushed silence.
“All along it came natural to love folk, though now I am what I am. I think one time I could e’en have loved the masters if they’d ha’ letten me; that was in my Gospel-days, afore my child died o’ hunger. I was tore in two oftentimes, between my sorrow for poor suffering folk, and my trying to love them as caused their sufferings (to my mind).
“At last I gave it up in despair, trying to make folks’ actions square wi’ th’ Bible; and I thought I’d no longer labour at following th’ Bible mysel. I’ve said all this afore, maybe. But from that time I’ve dropped down, down — down.”
After that he only spoke in broken sentences.
“I did not think he’d been such an old man — oh! that he had but forgiven me,”— and then came earnest, passionate, broken words of prayer.
Job Legh had gone home like one struck down with the unexpected shock.
Mary and Jem together waited the approach of death; but as the final struggle drew on, and morning dawned, Jem suggested some alleviation to the gasping breath, to purchase which he left the house in search of a druggist’s shop, which should be open at that early hour.
During his absence, Barton grew worse; he had fallen across the bed, and his breathing seemed almost stopped; in vain did Mary strive to raise him, her sorrow and exhaustion had rendered her too weak.
So, on hearing some one enter the house-place below, she cried out for Jem to come to her assistance.
A step, which was not Jem’s, came up the stairs.
Mr. Carson stood in the doorway. In one instant he comprehended the case.
He raised up the powerless frame; and the departing soul looked out of the eyes with gratitude. He held the dying man propped in his arms.
John Barton folded his hands as if in prayer.
“Pray for us,” said Mary, sinking on her knees, and forgetting in that solemn hour all that had divided her father and Mr. Carson.
No other words would suggest themselves than some of those he had read only a few hours before —
“God be merciful to us sinners. — Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us!”
And when the words were said, John Barton lay a corpse in Mr. Carson’s arms.
So ended the tragedy of a poor man’s life.
Mary knew nothing more for many minutes. When she recovered consciousness, she found herself supported by Jem on the “settle” in the house-place. Job and Mr. Carson were there, talking together lowly and solemnly. Then Mr. Carson bade farewell and left the house; and Job said aloud, but as if speaking to himself —
“God has heard that man’s prayer. He has comforted him.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09