“Touch us gently, gentle Time!
We’ve not proud nor soaring wings,
Our ambition, our content,
Lies in simple things;
Humble voyagers are we
O’er life’s dim unsounded sea;
Touch us gently, gentle Time!”
— BARRY CORNWALL.
Not many days after John Barton’s funeral was over, all was arranged respecting Jem’s appointment at Toronto; and the time was fixed for his sailing. It was to take place almost immediately: yet much remained to be done; many domestic preparations were to be made; and one great obstacle, anticipated by both Jem and Mary, to be removed. This was the opposition they expected from Mrs. Wilson, to whom the plan had never yet been named.
They were most anxious that their home should continue ever to be hers, yet they feared that her dislike to a new country might be an insuperable objection to this. At last Jem took advantage of an evening of unusual placidity, as he sat alone with his mother just before going to bed, to broach the subject; and to his surprise she acceded willingly to his proposition of her accompanying himself and his wife.
“To be sure ‘Merica is a long way to flit to; beyond London a good bit I reckon; and quite in foreign parts; but I’ve never had no opinion of England, ever since they could be such fools as to take up a quiet chap like thee, and clap thee in prison. Where you go, I’ll go. Perhaps in them Indian countries they’ll know a well-behaved lad when they see him; ne’er speak a word more, lad, I’ll go.”
Their path became daily more smooth and easy; the present was clear and practicable, the future was hopeful; they had leisure of mind enough to turn to the past.
“Jem!” said Mary to him, one evening as they sat in the twilight, talking together in low happy voices till Margaret should come to keep Mary company through the night, “Jem! you’ve never yet told me how you came to know about my naughty ways with poor young Mr. Carson.” She blushed for shame at the remembrance of her folly, and hid her head on his shoulder while he made answer.
“Darling, I’m almost loth to tell you; your aunt Esther told me.”
“Ah, I remember! but how did she know? I was so put about that night I did not think of asking her. Where did you see her? I’ve forgotten where she lives.”
Mary said all this in so open and innocent a manner, that Jem felt sure she knew not the truth respecting Esther, and he half hesitated to tell her. At length he replied —
“Where did you see Esther lately? When? Tell me, love, for you’ve never named it before, and I can’t make it out.”
“Oh! it was that horrible night, which is like a dream.” And she told him of Esther’s midnight visit, concluding with, “We must go and see her before we leave, though I don’t rightly know where to find her.”
“What, Jem?” exclaimed she, alarmed by his hesitation.
“Your poor aunt Esther has no home:— she’s one of them miserable creatures that walk the streets.” And he in his turn told of his encounter with Esther, with so many details that Mary was forced to be convinced, although her heart rebelled against the belief.
“Jem, lad!” said she vehemently, “we must find her out — we must hunt her up!” She rose as if she was going on the search there and then.
“What could we do, darling?” asked he, fondly restraining her.
“Do! Why! what could we NOT do, if we could but find her? She’s none so happy in her ways, think ye, but what she’d turn from them, if any one would lend her a helping hand. Don’t hold me, Jem; this is just the time for such as her to be out, and who knows but what I might find her close to hand.”
“Stay, Mary, for a minute; I’ll go out now and search for her if you wish, though it’s but a wild chase. You must not go. It would be better to ask the police tomorrow. But if I should find her, how can I make her come with me? Once before she refused, and said she could not break off her drinking ways, come what might?”
“You never will persuade her if you fear and doubt,” said Mary, in tears. “Hope yourself, and trust to the good that must be in her. Speak to that — she has it in her yet — oh, bring her home, and we will love her so, we’ll make her good.”
“Yes!” said Jem, catching Mary’s sanguine spirit; “she shall go to America with us: and we’ll help her to get rid of her sins. I’ll go now, my precious darling, and if I can’t find her, it’s but trying the police tomorrow. Take care of your own sweet self, Mary,” said he, fondly kissing her before he went out.
It was not to be. Jem wandered far and wide that night, but never met Esther. The next day he applied to the police; and at last they recognised under his description of her, a woman known to them under the name of the “Butterfly,” from the gaiety of her dress a year or two ago. By their help he traced out one of her haunts, a low lodging-house behind Peter-street. He and his companion, a kind-hearted policeman, were admitted, suspiciously enough, by the landlady, who ushered them into a large garret where twenty or thirty people of all ages and both sexes lay and dosed away the day, choosing the evening and night for their trades of beggary, thieving, or prostitution.
“I know the Butterfly was here,” said she, looking round. “She came in, the night before last, and said she had not a penny to get a place for shelter; and that if she was far away in the country she could steal aside and die in a copse, or a clough, like the wild animals; but here the police would let no one alone in the streets, and she wanted a spot to die in, in peace. It’s a queer sort of peace we have here, but that night the room was uncommon empty, and I’m not a hard-hearted woman (I wish I were, I could ha’ made a good thing out of it afore this if I were harder), so I sent her up — but she’s not here now, I think.”
“Was she very bad?” asked Jem.
“Ay! nought but skin and bone, with a cough to tear her in two.”
They made some inquiries, and found that in the restlessness of approaching death, she had longed to be once more in the open air, and had gone forth — where, no one seemed to be able to tell. Leaving many messages for her, and directions that he was to be sent for if either the policeman or the landlady obtained any clue to her whereabouts, Jem bent his steps towards Mary’s house; for he had not seen her all that long day of search. He told her of his proceedings and want of success; and both were saddened at the recital, and sat silent for some time.
After awhile they began talking over their plans. In a day or two, Mary was to give up house, and go and live for a week or so with Job Legh, until the time of her marriage, which would take place immediately before sailing; they talked themselves back into silence and delicious reverie. Mary sat by Jem, his arm around her waist, her head on his shoulder; and thought over the scenes which had passed in that home she was so soon to leave for ever.
Suddenly she felt Jem start, and started too without knowing why; she tried to see his countenance, but the shades of evening had deepened so much she could read no expression there. It was turned to the window; she looked and saw a white face pressed against the panes on the outside, gazing intently into the dusky chamber. While they watched, as if fascinated by the appearance, and unable to think or stir, a film came over the bright, feverish, glittering eyes outside, and the form sank down to the ground without a struggle of instinctive resistance.
“It is Esther!” exclaimed they, both at once. They rushed outside; and, fallen into what appeared simply a heap of white or light-coloured clothes, fainting or dead, lay the poor crushed Butterfly — the once innocent Esther. She had come (as a wounded deer drags its heavy limbs once more to the green coolness of the lair in which it was born, there to die) to see the place familiar to her innocence, yet once again before her death. Whether she was indeed alive or dead, they knew not now.
Job came in with Margaret, for it was bedtime. He said Esther’s pulse beat a little yet. They carried her upstairs and laid her on Mary’s bed, not daring to undress her, lest any motion should frighten the trembling life away; but it was all in vain.
Towards midnight, she opened wide her eyes and looked around on the once familiar room; Job Legh knelt by the bed praying aloud and fervently for her, but he stopped as he saw her roused look. She sat up in bed with a sudden convulsive motion.
“Has it been a dream, then?” asked she wildly. Then with a habit, which came like instinct even in that awful dying hour, her hand sought for a locket which hung concealed in her bosom, and, finding that, she knew all was true which had befallen her since last she lay an innocent girl on that bed.
She fell back, and spoke word never more. She held the locket containing her child’s hair still in her hand, and once or twice she kissed it with a long soft kiss. She cried feebly and sadly as long as she had any strength to cry, and then she died.
They laid her in one grave with John Barton. And there they lie without name, or initial, or date. Only this verse is inscribed upon the stone which covers the remains of these two wanderers.
Psalm ciii. v. 9. —“For He will not always chide, neither will He keep His anger for ever.”
I see a long, low, wooden house, with room enough and to spare. The old primeval trees are felled and gone for many a mile around; one alone remains to overshadow the gable-end of the cottage. There is a garden around the dwelling, and far beyond that stretches an orchard. The glory of an Indian summer is over all, making the heart leap at the sight of its gorgeous beauty.
At the door of the house, looking towards the town, stands Mary, watching the return of her husband from his daily work; and while she watches, she listens, smiling —
“Clap hands, daddy comes,
With his pocket full of plums,
And a cake for Johnnie.”
Then comes a crow of delight from Johnnie. Then his grandmother carries him to the door, and glories in seeing him resist his mother’s blandishments to cling to her.
“English letters! ’Twas that made me so late!”
“O Jem, Jem! don’t hold them so tight! What do they say?”
“Why, some good news. Come, give a guess what it is.”
“Oh, tell me! I cannot guess,” said Mary.
“Then you give it up, do you? What do you say, mother?”
Jane Wilson thought a moment.
“Will and Margaret are married?” asked she.
“Not exactly — but very near. The old woman has twice the spirit of the young one. Come, Mary, give a guess?”
He covered his little boy’s eyes with his hands for an instant, significantly, till the baby pushed them down, saying in his imperfect way —
“There now! Johnnie can see. Do you guess, Mary?”
“They’ve done something to Margaret to give her back her sight!” exclaimed she.
“They have. She has been couched, and can see as well as ever. She and Will are to be married on the twenty-fifth of this month, and he’s bringing her out next voyage; and Job Legh talks of coming too — not to see you, Mary — nor you, mother — nor you, my little hero” (kissing him), “but to try and pick up a few specimens of Canadian insects, Will says. All the compliment is to the earwigs, you see, mother!”
“Dear Job Legh!” said Mary, softly and seriously.
This web edition published by:
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09