Mary Barton/Chapter XIV

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Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
Chapter XIV


JEM'S INTERVIEW WITH POOR ESTHER

     "Know the temptation ere you judge the crime!
     Look on this tree--'t was green, and fair and graceful;
     Yet now, save these few shoots, how dry and rotten!
     Thou canst not tell the cause.  Not long ago,
     A neighbour oak, with which its roots were twined,
     In falling wrenched them with such cruel force,
     That though we covered them again with care,
     Its beauty withered, and it pined away.
     So, could we look into the human breast,
     How oft the fatal blight that meets our view,
     Should we trace down to the torn, bleeding fibres
     Of a too trusting heart--where it were shame,
     For pitying tears, to give contempt or blame."
                                   --"STREET WALKS."

The month was over;--the honeymoon to the newly-married; the exquisite convalescence to the "living mother of a living child"; "the first dark days of nothingness" to the widow and the child bereaved; the term of penance, of hard labour, and of solitary confinement, to the shrinking, shivering, hopeless prisoner.

"Sick, and in prison, and ye visited me." Shall you, or I, receive such blessing? I know one who will. An overseer of a foundry, an aged man, with hoary hair, has spent his Sabbaths, for many years, in visiting the prisoners and the afflicted in Manchester New Bailey; not merely advising and comforting, but putting means into their power of regaining the virtue and the peace they had lost; becoming himself their guarantee in obtaining employment, and never deserting those who have once asked help from him.[1]

Esther's term of imprisonment was ended. She received a good character in the governor's books; she had picked her daily quantity of oakum, had never deserved the extra punishment of the treadmill, and had been civil and decorous in her language. And once more she was out of prison. The door closed behind her with a ponderous clang, and in her desolation she felt as if shut out of home--from the only shelter she could meet with, houseless and penniless as she was, on that dreary day.

But it was but for an instant that she stood there doubting. One thought had haunted her both by night and by day, with monomaniacal incessancy; and that thought was how to save Mary (her dead sister's only child, her own little pet in the days of her innocence) from following in the same downward path to vice. To whom could she speak and ask for aid? She shrank from the idea of addressing John Barton again; her heart sank within her, at the remembrance of his fierce repulsing action, and far fiercer words. It seemed worse than death to reveal her condition to Mary, else she sometimes thought that this course would be the most terrible, the most efficient warning. She must speak; to that she was soul-compelled; but to whom? She dreaded addressing any of her former female acquaintance, even supposing they had sense, or spirit, or interest enough to undertake her mission.

To whom shall the outcast prostitute tell her tale? Who will give her help in the day of need? Hers is the leper sin, and all stand aloof dreading to be counted unclean.

In her wild night wanderings, she had noted the haunts and habits of many a one who little thought of a watcher in the poor forsaken woman. You may easily imagine that a double interest was attached by her to the ways and companionships of those with whom she had been acquainted in the days which, when present, she had considered hardly-worked and monotonous, but which now in retrospection seemed so happy and unclouded. Accordingly, she had, as we have seen, known where to meet with John Barton on that unfortunate night, which had only produced irritation in him, and a month's imprisonment to her. She had also observed that he was still intimate with the Wilsons. She had seen him walking and talking with both father and son; her old friends too; and she had shed unregarded, unvalued tears, when some one had casually told her of George Wilson's sudden death. It now flashed across her mind that to the son, to Mary's playfellow, her elder brother in the days of childhood, her tale might be told, and listened to with interest by him, and some mode of action suggested by which Mary might be guarded and saved.

All these thoughts had passed through her mind while yet she was in prison; so when she was turned out, her purpose was clear, and she did not feel her desolation of freedom as she would otherwise have done.

That night she stationed herself early near the foundry where she knew Jem worked; he stayed later than usual, being detained by some arrangements for the morrow. She grew tired and impatient; many workmen had come out of the door in the long, dead, brick wall, and eagerly had she peered into their faces, deaf to all insult or curse. He must have gone home early; one more turn in the street, and she would go.

During that turn he came out, and in the quiet of that street of workshops and warehouses, she directly heard his steps. How her heart failed her for an instant! but still she was not daunted from her purpose, painful as its fulfilment was sure to be. She laid her hand on his arm.

As she expected, after a momentary glance at the person who thus endeavoured to detain him, he made an effort to shake it off, and pass on. But, trembling as she was, she had provided against this by a firm and unusual grasp.

"You must listen to me, Jem Wilson," she said, with almost an accent of command.

"Go away, missis; I've nought to do with you, either in hearkening or talking."

He made another struggle.

"You must listen," she said again, authoritatively, "for Mary Barton's sake."

The spell of her name was as potent as that of the mariner's glittering eye. "He listened like a three-year child."

"I know you care enough for her to wish to save her from harm."

He interrupted his earnest gaze into her face, with the exclamation--

"And who can yo be to know Mary Barton, or to know that she's aught to me?"

There was a little strife in Esther's mind for an instant, between the shame of acknowledging herself, and the additional weight to her revelation which such acknowledgment would give. Then she spoke--

"Do you remember Esther, the sister of John Barton's wife? the aunt to Mary? And the valentine I sent you last February ten years?"

"Yes, I mind her well! But yo are not Esther, are you?" He looked again into her face, and seeing that indeed it was his boyhood's friend, he took her hand, and shook it with a cordiality that forgot the present in the past.

"Why, Esther! Where han ye been this many a year? Where han ye been wandering that we none of us could find you out?"

The question was asked thoughtlessly, but answered with fierce earnestness.

"Where have I been? What have I been doing? Why do you torment me with questions like these? Can you not guess? But the story of my life is wanted to give force to my speech, afterwards I will tell it you. Nay! don't change your fickle mind now, and say you don't want to hear it. You must hear it, and I must tell it; and then see after Mary, and take care she does not become like me. As she is loving now, so did I love once: one above me far." She remarked not, in her own absorption, the change in Jem's breathing, the sudden clutch at the wall which told the fearfully vivid interest he took in what she said. "He was so handsome, so kind! Well, the regiment was ordered to Chester (did I tell you he was an officer?), and he could not bear to part from me, nor I from him, so he took me with him. I never thought poor Mary would have taken it so to heart! I always meant to send for her to pay me a visit when I was married; for, mark you! he promised me marriage. They all do. Then came three years of happiness. I suppose I ought not to have been happy, but I was. I had a little girl, too. Oh! the sweetest darling that ever was seen! But I must not think of her," putting her hand wildly up to her forehead, "or I shall go mad; I shall."

"Don't tell me any more about yoursel," said Jem soothingly.

"What! you're tired already, are you? but I will tell you; as you've asked for it, you shall hear it. I won't recall the agony of the past for nothing. I will have the relief of telling it. Oh, how happy I was!"--sinking her voice into a plaintive, childlike manner. "It went like a shot through me when one day he came to me and told me he was ordered to Ireland, and must leave me behind; at Bristol we then were."

Jem muttered some words; she caught their meaning, and in a pleading voice continued--

"Oh, don't abuse him; don't speak a word against him! You don't know how I love him yet; yet, when I am sunk so low. You don't guess how kind he was. He gave me fifty pounds before we parted, and I knew he could ill spare it. Don't, Jem, please," as his muttered indignation rose again. For her sake he ceased. "I might have done better with the money; I see now. But I did not know the value of it then. Formerly I had earned it easily enough at the factory, and as I had no more sensible wants, I spent it on dress and on eating. While I lived with him, I had it for asking; and fifty pounds would, I thought, go a long way. So I went back to Chester, where I'd been so happy, and set up a small-ware shop, and hired a room near. We should have done well, but alas! alas! my little girl fell ill, and I could not mind my shop and her too: and things grew worse and worse. I sold my goods anyhow to get money to buy her food and medicine; I wrote over and over again to her father for help, but he must have changed his quarters, for I never got an answer. The landlord seized the few bobbins and tapes I had left, for shop-rent; and the person to whom the mean little room, to which we had been forced to remove, belonged, threatened to turn us out unless his rent was paid; it had run on many weeks, and it was winter, cold bleak winter; and my child was so ill, so ill, and I was starving. And I could not bear to see her suffer, and forgot how much better it would be for us to die together;--oh, her moans, her moans, which money could give the means of relieving! So I went out into the street one January night--Do you think God will punish me for that?" she asked with wild vehemence, almost amounting to insanity, and shaking Jem's arm in order to force an answer from him.

But before he could shape his heart's sympathy into words, her voice had lost its wildness, and she spoke with the quiet of despair.

"But it's no matter! I've done that since, which separates us as far asunder as heaven and hell can be." Her voice rose again to the sharp pitch of agony. "My darling! my darling! even after death I may not see thee, my own sweet one! she was so good--like a little angel. What is that text, I don't remember,--the text mother used to teach me when I sat on her knee long ago; it begins, 'Blessed are the pure'"--

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."

"Ay, that's it! It would break mother's heart if she knew what I am now--it did break Mary's heart, you see. And now I recollect it was about her child I wanted to see you, Jem. You know Mary Barton, don't you?" said she, trying to collect her thoughts.

Yes, Jem knew her. How well, his beating heart could testify.

"Well, there's something to do for her; I forget what; wait a minute! She is so like my little girl," said she, raising her eyes glistening with unshed tears, in search of the sympathy of Jem's countenance.

He deeply pitied her; but oh! how he longed to recall her mind to the subject of Mary, and the lover above her in rank, and the service to be done for her sake. But he controlled himself to silence. After awhile, she spoke again, and in a calmer voice.

"When I came to Manchester (for I could not stay in Chester after her death), I found you all out very soon. And yet I never thought my poor sister was dead. I suppose I would not think so. I used to watch about the court where John lived, for many and many a night, and gather all I could about them from the neighbours' talk; for I never asked a question. I put this and that together, and followed one, and listened to another; many's the time I've watched the policeman off his beat, and peeped through the chink of the window-shutter to see the old room, and sometimes Mary or her father sitting up late for some reason or another. I found out Mary went to learn dressmaking, and I began to be frightened for her; for it's a bad life for a girl to be out late at night in the streets, and after many an hour of weary work, they're ready to follow after any novelty that makes a little change. But I made up my mind, that bad as I was, I could watch over Mary, and perhaps keep her from harm. So I used to wait for her at nights, and follow her home, often when she little knew any one was near her. There was one of her companions I never could abide, and I'm sure that girl is at the bottom of some mischief. By-and-by Mary's walks homewards were not alone. She was joined soon after she came out by a man; a gentleman. I began to fear for her, for I saw she was light-hearted, and pleased with his attentions; and I thought worse of him for having such long talks with that bold girl I told you of. But I was laid up for a long time with spitting of blood; and could do nothing. I'm sure it made made me worse, thinking about what might be happening to Mary. And when I came out, all was going on as before, only she seemed fonder of him than ever; and oh! Jem, her father won't listen to me, and it's you must save Mary! You're like a brother to her, and maybe could give her advice and watch over her, and at any rate John will hearken to you; only he's so stern, and so cruel." She began to cry a little at the remembrance of his harsh words; but Jem cut her short by his hoarse, stern inquiry--

"Who is this spark that Mary loves? Tell me his name!"

"It's young Carson, old Carson's son, that your father worked for."

There was a pause. She broke the silence--

"O Jem, I charge you with the care of her! I suppose it would be murder to kill her, but it would be better for her to die than to live to lead such a life as I do. Do you hear me, Jem?"

"Yes, I hear you. It would be better. Better we were all dead." This was said as if thinking aloud; but he immediately changed his tone and continued--

"Esther, you may trust to my doing all I can for Mary. That I have determined on. And now listen to me. You loathe the life you lead, else you would not speak of it as you do. Come home with me. Come to my mother. She and my aunt Alice live together. I will see that they give you a welcome. And to-morrow I will see if some honest way of living cannot be found for you. Come home with me."

She was silent for a minute, and he hoped he had gained his point. Then she said--

"God bless you, Jem, for the words you have just spoken. Some years ago you might have saved me, as I hope and trust you will yet save Mary. But, it is too late now;--too late," she added, with accents of deep despair.

Still he did not relax his hold. "Come home," he said.

"I tell you, I cannot. I could not lead a virtuous life if I would. I should only disgrace you. If you will know all," said she, as he still seemed inclined to urge her, "I must have drink. Such as live like me could not bear life if they did not drink. It's the only thing to keep us from suicide. If we did not drink, we could not stand the memory of what we have been, and the thought of what we are, for a day. If I go without food, and without shelter, I must have my dram. Oh! you don't know the awful nights I have had in prison for want of it," said she, shuddering, and glaring round with terrified eyes, as if dreading to see some spiritual creature, with dim form, near her.

"It is so frightful to see them," whispering in tones of wildness, although so low spoken. "There they go round and round my bed the whole night through. My mother, carrying little Annie (I wonder how they got together) and Mary--and all looking at me with their sad, stony eyes; O Jem! it is so terrible! They don't turn back either, but pass behind the head of the bed, and I feel their eyes on me everywhere. If I creep under the clothes I still see them; and what is worse," hissing out her words with fright, "they see me. Don't speak to me of leading a better life--I must have drink. I cannot pass to-night without a dram; I dare not."

Jem was silent from deep sympathy. Oh! could he, then, do nothing for her! She spoke again, but in a less excited tone, although it was thrillingly earnest.

"You are grieved for me! I know it better than if you told me in words. But you can do nothing for me. I am past hope. You can yet save Mary. You must. She is innocent, except for the great error of loving one above her in station. Jem! you WILL save her?"

With heart and soul, though in few words, Jem promised that if aught earthly could keep her from falling, he would do it. Then she blessed him, and bade him good-night.

"Stay a minute," said he, as she was on the point of departure. "I may want to speak to you again. I mun know where to find you--where do you live?"

She laughed strangely. "And do you think one sunk so low as I am has a home? Decent, good people have homes. We have none. No; if you want me, come at night and look at the corners of the streets about here. The colder, the bleaker, the more stormy the night, the more certain you will be to find me. For then," she added, with a plaintive fall in her voice, "it is so cold sleeping in entries, and on door-steps, and I want a dram more than ever."

Again she rapidly turned off, and Jem also went on his way. But before he reached the end of the street, even in the midst of the jealous anguish that filled his heart, his conscience smote him. He had not done enough to save her. One more effort, and she might have come. Nay, twenty efforts would have been well rewarded by her yielding. He turned back, but she was gone. In the tumult of his other feelings, his self-reproach was deadened for the time. But many and many a day afterwards he bitterly regretted his omission of duty; his weariness of well-doing.

Now, the great thing was to reach home, and solitude. Mary loved another! Oh! how should he bear it? He had thought her rejection of him a hard trial, but that was nothing now. He only remembered it, to be thankful that he had not yielded to the temptation of trying his fate again, not in actual words, but in a meeting, where her manner should tell far more than words, that her sweet smiles, her dainty movements, her pretty household ways, were all to be reserved to gladden another's eyes and heart. And he must live on; that seemed the strangest. That a long life (and he knew men did live long, even with deep, biting sorrow corroding at their hearts) must be spent without Mary; nay, with the consciousness she was another's! That hell of thought he would reserve for the quiet of his own room, the dead stillness of night. He was on the threshold of home now.

He entered. There were the usual faces, the usual sights. He loathed them, and then he cursed himself because he loathed them. His mother's love had taken a cross turn, because he had kept the tempting supper she had prepared for him waiting until it was nearly spoilt. Alice, her dulled senses deadening day by day, sat mutely near the fire: her happiness bounded by the consciousness of the presence of her foster-child, knowing that his voice repeated what was passing to her deafened ear, that his arm removed each little obstacle to her tottering steps. And Will, out of the very kindness of his heart, talked more and more merrily than ever. He saw Jem was downcast, and fancied his rattling might cheer him; at any rate, it drowned his aunt's muttered grumblings, and in some measure concealed the blank of the evening. At last, bed-time came; and Will withdrew to his neighbouring lodging; and Jane and Alice Wilson had raked the fire, and fastened doors and shutters, and pattered upstairs, with their tottering footsteps and shrill voices. Jem, too, went to the closet termed his bedroom. There was no bolt to the door; but by one strong effort of his right arm a heavy chest was moved against it, and he could sit down on the side of his bed, and think.

Mary loved another! That idea would rise uppermost in his mind, and had to be combated in all its forms of pain. It was, perhaps, no great wonder that she should prefer one so much above Jem in the external things of life. But the gentleman; why did he, with his range of choice among the ladies of the land, why did he stoop down to carry off the poor man's darling? With all the glories of the garden at his hand, why did he prefer to cull the wild-rose,--Jem's own fragrant wild-rose?

His OWN! Oh! never now his own!--Gone for evermore.

Then uprose the guilty longing for blood!--the frenzy of jealousy!--Some one should die. He would rather Mary were dead, cold in her grave, than that she were another's. A vision of her pale, sweet face, with her bright hair all bedabbled with gore, seemed to float constantly before his aching eyes. But hers were ever open, and contained, in their soft, deathly look, such mute reproach! What had she done to deserve such cruel treatment from him? She had been wooed by one whom Jem knew to be handsome, gay, and bright, and she had given him her love. That was all! It was the wooer who should die. Yes, die, knowing the cause of his death. Jem pictured him (and gloated on the picture), lying smitten, yet conscious; and listening to the upbraiding accusation of his murderer. How he had left his own rank, and dared to love a maiden of low degree! and oh! stinging agony of all--how she, in return, had loved him! Then the other nature spoke up, and bade him remember the anguish he should so prepare for Mary! At first he refused to listen to that better voice; or listened only to pervert. He would glory in her wailing grief! he would take pleasure in her desolation of heart!

No! he could not, said the still small voice. It would be worse, far worse, to have caused such woe, than it was now to bear his present heavy burden.

But it was too heavy, too grievous to be borne, and live. He would slay himself and the lovers should love on, and the sun shine bright, and he with his burning, woeful heart would be at rest. "Rest that is reserved for the people of God."

Had he not promised, with such earnest purpose of soul as makes words more solemn than oaths, to save Mary from becoming such as Esther? Should he shrink from the duties of life, into the cowardliness of death? Who would then guard Mary, with her love and her innocence? Would it not be a goodly thing to serve her, although she loved him not; to be her preserving angel, through the perils of life; and she, unconscious all the while?

He braced up his soul, and said to himself, that with God's help he would be that earthly keeper.

And now the mists and the storms seemed clearing away from his path, though it still was full of stinging thorns. Having done the duty nearest to him (of reducing the tumult of his own heart to something like order), the second became more plain before him.

Poor Esther's experience had led her, perhaps too hastily, to the conclusion that Mr. Carson's intentions were evil towards Mary; at least she had given no just ground for the fears she entertained that such was the case. It was possible, nay, to Jem's heart very probable, that he might only be too happy to marry her. She was a lady by right of nature, Jem thought; in movement, grace, and spirit. What was birth to a Manchester manufacturer, many of whom glory, and justly too, in being the architects of their own fortunes? And, as far as wealth was concerned, judging another by himself, Jem could only imagine it a great privilege to lay it at the feet of the loved one. Harry Carson's mother had been a factory girl; so, after all, what was the great reason for doubting his intentions towards Mary?

There might probably be some little awkwardness about the affair at first; Mary's father having such strong prejudices on the one hand; and something of the same kind being likely to exist on the part of Mr. Carson's family. But Jem knew he had power over John Barton's mind; and it would be something to exert that power in promoting Mary's happiness, and to relinquish all thought of self in so doing.

Oh! why had Esther chosen him for this office? It was beyond his strength to act rightly! Why had she singled him out?

The answer came when he was calm enough to listen for it: Because Mary had no other friend capable of the duty required of him; the duty of a brother, as Esther imagined him to be in feeling, from his long friendship. He would be unto her as a brother.

As such, he ought to ascertain Harry Carson's intentions towards her in winning her affections. He would ask him straightforwardly, as became man speaking to man, not concealing, if need were, the interest he felt in Mary.

Then, with the resolve to do his duty to the best of his power, peace came into his soul; he had left the windy storm and tempest behind.

Two hours before day-dawn he fell asleep.



  1. Vide Manchester Guardian of Wednesday, March 18,1846; and also the Reports of Captain Williams, prison inspector.