Mary Barton/Chapter XXIV

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Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
Chapter XXIV


WITH THE DYING

    "Oh, sad and solemn is the trembling watch
     Of those who sit and count the heavy hours
     Beside the fevered sleep of one they love!
     Oh, awful is it in the hushed midnight,
     While gazing on the pallid moveless form,
     To start and ask, 'Is it now sleep or death?'"
                                        --ANONYMOUS.

Mary could not be patient in her loneliness; so much painful thought weighed on her mind; the very house was haunted with memories and foreshadowings.

Having performed all duties to Jem, as far as her weak powers, yet loving heart could act; and a black veil being drawn over her father's past, present, and future life, beyond which she could not penetrate to judge of any filial service she ought to render: her mind unconsciously sought after some course of action in which she might engage. Anything, anything, rather than leisure for reflection.

And then came up the old feeling which first bound Ruth to Naomi; the love they both held towards one object; and Mary felt that her cares would be most lightened by being of use, or of comfort to his mother. So she once more locked up the house, and set off towards Ancoats; rushing along with downcast head, for fear lest anyone should recognise her and arrest her progress.

Jane Wilson sat quietly in her chair as Mary entered; so quietly, as to strike one by the contrast it presented to her usual bustling and nervous manner.

She looked very pale and wan: but the quietness was the thing that struck Mary most. She did not rise as Mary came in, but sat still and said something in so gentle, so feeble a voice, that Mary did not catch it.

Mrs. Davenport, who was there, plucked Mary by the gown, and whispered, "Never heed her; she's worn out, and best let alone. I'll tell you all about it, upstairs."

But Mary, touched by the anxious look with which Mrs. Wilson gazed at her, as if waiting the answer to some question, went forward to listen to the speech she was again repeating.

"What is this? Will you tell me?"

Then Mary looked and saw another ominous slip of parchment in the mother's hand, which she was rolling up and down in a tremulous manner between her fingers.

Mary's heart sickened within her, and she could not speak.

"What is it?" she repeated. "Will you tell me?" She still looked at Mary, with the same child-like gaze of wonder and patient entreaty.

What could she answer?

"I telled ye not to heed her," said Mrs. Davenport, a little angrily. "She knows well enough what it is--too well, belike. I was not in when they sarved it; but Mrs. Heming (her as lives next door) was, and she spelled out the meaning, and made it all clear to Mrs. Wilson. It's a summons to be a witness on Jem's trial--Mrs. Heming thinks to swear to the gun; for yo see, there's nobbut[1] her as can testify to its being his, and she let on so easily to the policeman that it was his, that there's no getting off her word now. Poor body; she takes it very hard, I dare say!"

Mrs. Wilson had waited patiently while this whispered speech was being uttered, imagining, perhaps, that it would end in some explanation addressed to her. But when both were silent, though their eyes, without speech or language, told their hearts' pity, she spoke again in the same unaltered gentle voice (so different from the irritable impatience she had been ever apt to show to everyone except her husband--he who had wedded her, broken-down and injured),--in a voice so different, I say, from the old, hasty manner, she spoke now the same anxious words--

"What is this? Will you tell me?"

"Yo'd better give it me at once, Mrs. Wilson, and let me put it out of your sight. Speak to her, Mary, wench, and ask for a sight on it; I've tried and better-tried to get it from her, and she takes no heed of words, and I'm loth to pull it by force out of her hands."

Mary drew the little "cricket"[2] out from under the dresser, and sat down at Mrs. Wilson's knee, and, coaxing one of her tremulous ever-moving hands into hers, began to rub it soothingly; there was a little resistance--a very little, but that was all; and presently, in the nervous movement of the imprisoned hand, the parchment fell to the ground.

Mary calmly and openly picked it up, without any attempt at concealment, and quietly placing it in sight of the anxious eyes that followed it with a kind of spell-bound dread, went on with her soothing caresses.

"She has had no sleep for many nights," said the girl to Mrs. Davenport, "and all this woe and sorrow,--it's no wonder."

"No, indeed!" Mrs. Davenport answered.

"We must get her fairly to bed; we must get her undressed, and all; and trust to God in His mercy to send her to sleep, or else"--

For, you see, they spoke before her as if she were not there; her heart was so far away.

Accordingly they almost lifted her from the chair, in which she sat motionless, and taking her up as gently as a mother carries her sleeping baby, they undressed her poor, worn form, and laid her in the little bed upstairs. They had once thought of placing her in Jem's bed, to be out of sight or sound of any disturbance of Alice's; but then again they remembered the shock she might receive in awakening in so unusual a place, and also that Mary, who intended to keep vigil that night in the house of mourning, would find it difficult to divide her attention in the possible cases that might ensue.

So they laid her, as I said before, on that little pallet bed; and, as they were slowly withdrawing from the bedside, hoping and praying that she might sleep, and forget for a time her heavy burden, she looked wistfully after Mary, and whispered--

"You haven't told me what it is. What is it?"

And gazing in her face for the expected answer, her eyelids slowly closed, and she fell into a deep, heavy sleep, almost as profound a rest as death.

Mrs. Davenport went her way, and Mary was alone,--for I cannot call those who sleep allies against the agony of thought which solitude sometimes brings up.

She dreaded the night before her. Alice might die; the doctor had that day declared her case hopeless, and not far from death; and at times, the terror so natural to the young, not of death, but of the remains of the dead, came over Mary; and she bent and listened anxiously for the long-drawn, pausing breath of the sleeping Alice.

Or Mrs. Wilson might awake in a state which Mary dreaded to anticipate, and anticipated while she dreaded;--in a state of complete delirium. Already her senses had been severely stunned by the full explanation of what was required of her--of what she had to prove against her son, her Jem, her only child--which Mary could not doubt the officious Mrs. Heming had given; and what if in dreams (that land into which no sympathy or love can penetrate with another, either to share its bliss or its agony--that land whose scenes are unspeakable terrors, are hidden mysteries, are priceless treasures to one alone--that land where alone I may see, while yet I tarry here, the sweet looks of my dear child)--what if, in the horrors of her dreams, her brain should go still more astray, and she should waken crazy with her visions, and the terrible reality that begot them?

How much worse is anticipation sometimes than reality! How Mary dreaded that night, and how calmly it passed by! Even more so than if Mary had not had such claims upon her care!

Anxiety about them deadened her own peculiar anxieties. She thought of the sleepers whom she was watching, till, overpowered herself by the want of rest, she fell off into short slumbers in which the night wore imperceptibly away. To be sure, Alice spoke, and sang during her waking moments, like the child she deemed herself; but so happily with the dearly-loved ones around her, with the scent of the heather, and the song of the wild bird hovering about her in imagination--with old scraps of ballads, or old snatches of primitive versions of the Psalms (such as are sung in country churches half draperied over with ivy, and where the running brook, or the murmuring wind among the trees makes fit accompaniment to the chorus of human voices uttering praise and thanksgiving to their God)--that the speech and the song gave comfort and good cheer to the listener's heart, and the grey dawn began to dim the light of the rush-candle, before Mary thought it possible that day was already trembling in the horizon.

Then she got up from the chair where she had been dozing, and went, half-asleep, to the window to assure herself that morning was at hand. The streets were unusually quiet with a Sabbath stillness. No factory bells that morning; no early workmen going to their labours; no slip-shod girls cleaning the windows of the little shops which broke the monotony of the street; instead, you might see here and there some operative sallying forth for a breath of country air, or some father leading out his wee toddling bairns for the unwonted pleasure of a walk with "Daddy," in the clear frosty morning. Men with more leisure on week-days would perhaps have walked quicker than they did through the fresh sharp air of this Sunday morning; but to them there was a pleasure, an absolute refreshment in the dawdling gait they, one and all of them, had.

There were, indeed, one or two passengers on that morning whose objects were less innocent and less praiseworthy than those of the people I have already mentioned, and whose animal state of mind and body clashed jarringly on the peacefulness of the day, but upon them I will not dwell; as you and I, and almost every one, I think, may send up our individual cry of self-reproach that we have not done all that we could for the stray and wandering ones of our brethren.

When Mary turned from the window, she went to the bed of each sleeper, to look and listen. Alice looked perfectly quiet and happy in her slumber, and her face seemed to have become much more youthful during the painless approach to death.

Mrs. Wilson's countenance was stamped with the anxiety of the last few days, although she, too, appeared sleeping soundly; but as Mary gazed on her, trying to trace a likeness to her son in her face, she awoke and looked up into Mary's eyes, while the expression of consciousness came back into her own.

Both were silent for a minute or two. Mary's eyes had fallen beneath that penetrating gaze, in which the agony of memory seemed every minute to find fuller vent.

"Is it a dream?" the mother asked at last in a low voice.

"No!" replied Mary, in the same tone.

Mrs. Wilson hid her face in the pillow.

She was fully conscious of everything this morning; it was evident that the stunning effect of the sub-poena, which had affected her so much last night in her weak, worn-out state, had passed away. Mary offered no opposition when she indicated by languid gesture and action that she wished to rise. A sleepless bed is a haunted place.

When she was dressed with Mary's aid, she stood by Alice for a minute or two looking at the slumberer.

"How happy she is!" said she, quietly and sadly.

All the time that Mary was getting breakfast ready, and performing every other little domestic office she could think of, to add to the comfort of Jem's mother, Mrs. Wilson sat still in the arm-chair, watching her silently. Her old irritation of temper and manner seemed to have suddenly disappeared, or perhaps she was too depressed in body and mind to show it.

Mary told her all that had been done with regard to Mr. Bridgnorth; all her own plans for seeking out Will; all her hopes; and concealed as well as she could all the doubts and fears that would arise unbidden.

To this Mrs. Wilson listened without much remark, but with deep interest and perfect comprehension. When Mary ceased, she sighed, and said, "O wench! I am his mother, and yet I do so little, I can do so little! That's what frets me! I seem like a child as sees its mammy ill, and moans and cries its little heart out, yet does nought to help. I think my sense has left me all at once, and I can't even find strength to cry like the little child."

Hereupon she broke into a feeble wail of self-reproach, that her outward show of misery was not greater; as if any cries, or tears, or loud-spoken words could have told of such pangs at the heart as that look, and that thin, piping, altered voice!

But think of Mary and what she was enduring. Picture to yourself (for I cannot tell you) the armies of thoughts that met and clashed in her brain; and then imagine the effort it cost her to be calm, and quiet, and even in a faint way, cheerful and smiling at times.

After a while she began to stir about in her own mind for some means of sparing the poor mother the trial of appearing as a witness in the matter of the gun. She had made no allusion to her summons this morning, and Mary almost thought she must have forgotten it; and surely some means might be found to prevent that additional sorrow. She must see Job about it; nay, if necessary, she must see Mr. Bridgnorth, with all his truth-compelling powers; for, indeed, she had so struggled and triumphed (though a sadly-bleeding victor at heart) over herself these two last days, had so concealed agony, and hidden her inward woe and bewilderment, that she began to take confidence, and to have faith in her own powers of meeting any one with a passably fair show, whatever might be rending her life beneath the cloak of her deception.

Accordingly, as soon as Mrs. Davenport came in after morning church, to ask after the two lone women, and she had heard the report Mary had to give (so much better as regarded Mrs. Wilson than what they had feared the night before it would have been)--as soon as this kind-hearted, grateful woman came in, Mary, telling her purpose, went off to fetch the doctor who attended Alice.

He was shaking himself after his morning's round, and happy in the anticipation of his Sunday's dinner; but he was a good-tempered man, who found it difficult to keep down his jovial easiness even by the bed of sickness or death. He had mischosen his profession; for it was his delight to see every one around him in full enjoyment of life.

However, he subdued his face to the proper expression of sympathy, befitting a doctor listening to a patient, or a patient's friend (and Mary's sad, pale, anxious face might be taken for either the one or the other).

"Well my girl! and what brings you here?" said he, as he entered his surgery. "Not on your own account, I hope."

"I wanted you to come and see Alice Wilson,--and then I thought you would maybe take a look at Mrs. Wilson."

He bustled on his hat and coat, and followed Mary instantly.

After shaking his head over Alice (as if it was a mournful thing for one so pure and good, so true, although so humble a Christian, to be nearing her desired haven), and muttering the accustomed words intended to destroy hope, and prepare anticipation, he went, in compliance with Mary's look, to ask the usual questions of Mrs. Wilson, who sat passively in her arm-chair.

She answered his questions, and submitted to his examination.

"How do you think her?" asked Mary eagerly.

"Why--a," began he, perceiving that he was desired to take one side in his answer, and unable to find out whether his listener was anxious for a favourable verdict or otherwise; but thinking it most probable that she would desire the former, he continued--

"She is weak, certainly; the natural result of such a shock as the arrest of her son would be,--for I understand this James Wilson, who murdered Mr. Carson, was her son. Sad thing to have such a reprobate in the family."

"You say 'WHO MURDERED,' sir!" said Mary indignantly. "He is only taken up on suspicion, and many have no doubt of his innocence-- those who know him, sir."

"Ah! well, well! doctors have seldom time to read newspapers, and I dare say I'm not very correct in my story. I dare say he's innocent; I'm sure I had no right to say otherwise,--only words slip out.--No! indeed, young woman, I see no cause for apprehension about this poor creature in the next room;--weak--certainly; but a day or two's good nursing will set her up, and I'm sure you're a good nurse, my dear, from your pretty kind-hearted face,--I'll send a couple of pills and a draught, but don't alarm yourself--there's no occasion, I assure you."

"But you don't think her fit to go to Liverpool?" asked Mary, still in the anxious tone of one who wishes earnestly for some particular decision.

"To Liverpool--yes," replied he. "A short journey like that couldn't fatigue, and might distract her thoughts. Let her go by all means,--it would be the very thing for her."

"O sir!" burst out Mary, almost sobbing; "I did so hope you would say she was too ill to go."

"Whew!"--said he, with a prolonged whistle, trying to understand the case; but being, as he said, no reader of newspapers, utterly unaware of the peculiar reasons there might be for so apparently unfeeling a wish--"Why did you not tell me so sooner? It might certainly do her harm in her weak state! there is always some risk attending journeys--draughts, and what not. To her, they might prove very injurious,--very. I disapprove of journeys, or excitement, in all cases where the patient is in the low, fluttered state in which Mrs. Wilson is. If you take MY advice, you will certainly put a stop to all thoughts of going to Liverpool." He really had completely changed his opinion, though quite unconsciously; so desirous was he to comply with the wishes of others.

"O sir, thank you! And will you give me a certificate of her being unable to go, if the lawyer says he must have one? The lawyer, you know," continued she, seeing him look puzzled, "who is to defend Jem,--it was as a witness against him"--

"My dear girl!" said he almost angrily, "why did you not state the case fully at first? one minute would have done it,--and my dinner waiting all this time. To be sure she can't go,--it would be madness to think of it; if her evidence could have done good, it would have been a different thing. Come to me for the certificate any time; that is to say, if the lawyer advises you. I second the lawyer; take counsel with both the learned professions--ha, ha, ha."

And laughing at his own joke, he departed, leaving Mary accusing herself of stupidity in having imagined that every one was as well acquainted with the facts concerning the trial as she was herself; for indeed she had never doubted that the doctor would have been aware of the purpose of poor Mrs. Wilson's journey to Liverpool.

Presently she went to Job (the ever ready Mrs. Davenport keeping watch over the two old women), and told him her fears, her plans, and her proceedings.

To her surprise he shook his head doubtfully.

"It may have an awkward look, if we keep her back. Lawyers is up to tricks."

"But it is no trick," said Mary. "She is so poorly, she was last night so, at least; and to-day she's so faded and weak."

"Poor soul! I dare say. I only mean for Jem's sake; and so much is known, it won't do now to hang back. But I'll ask Mr. Bridgnorth. I'll e'en take your doctor's advice. Yo tarry at home, and I'll come to yo in an hour's time. Go thy ways, wench."



  1. Nobbut; none-but. "No man sigh evere God NO BUT the oon bigetun sone."--Wickliffe's Version.
  2. Cricket; a stool.