Mary Barton/Chapter XXIX

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Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
Chapter XXIX


A TRUE BILL AGAINST JEM

    "There are who, living by the legal pen,
     Are held in honour--honourable men."
                                    --CRABBE.

At five minutes before two, Job Legh stood upon the doorstep of the house where Mr. Bridgnorth lodged at Assize time. He had left Mrs. Wilson at the dwelling of a friend of his, who had offered him a room for the old woman and Mary: a room which had frequently been his, on his occasional visits to Liverpool, but which he was thankful now to have obtained for them, as his own sleeping place was a matter of indifference to him, and the town appeared crowded and disorderly on the eve of the Assizes.

He was shown in to Mr. Bridgnorth, who was writing; Mary and Will Wilson had not yet arrived, being, as you know, far away on the broad sea; but of this Job of course knew nothing, and he did not as yet feel much anxiety about their non-appearance; he was more curious to know the result of Mr. Bridgnorth's interview that morning with Jem.

"Why, yes," said Mr. Bridgnorth, putting down his pen, "I have seen him, but to little purpose, I'm afraid. He's very impracticable-- very. I told him, of course, that he must be perfectly open with me, or else I could not be prepared for the weak points. I named your name with the view of unlocking his confidence, but"--

"What did he say?" asked Job breathlessly.

"Why, very little. He barely answered me. Indeed, he refused to answer some questions--positively refused. I don't know what I can do for him."

"Then you think him guilty, sir?" said Job despondingly.

"No, I don't," replied Mr. Bridgnorth, quickly and decisively. "Much less than I did before I saw him. The impression (mind, 't is only impression; I rely upon your caution, not to take it for fact)-- the impression," with an emphasis on the word, "he gave me is, that he knows something about the affair, but what, he will not say; and so the chances are, if he persists in his obstinacy, he'll be hung. That's all."

He began to write again, for he had no time to lose.

"But he must not be hung," said Job with vehemence.

Mr. Bridgnorth looked up, smiled a little, but shook his head.

"What did he say, sir, if I may be so bold as to ask?" continued Job.

"His words were few enough, and he was so reserved and short, that, as I said before, I can only give you the impression they conveyed to me. I told him, of course, who I was, and for what I was sent. He looked pleased, I thought--at least his face (sad enough when I went in, I assure ye) brightened a little; but he said he had nothing to say, no defence to make. I asked him if he was guilty, then; and, by way of opening his heart, I said I understood he had had provocation enough, inasmuch as I heard that the girl was very lovely and had jilted him to fall desperately in love with that handsome young Carson (poor fellow!). But James Wilson did not speak one way or another. I then went to particulars. I asked him if the gun was his, as his mother had declared. He had not heard of her admission, it was evident, from his quick way of looking up, and the glance of his eye; but when he saw I was observing him, he hung down his head again, and merely said she was right; it was his gun."

"Well!" said Job impatiently, as Mr. Bridgnorth paused.

"Nay! I have little more to tell you," continued that gentleman. "I asked him to inform me, in all confidence, how it came to be found there. He was silent for a time, and then refused. Not only refused to answer that question, but candidly told me he would not say another word on the subject, and, thanking me for my trouble and interest in his behalf, he all but dismissed me. Ungracious enough on the whole, was it not, Mr. Legh? And yet, I assure ye, I am twenty times more inclined to think him innocent than before I had the interview."

"I wish Mary Barton would come," said Job anxiously. "She and Will are a long time about it."

"Ay, that's our only chance, I believe," answered Mr. Bridgnorth, who was writing again. "I sent Johnson off before twelve to serve him with his sub-poena, and to say I wanted to speak with him; he'll be here soon, I've no doubt."

There was a pause. Mr. Bridgnorth looked up again, and spoke.

"Mr. Duncombe promised to be here to speak to his character. I sent him a sub-poena on Saturday night. Though, after all, juries go very little by such general and vague testimony as that to character. It is very right that they should not often; but in this instance unfortunate for us, as we must rest our case on the alibi."

The pen went again, scratch, scratch over the paper.

Job grew very fidgety. He sat on the edge of his chair, the more readily to start up when Will and Mary should appear. He listened intently to every noise and every step on the stair.

Once he heard a man's footstep, and his old heart gave a leap of delight. But it was only Mr. Bridgnorth's clerk, bringing him a list of those cases in which the grand jury had found true bills. He glanced it over and pushed it to Job, merely saying--

"Of course we expected this," and went on with his writing.

There was a true bill against James Wilson, of course. And yet Job felt now doubly anxious and sad. It seemed the beginning of the end. He had got, by imperceptible degrees, to think Jem innocent. Little by little this persuasion had come upon him.

Mary (tossing about in the little boat on the broad river) did not come, nor did Will.

Job grew very restless. He longed to go and watch for them out of the window, but feared to interrupt Mr. Bridgnorth. At length his desire to look out was irresistible, and he got up and walked carefully and gently across the room, his boots creaking at every cautious step. The gloom which had overspread the sky, and the influence of which had been felt by Mary on the open water, was yet more perceptible in the dark, dull street. Job grew more and more fidgety. He was obliged to walk about the room, for he could not keep still; and he did so, regardless of Mr. Bridgnorth's impatient little motions and noises, as the slow, stealthy, creaking movements were heard, backwards and forwards, behind his chair.

He really liked Job, and was interested for Jem, else his nervousness would have overcome his sympathy long before it did. But he could hold out no longer against the monotonous, grating sound; so at last he threw down his pen, locked his portfolio, and taking up his hat and gloves, he told Job he must go to the courts.

"But Will Wilson is not come," said Job in dismay. "Just wait while I run to his lodgings. I would have done it before, but I thought they'd be here every minute, and I were afraid of missing them. I'll be back in no time."

"No, my good fellow, I really must go. Besides, I begin to think Johnson must have made a mistake, and have fixed with this William Wilson to meet me at the courts. If you like to wait for him here, pray make use of my room; but I've a notion I shall find him there: in which case, I'll send him to your lodging; shall I? You know where to find me. I shall be here again by eight o'clock, and with the evidence of this witness that's to prove the alibi, I'll have the brief drawn out, and in the hands of counsel to-night."

So saying he shook hands with Job, and went his way. The old man considered for a minute as he lingered at the door, and then bent his steps towards Mrs. Jones's, where he knew (from reference to queer, odd, heterogeneous memoranda, in an ancient black-leather pocket-book) that Will lodged, and where he doubted not he should hear both of him and of Mary.

He went there, and gathered what intelligence he could out of Mrs. Jones's slow replies.

He asked if a young woman had been there that morning, and if she had seen Will Wilson. "No!"

"Why not?"

"Why, bless you, 'cause he had sailed some hours before she came asking for him."

There was a dead silence, broken only by the even, heavy sound of Mrs. Jones's ironing.

"Where is the young woman now?" asked Job.

"Somewhere down at the docks," she thought. "Charley would know, if he was in, but he wasn't. He was in mischief, somewhere or other, she had no doubt. Boys always were. He would break his neck some day, she knew"; so saying, she quietly spat upon her fresh iron, to test its heat, and then went on with her business.

Job could have boxed her, he was in such a state of irritation. But he did not, and he had his reward. Charley came in, whistling with an air of indifference, assumed to carry off his knowledge of the lateness of the hour to which he had lingered about the docks.

"Here's an old man come to know where the young woman is who went out with thee this morning," said his mother, after she had bestowed on him a little motherly scolding.

"Where she is now I don't know. I saw her last sailing down the river after the John Cropper. I'm afeard she won't reach her; wind changed, and she would be under weigh, and over the bar in no time. She would have been back by now."

It took Job some little time to understand this, from the confused use of the feminine pronoun. Then he inquired how he could best find Mary.

"I'll run down again to the pier," said the boy; "I'll warrant I'll find her."

"Thou shalt do no such a thing," said his mother, setting her back against the door. The lad made a comical face at Job, which met with no responsive look from the old man, whose sympathies were naturally in favour of the parent: although he would thankfully have availed himself of Charley's offer; for he was weary, and anxious to return to poor Mrs. Wilson, who would be wondering what had become of him.

"How can I best find her? Who did she go with, lad?"

But Charley was sullen at his mother's exercise of authority before a stranger, and at that stranger's grave looks when he meant to have made him laugh.

"They were river boatmen;--that's all I know," said he.

"But what was the name of their boat?" persevered Job.

"I never took no notice; the Anne, or William,--or some of them common names, I'll be bound."

"What pier did she start from?" asked Job despairingly.

"Oh, as for that matter, it were the stairs on the Prince's Pier she started from; but she'll not come back to the same, for the American steamer came up with the tide, and anchored close to it, blocking up the way for all the smaller craft. It's a rough evening, too, to be out on," he maliciously added.

"Well, God's will be done! I did hope we could have saved the lad," said Job sorrowfully; "but I'm getten very doubtful again. I'm uneasy about Mary, too,--very. She's a stranger in Liverpool."

"So she told me," said Charley. "There's traps about for young women at every corner. It's a pity she's no one to meet her when she lands."

"As for that," replied Job, "I don't see how any one could meet her when we can't tell where she would come to. I must trust to her coming right. She's getten spirit and sense. She'll most likely be for coming here again. Indeed, I don't know what else she can do, for she knows no other place in Liverpool. Missus, if she comes, will you give your son leave to bring her to No. 8, Back Garden Court, where there's friends waiting for her? I'll give him sixpence for his trouble."

Mrs. Jones, pleased with the reference to her, gladly promised. And even Charley, indignant as he was at first at the idea of his motions being under the control of his mother, was mollified at the prospect of the sixpence, and at the probability of getting nearer to the heart of the mystery.

But Mary never came.