Mary Barton/Chapter XXVII

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Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
Chapter XXVII


IN THE LIVERPOOL DOCKS

                        "Yon is our quay!
     Hark to the clamour in that miry road,
     Bounded and narrowed by yon vessel's load;
     The lumbering wealth she empties round the place,
     Package and parcel, hogshead, chest, and case;
     While the loud seaman and the angry hind,
     Mingling in business, bellow to the wind."
                                         --CRABBE.

Mary staggered into the house. Mrs. Jones placed her tenderly in a chair, and there stood bewildered by her side.

"O father! father!" muttered she, "what have you done!--What must I do? must the innocent die?--or he--whom I fear--I fear--oh! what am I saying?" said she, looking round affrighted, and, seemingly reassured by Mrs. Jones's countenance, "I am so helpless, so weak-- but a poor girl, after all. How can I tell what is right? Father! you have always been so kind to me,--and you to be--never mind-- never mind, all will come right in the grave."

"Save us, and bless us!" exclaimed Mrs. Jones, "if I don't think she's gone out of her wits!"

"No, I am not," said Mary, catching at the words, and with a strong effort controlling the mind she felt to be wandering, while the red blood flushed to scarlet the heretofore white cheek,--"I'm not out of my senses; there is so much to be done--so much--and no one but me to do it, you know--though I can't rightly tell what it is," looking up with bewilderment into Mrs. Jones's face. "I must not go mad whatever comes--at least not yet. No!" (bracing herself up) "something may yet be done, and I must do it. Sailed! did you say? The John Cropper? Sailed?"

"Ay! she went out of dock last night, to be ready for the morning's tide."

"I thought she was not to sail till to-morrow," murmured Mary.

"So did Will (he's lodged here long, so we all call him 'Will')," replied Mrs. Jones. "The mate had told him so, I believe, and he never knew different till he got to Liverpool on Friday morning; but as soon as he heard, he gave up going to the Isle o' Man, and just ran over to Rhyl with the mate, one John Harris, as has friends a bit beyond Abergele; you may have heard him speak on him; for they are great chums, though I've my own opinion of Harris."

"And he's sailed?" repeated Mary, trying by repetition to realise the fact to herself.

"Ay, he went on board last night to be ready for the morning's tide, as I said afore, and my boy went to see the ship go down the river, and came back all agog with the sight. Here, Charley, Charley!"

She called out loudly for her son; but Charley was one of those boys who are never "far to seek," as the Lancashire people say, when anything is going on; a mysterious conversation, an unusual event, a fire, or a riot, anything in short; such boys are the little omnipresent people of this world.

Charley had, in fact, been spectator and auditor all this time; though for a little while he had been engaged in "dollying" and a few other mischievous feats in the washing line, which had prevented his attention from being fully given to his mother's conversation with the strange girl who had entered.

"O Charley! there you are! Did you not see the John Cropper sail down the river this morning? Tell the young woman about it, for I think she hardly credits me."

"I saw her tugged down the river by a steamboat, which comes to the same thing," replied he.

"Oh! if I had but come last night!" moaned Mary. "But I never thought of it. I never thought but what he knew right when he said he would be back from the Isle of Man on Monday morning, and not afore--and now some one must die for my negligence!"

"Die!" exclaimed the lad. "How?"

"Oh! Will would have proved an alibi,--but he's gone,--and what am I to do?"

"Don't give it up yet," cried the energetic boy, interested at once in the case; "let's have a try for him. We are but where we were, if we fail."

Mary roused herself. The sympathetic "we" gave her heart and hope.

"But what can be done? You say he's sailed; what can be done?" But she spoke louder, and in a more life-like tone.

"No! I did not say he'd sailed; mother said that, and women know nought about such matters. You see" (proud of his office of instructor, and insensibly influenced, as all about her were, by Mary's sweet, earnest, lovely countenance), "there's sandbanks at the mouth of the river, and ships can't get over them but at high-water; especially ships of heavy burden, like the John Cropper. Now she was tugged down the river at low water, or pretty near, and will have to lie some time before the water will be high enough to float her over the banks. So hold up your head,--you've a chance yet, though, maybe, but a poor one."

"But what must I do?" asked Mary, to whom all this explanation had been a vague mystery.

"Do!" said the boy impatiently, "why, have not I told you? Only women (begging your pardon) are so stupid at understanding about anything belonging to the sea;--you must get a boat, and make all haste, and sail after him,--after the John Cropper. You may overtake her, or you may not. It's just a chance; but she's heavy laden, and that's in your favour. She'll draw many feet of water."

Mary had humbly and eagerly (oh, how eagerly!) listened to this young Sir Oracle's speech; but try as she would, she could only understand that she must make haste, and sail--somewhere.

"I beg your pardon," (and her little acknowledgment of inferiority in this speech pleased the lad, and made him her still more zealous friend). "I beg your pardon," said she, "but I don't know where to get a boat. Are there boat-stands?"

The lad laughed outright.

"You're not long in Liverpool, I guess. Boat-stands! No; go down to the pier,--any pier will do, and hire a boat,--you'll be at no loss when once you are there. Only make haste."

"Oh, you need not tell me that, if I but knew how," said Mary, trembling with eagerness. "But you say right,--I never was here before, and I don't know my way to the place you speak on; only tell me, and I'll not lose a minute."

"Mother!" said the wilful lad, "I'm going to show her the way to the pier; I'll be back in an hour,--or so," he added in a lower tone.

And before the gentle Mrs. Jones could collect her scattered wits sufficiently to understand half of the hastily-formed plan, her son was scudding down the street, closely followed by Mary's half-running steps.

Presently he slackened his pace sufficiently to enable him to enter into conversation with Mary, for once escaped from the reach of his mother's recalling voice, he thought he might venture to indulge his curiosity.

"Ahem!--What's your name? It's so awkward to be calling you young woman."

"My name is Mary,--Mary Barton," answered she, anxious to propitiate one who seemed so willing to exert himself in her behalf, or else she grudged every word which caused the slightest relaxation in her speed, although her chest seemed tightened, and her head throbbing, from the rate at which they were walking.

"And you want Will Wilson to prove an alibi--is that it?"

"Yes--oh, yes,--can we not cross now?"

"No, wait a minute; it's the teagle hoisting above your head I'm afraid of; and who is it that's to be tried?"

"Jem; oh, lad! can't we get past?"

They rushed under the great bales quivering in the air above their heads and pressed onward for a few minutes, till Master Charley again saw fit to walk a little slower, and ask a few more questions.

"Mary, is Jem your brother, or your sweetheart, that you're so set upon saving him?"

"No--no," replied she, but with something of hesitation, that made the shrewd boy yet more anxious to clear up the mystery.

"Perhaps he's your cousin, then? Many a girl has a cousin who has not a sweetheart."

"No, he's neither kith nor kin to me. What's the matter? What are you stopping for?" said she, with nervous terror, as Charley turned back a few steps, and peered up a side street.

"Oh, nothing to flurry you so, Mary. I heard you say to mother you had never been in Liverpool before, and if you'll only look up this street you may see the back windows of our Exchange. Such a building as yon is! with 'natomy hiding under a blanket, and Lord Admiral Nelson, and a few more people in the middle of the court! No! come here," as Mary, in her eagerness, was looking at any window that caught her eye first, to satisfy the boy. "Here then, now you can see it. You can say, now, you've seen Liverpool Exchange."

"Yes, to be sure--it's a beautiful window, I'm sure. But are we near the boats? I'll stop as I come back, you know; only I think we'd better get on now."

"Oh! if the wind's in your favour you'll be down the river in no time, and catch Will, I'll be bound; and if it's not, why, you know the minute it took you to look at the Exchange will be neither here nor there."

Another rush onwards, till one of the long crossings near the Docks caused a stoppage, and gave Mary time for breathing, and Charley leisure to ask another question.

"You've never said where you come from?"

"Manchester," replied she.

"Eh, then! you've a power of things to see. Liverpool beats Manchester hollow, they say. A nasty, smoky hole, bean't it? Are you bound to live there?"

"Oh, yes! it's my home."

"Well, I don't think I could abide a home in the middle of smoke. Look there! now you see the river. That's something now you'd give a deal for in Manchester. Look!"

And Mary did look, and saw down an opening made in the forest of masts belonging to the vessels in dock, the glorious river, along which white-sailed ships were gliding with the ensigns of all nations, not "braving the battle," but telling of the distant lands, spicy or frozen, that sent to that mighty mart for their comforts or their luxuries; she saw small boats passing to and fro on that glittering highway, but she also saw such puffs and clouds of smoke from the countless steamers, that she wondered at Charley's intolerance of the smoke of Manchester. Across the swing-bridge, along the pier,--and they stood breathless by a magnificent dock, where hundreds of ships lay motionless during the process of loading and unloading. The cries of the sailors, the variety of languages used by the passers-by, and the entire novelty of the sight compared with anything which Mary had ever seen, made her feel most helpless and forlorn; and she clung to her young guide as to one who alone by his superior knowledge could interpret between her and the new race of men by whom she was surrounded,--for a new race sailors might reasonably be considered, to a girl who had hitherto seen none but inland dwellers, and those for the greater part factory people.

In that new world of sight and sound, she still bore one prevailing thought, and though her eye glanced over the ships and the wide-spreading river, her mind was full of the thought of reaching Will.

"Why are we here?" asked she of Charley. "There are no little boats about, and I thought I was to go in a little boat; those ships are never meant for short distances, are they?"

"To be sure not," replied he, rather contemptuously. "But the John Cropper lay in this dock, and I know many of the sailors; and if I could see one I knew, I'd ask him to run up the mast, and see if he could catch a sight of her in the offing. If she's weighed her anchor, no use for your going, you know."

Mary assented quietly to this speech, as if she were as careless as Charley seemed now to be about her overtaking Will; but in truth her heart was sinking within her, and she no longer felt the energy which had hitherto upheld her. Her bodily strength was giving way, and she stood cold and shivering, although the noonday sun beat down with considerable power on the shadeless spot where she was standing.

"Here's Tom Bourne!" said Charley; and altering his manner from the patronising key in which he had spoken to Mary, he addressed a weather-beaten old sailor who came rolling along the pathway where they stood, his hands in his pockets, and his quid in his mouth, with very much the air of one who had nothing to do but look about him, and spit right and left; addressing this old tar, Charley made known to him his wish in slang, which to Mary was almost inaudible, and quite unintelligible, and which I am too much of a land-lubber to repeat correctly.

Mary watched looks and actions with a renovated keenness of perception.

She saw the old man listen attentively to Charley; she saw him eye her over from head to foot, and wind up his inspection with a little nod of approbation (for her very shabbiness and poverty of dress were creditable signs to the experienced old sailor), and then she watched him leisurely swing himself on to a ship in the basin, and, borrowing a glass, run up the mast with the speed of a monkey.

"He'll fall!" said she, in affright, clutching at Charley's arm, and judging the sailor, from his storm-marked face and unsteady walk on land, to be much older than he really was.

"Not he!" said Charley. "He's at the mast-head now. See! he's looking through his glass, and using his arms as steady as if he were on dry land. Why, I've been up the mast, many and many a time; only don't tell mother. She thinks I'm to be a shoemaker, but I've made up my mind to be a sailor; only there's no good arguing with a woman. You'll not tell her, Mary?"

"Oh, see!" exclaimed she (his secret was very safe with her, for, in fact, she had not heard it); "see! he's coming down; he's down. Speak to him, Charley."

But, unable to wait another instant, she called out herself--

"Can you see the John Cropper? Is she there yet?"

"Ay, ay," he answered, and coming quickly up to them, he hurried them away to seek for a boat, saying the bar was already covered, and in an hour the ship would hoist her sails and be off.

"You've the wind right against you, and must use oars. No time to lose."

They ran to some steps leading down to the water. They beckoned to some watermen, who, suspecting the real state of the case, appeared in no hurry for a fare, but leisurely brought their boat alongside the stairs, as if it were a matter of indifference to them whether they were engaged or not, while they conversed together in few words, and in an undertone, respecting the charge they should make.

"Oh, pray make haste," called Mary. "I want you to take me to the John Cropper. Where is she, Charley? Tell them--I don't rightly know the words--only make haste!"

"In the offing she is, sure enough, miss," answered one of the men, shoving Charley on one side, regarding him as too young to be a principal in the bargain.

"I don't think we can go, Dick," said he, with a wink to his companion; "there's the gentleman over at New Brighton as wants us."

"But, mayhap, the young woman will pay us handsome for giving her a last look at her sweetheart," interposed the other.

"Oh, how much do you want? Only make haste--I've enough to pay you, but every moment is precious," said Mary.

"Ay, that it is. Less than an hour won't take us to the mouth of the river, and she'll be off by two o'clock!"

Poor Mary's ideas of "plenty of money," however, were different to those entertained by the boatmen. Only fourteen or fifteen shillings remained out of the sovereign Margaret had lent her, and the boatmen, imagining "plenty" to mean no less than several pounds, insisted upon receiving a sovereign (an exorbitant fare, by-the-bye, although reduced from their first demand of thirty shillings).

While Charley, with a boy's impatience of delay, and disregard to money, kept urging--

"Give it 'em, Mary; they'll none of them take you for less. It's your only chance. There's St. Nicholas ringing one!"

"I've only got fourteen and ninepence," cried she in despair, after counting over her money; "but I'll give you my shawl, and you can sell it for four or five shillings--oh! won't that much do?" asked she, in such a tone of voice, that they must indeed have had hard hearts who could refuse such agonised entreaty.

They took her on board.

And in less than five minutes she was rocking and tossing in a boat for the first time in her life, alone with two rough, hard-looking men.