Mary Barton/Chapter XXXVI

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Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
Chapter XXXVI


JEM'S INTERVIEW WITH MR. DUNCOMBE

    "The first dark day of nothingness,
     The last of danger and distress."
                                     --BYRON.

Although Mary had hardly been conscious of her thoughts, and it had been more like a secret instinct informing her soul, than the result of any process of reasoning, she had felt for some time (ever since her return from Liverpool, in fact), that for her father there was but one thing to be desired and anticipated, and that was death!

She had seen that Conscience had given the mortal wound to his earthly frame; she did not dare to question of the infinite mercy of God, what the Future Life would be to him.

Though at first desolate and stunned by the blow which had fallen on herself, she was resigned and submissive as soon as she recovered strength enough to ponder and consider a little; and you may be sure that no tenderness or love was wanting on Jem's part, and no consideration and sympathy on that of Job and Margaret to soothe and comfort the girl who now stood alone in the world as far as blood relations were concerned.

She did not ask or care to know what arrangements they were making in whispered tones with regard to the funeral. She put herself into their hands with the trust of a little child; glad to be undisturbed in the reveries and remembrances which filled her eyes with tears, and caused them to fall quietly, down her pale cheeks.

It was the longest day she had ever known in her life; every change and every occupation was taken away from her: but perhaps the length of quiet time thus afforded was really good, although its duration weighed upon her; for by this means she contemplated her situation in every light, and fully understood that the morning's event had left her an orphan; and thus she was spared the pangs caused to us by the occurrence of death in the evening, just before we should naturally, in the usual course of events, lie down to slumber. For in such case, worn out by anxiety, and it may be by much watching, our very excess of grief rocks itself to sleep, before we have had time to realise its cause; and we waken, with a start of agony like a fresh stab, to the consciousness of the one awful vacancy, which shall never, while the world endures, be filled again.

The day brought its burden of duty to Mrs. Wilson. She felt bound by regard, as well as by etiquette, to go and see her future daughter-in-law. And by an old association of ideas (perhaps of death with churchyards, and churches with Sunday) she thought it necessary to put on her best, and latterly unused clothes, the airing of which on a little clothes-horse before the fire seemed to give her a not unpleasing occupation.

When Jem returned home late in the evening succeeding John Barton's death, weary and oppressed with the occurrences and excitements of the day, he found his mother busy about her mourning, and much inclined to talk. Although he longed for quiet, he could not avoid sitting down and answering her questions.

"Well, Jem, he's gone at last, is he?"

"Yes. How did you hear, mother?"

"Oh, Job came over here, and telled me, on his way to the undertaker's. Did he make a fine end?"

It struck Jem that she had not heard of the confession which had been made by John Barton on his death-bed; he remembered Job Legh's discretion, and he determined that if it could be avoided his mother should never hear of it. Many of the difficulties to be anticipated in preserving the secret would be obviated, if he could induce his mother to fall into the plan he had named to Mary of emigrating to Canada. The reasons which rendered this secrecy desirable related to the domestic happiness he hoped for. With his mother's irritable temper he could hardly expect that all allusion to the crime of John Barton would be for ever restrained from passing her lips, and he knew the deep trial which such references would be to Mary. Accordingly he resolved as soon as possible in the morning to go to Job and beseech his silence; he trusted that secrecy in that quarter, even if the knowledge had been extended to Margaret, might be easily secured.

But what would be Mr. Carson's course?

Were there any means by which he might be persuaded to spare John Barton's memory?

He was roused up from this train of thought by his mother's more irritated tone of voice.

"Jem!" she was saying, "thou mightst just as well never be at a death-bed again, if thou cannot bring off more news about it; here have I been by mysel all day (except when oud Job came in), but thinks I when Jem comes he'll be sure to be good company, seeing he was in the house at the very time of the death; and here thou art, without a word to throw at a dog, much less thy mother: it's no use thy going to a death-bed if thou cannot carry away any of the sayings!"

"He did not make any, mother," replied Jem.

"Well, to be sure! So fond as he used to be of holding forth, to miss such a fine opportunity that will never come again! Did he die easy?"

"He was very restless all night long," said Jem, reluctantly returning to the thoughts of that time.

"And in course thou plucked the pillow away? Thou didst not! Well! with thy bringing up, and thy learning, thou mightst have known that were the only help in such a case. There were pigeons' feathers in the pillow, depend on't. To think of two grown-up folk like you and Mary, not knowing death could never come easy to a person lying on a pillow with pigeons' feathers in!"

Jem was glad to escape from all this talking, to the solitude and quiet of his own room, where he could lie and think uninterruptedly of what had happened and remained to be done.

The first thing was to seek an interview with Mr. Duncombe, his former master. Accordingly, early the next morning Jem set off on his walk to the works, where for so many years his days had been spent; where for so long a time his thoughts had been thought, his hopes and fears experienced. It was not a cheering feeling to remember that henceforward he was to be severed from all these familiar places; nor were his spirits enlivened by the evident feelings of the majority of those who had been his fellow-workmen. As he stood in the entrance to the foundry, awaiting Mr. Duncombe's leisure, many of those employed in the works passed him on their return from breakfast; and, with one or two exceptions, without any acknowledgment of former acquaintance beyond a distant nod at the utmost.

"It is hard," said Jem to himself, with a bitter and indignant feeling rising in his throat, "that let a man's life be what it may, folk are so ready to credit the first word against him. I could live it down if I stayed in England; but then what would not Mary have to bear? Sooner or later the truth would out; and then she would be a show to folk for many a day as John Barton's daughter. Well! God does not judge as hardly as man, that's one comfort for all of us!"

Mr. Duncombe did not believe in Jem's guilt, in spite of the silence in which he again this day heard the imputation of it; but he agreed that under the circumstances it was better he should leave the country.

"We have been written to by Government, as I think I told you before, to recommend an intelligent man, well acquainted with mechanics, as instrument-maker to the Agricultural College they are establishing at Toronto, in Canada. It is a comfortable appointment,--house,--land,--and a good percentage on the instruments made. I will show you the particulars if I can lay my hand on the letter, which I believe I must have left at home."

"Thank you, sir. No need for seeing the letter to say I'll accept it. I must leave Manchester; and I'd as lief quit England at once when I'm about it."

"Of course, Government will give you your passage; indeed, I believe an allowance would be made for a family if you had one; but you are not a married man, I believe?"

"No, sir, but"--Jem hung back from a confession with the awkwardness of a girl.

"But"--said Mr. Duncombe, smiling, "you would like to be a married man before you go, I suppose; eh, Wilson?"

"If you please, sir. And there's my mother, too. I hope she'll go with us. But I can pay her passage; no need to trouble Government."

"Nay, nay! I'll write to-day and recommend you; and say that you have a family of two. They'll never ask if the family goes upwards or downwards. I shall see you again before you sail, I hope, Wilson; though I believe they'll not allow you long to wait. Come to my house next time; you'll find it pleasanter, I dare say. These men are so wrong-headed. Keep up your heart!"

Jem felt that it was a relief to have this point settled; and that he need no longer weigh reasons for and against his emigration.

And with his path growing clearer and clearer before him the longer he contemplated it, he went to see Mary, and if he judged it fit, to tell her what he had decided upon. Margaret was sitting with her.

"Grandfather wants to see you!" said she to Jem on his entrance.

"And I want to see him," replied Jem, suddenly remembering his last night's determination to enjoin secrecy on Job Legh.

So he hardly stayed to kiss poor Mary's sweet woe-begone face, but tore himself away from his darling to go to the old man, who awaited him impatiently.

"I've getten a note from Mr. Carson," exclaimed Job the moment he saw Jem; "and, man alive, he wants to see thee and me! For sure, there's no more mischief up, is there?" said he, looking at Jem with an expression of wonder. But if any suspicion mingled for an instant with the thoughts that crossed Job's mind, it was immediately dispelled by Jem's honest, fearless, open countenance.

"I can't guess what he's wanting, poor old chap," answered he. "Maybe there's some point he's not yet satisfied on; maybe--but it's no use guessing; let's be off."

"It wouldn't be better for thee to be scarce a bit, would it, and leave me to go and find out what's up? He has, perhaps, getten some crotchet into his head thou'rt an accomplice, and is laying a trap for thee."

"I'm not afeard!" said Jem; "I've done nought wrong, and know nought wrong, about yon poor dead lad; though I'll own I had evil thoughts once on a time. Folk can't mistake long if once they'll search into the truth. I'll go and give the old gentleman all the satisfaction in my power, now it can injure no one. I'd my reasons for wanting to see him besides, and it all falls in right enough for me."

Job was a little reassured by Jem's boldness; but still, if the truth must be told, he wished the young man would follow his advice, and leave him to sound Mr. Carson's intentions.

Meanwhile Jane Wilson had donned her Sunday suit of black, and set off on her errand of condolence. She felt nervous and uneasy at the idea of the moral sayings and texts which she fancied were expected from visitors on occasions like the present; and prepared many a good set speech as she walked towards the house of mourning.

As she gently opened the door, Mary, sitting idly by the fire, caught a glimpse of her,--of Jem's mother,--of the early friend of her dead parents,--of the kind minister to many a little want in days of childhood,--and rose and came and fell about her neck, with many a sob and moan, saying--

"Oh, he's gone--he's dead--all gone--all dead, and I am left alone!"

"Poor wench! poor, poor wench!" said Jane Wilson, tenderly kissing her. "Thou'rt not alone; so donnot take on so. I'll say nought of Him who's above, for thou knowest He is ever the orphan's friend; but think on Jem! nay, Mary, dear, think on me! I'm but a frabbit woman at times, but I've a heart within me through all my temper, and thou shalt be as a daughter henceforward,--as mine own ewe-lamb. Jem shall not love thee better in his way, than I will in mine; and thou'lt bear with my turns, Mary, knowing that in my soul God sees the love that shall ever be thine, if thou'lt take me for thy mother, and speak no more of being alone."

Mrs. Wilson was weeping herself long before she had ended this speech, which was so different to all she had planned to say, and from all the formal piety she had laid in store for the visit; for this was heart's piety, and needed no garnish of texts to make it true religion, pure and undefiled.

They sat together on the same chair, their arms encircling each other; they wept for the same dead; they had the same hope, and trust, and overflowing love in the living.

From that time forward, hardly a passing cloud dimmed the happy confidence of their intercourse; even by Jem would his mother's temper sooner be irritated than by Mary; before the latter she repressed her occasional nervous ill-humour till the habit of indulging it was perceptibly decreased.

Years afterwards, in conversation with Jem, he was startled by a chance expression which dropped from his mother's lips; it implied a knowledge of John Barton's crime. It was many a long day since they had seen any Manchester people who could have revealed the secret (if indeed it was known in Manchester, against which Jem had guarded in every possible way). And he was led to inquire first as to the extent, and then as to the source of her knowledge. It was Mary herself who had told all.

For on the morning to which this chapter principally relates, as Mary sat weeping, and as Mrs. Wilson comforted her by every tenderest word and caress, she revealed, to the dismayed and astonished Jane, the sting of her deep sorrow; the crime which stained her dead father's memory.

She was quite unconscious that Jem had kept it secret from his mother; she had imagined it bruited abroad as the suspicion against her lover had been; so word after word (dropped from her lips in the supposition that Mrs. Wilson knew all) had told the tale and revealed the cause of her deep anguish; deeper than is ever caused by death alone.

On large occasions like the present, Mrs. Wilson's innate generosity came out. Her weak and ailing frame imparted its irritation to her conduct in small things, and daily trifles; but she had deep and noble sympathy with great sorrows, and even at the time that Mary spoke she allowed no expression of surprise or horror to escape her lips. She gave way to no curiosity as to the untold details; she was as secret and trustworthy as her son himself; and if in years to come her anger was occasionally excited against Mary, and she, on rare occasions, yielded to ill-temper against her daughter-in-law, she would upbraid her for extravagance, or stinginess, or over-dressing, or under-dressing, or too much mirth or too much gloom, but never, never in her most uncontrolled moments did she allude to any one of the circumstances relating to Mary's flirtation with Harry Carson, or his murderer; and always when she spoke of John Barton, named him with the respect due to his conduct before the last, miserable, guilty month of his life.

Therefore it came like a blow to Jem, when, after years had passed away, he gathered his mother's knowledge of the whole affair. From the day when he learnt (not without remorse) what hidden depths of self-restraint she had in her soul, his manner to her, always tender and respectful, became reverential; and it was more than ever a loving strife between him and Mary which should most contribute towards the happiness of the declining years of their mother.

But I am speaking of the events which have occurred only lately, while I have yet many things to tell you that happened six or seven years ago.