THE RETURN HOME
"DIXWELL. Forgiveness! Oh, forgiveness, and a grave! MARY. God knows thy heart, my father! and I shudder To think what thou perchance hast acted. DIXWELL. Oh! MARY. No common load of woe is thine, my father." --ELLIOT'S Kerhonah.
Mary still hovered between life and death when Jem arrived at the house where she lay; and the doctors were as yet unwilling to compromise their wisdom by allowing too much hope to be entertained. But the state of things, if not less anxious, was less distressing than when Jem had quitted her. She lay now in a stupor, which was partly disease, and partly exhaustion after the previous excitement.
And now Jem found the difficulty which every one who has watched by a sick-bed knows full well; and which is perhaps more insurmountable to men than it is to women,--the difficulty of being patient, and trying not to expect any visible change for long, long hours of sad monotony.
But after a while the reward came. The laboured breathing became lower and softer, the heavy look of oppressive pain melted away from the face, and a languor that was almost peace took the place of suffering. She slept a natural sleep; and they stole about on tiptoe, and spoke low, and softly, and hardly dared to breathe, however much they longed to sigh out their thankful relief.
She opened her eyes. Her mind was in the tender state of a lately born infant's. She was pleased with the gay but not dazzling colours of the paper; soothed by the subdued light; and quite sufficiently amused by looking at all the objects in the room--the drawing of the ships, the festoons of the curtain, the bright flowers on the painted backs of the chairs--to care for any stronger excitement. She wondered at the ball of glass, containing various coloured sands from the Isle of Wight, or some other place, which hung suspended from the middle of the little valance over the window. But she did not care to exert herself to ask any questions, although she saw Mrs. Sturgis standing at the bedside with some tea, ready to drop it into her mouth by spoonfuls.
She did not see the face of honest joy, of earnest thankfulness,--the clasped hands, the beaming eyes,--the trembling eagerness of gesture, of one who had long awaited her awakening, and who now stood behind the curtains watching through some little chink her every faint motion; or if she had caught a glimpse of that loving, peeping face, she was in too exhausted a state to have taken much notice, or have long retained the impression that he she loved so well was hanging about her, and blessing God for every conscious look which stole over her countenance.
She fell softly into slumber, without a word having been spoken by any one during that half-hour of inexpressible joy. And again the stillness was enforced by a sign and whispered word, but with eyes that beamed out their bright thoughts of hope. Jem sat by the side of the bed, holding back the little curtain, and gazing as if he could never gaze his fill at the pale, wasted face, so marbled and so chiselled in its wan outline.
She wakened once more; her soft eyes opened, and met his overbending look. She smiled gently, as a baby does when it sees its mother tending its little cot; and continued her innocent, infantine gaze into his face, as if the sight gave her much unconscious pleasure. But by-and-by a different expression came into her sweet eyes; a look of memory and intelligence; her white flesh flushed the brightest rosy red, and with feeble motion she tried to hide her head in the pillow.
It required all Jem's self-control to do what he knew and felt to be necessary, to call Mrs. Sturgis, who was quietly dozing by the fireside; and that done, he felt almost obliged to leave the room to keep down the happy agitation which would gush out in every feature, every gesture, and every tone.
From that time forward Mary's progress towards health was rapid.
There was every reason, but one, in favour of her speedy removal home. All Jem's duties lay in Manchester. It was his mother's dwelling-place, and there his plans for life had been to be worked out; plans which the suspicion and imprisonment he had fallen into, had thrown for a time into a chaos, which his presence was required to arrange into form. For he might find, in spite of a jury's verdict, that too strong a taint was on his character for him ever to labour in Manchester again. He remembered the manner in which some one suspected of having been a convict was shunned by masters and men, when he had accidentally met with work in their foundry; the recollection smote him now, how he himself had thought it did not become an honest upright man to associate with one who had been a prisoner. He could not choose but think on that poor humble being, with his downcast conscious look; hunted out of the workshop, where he had sought to earn an honest livelihood, by the looks, and half-spoken words, and the black silence of repugnance (worse than words to bear), that met him on all sides.
Jem felt that his own character had been attainted; and that to many it might still appear suspicious. He knew that he could convince the world, by a future as blameless as his past had been, that he was innocent. But at the same time he saw that he must have patience, and nerve himself for some trials; and the sooner these were undergone, the sooner he was aware of the place he held in men's estimation, the better. He longed to have presented himself once more at the foundry; and then the reality would drive away the pictures that would (unbidden) come of a shunned man, eyed askance by all, and driven forth to shape out some new career.
I said every reason "but one" inclined Jem to hasten Mary's return as soon as she was sufficiently convalescent. That one was the meeting which awaited her at home.
Turn it over as Jem would, he could not decide what was the best course to pursue. He could compel himself to any line of conduct that his reason and his sense of right told him to be desirable; but they did not tell him it was desirable to speak to Mary, in her tender state of mind and body, of her father. How much would be implied by the mere mention of his name! Speak it as calmly, and as indifferently as he might, he could not avoid expressing some consciousness of the terrible knowledge she possessed.
She, for her part, was softer and gentler than she had even been in her gentlest mood; since her illness, her motions, her glances, her voice were all tender in their languor. It seemed almost a trouble to her to break the silence with the low sounds of her own sweet voice, and her words fell sparingly on Jem's greedy, listening ear.
Her face was, however, so full of love and confidence, that Jem felt no uneasiness at the state of silent abstraction into which she often fell. If she did but love him, all would yet go right; and it was better not to press for confidence on that one subject which must be painful to both.
There came a fine, bright, balmy day. And Mary tottered once more out into the open air, leaning on Jem's arm, and close to his beating heart. And Mrs. Sturgis watched them from her door, with a blessing on her lips, as they went slowly up the street.
They came in sight of the river. Mary shuddered.
"O Jem! take me home. Yon river seems all made of glittering, heaving, dazzling metal, just as it did when I began to be ill."
Jem led her homewards. She dropped her head as searching for something on the ground.
"Jem!" He was all attention. She paused for an instant. "When may I go home? To Manchester, I mean. I am so weary of this place; and I would fain be at home."
She spoke in a feeble voice; not at all impatiently, as the words themselves would seem to intimate, but in a mournful way, as if anticipating sorrow even in the very fulfilment of her wishes.
"Darling! we will go whenever you wish; whenever you feel strong enough. I asked Job to tell Margaret to get all in readiness for you to go there at first. She'll tend you and nurse you. You must not go home. Job proffered for you to go there."
"Ah! but I must go home, Jem. I'll try and not fail now in what's right. There are things we must not speak on" (lowering her voice), "but you'll be really kind if you'll not speak against my going home. Let us say no more about it, dear Jem. I must go home, and I must go alone."
"Not alone, Mary!"
"Yes, alone! I cannot tell you why I ask it. And if you guess, I know you well enough to be sure you'll understand why I ask you never to speak on that again to me, till I begin. Promise, dear Jem, promise!"
He promised; to gratify that beseeching face, he promised. And then he repented, and felt as if he had done ill. Then again he felt as if she were the best judge, and knowing all (perhaps more than even he did), might be forming plans which his interference would mar.
One thing was certain! it was a miserable thing to have this awful forbidden ground of discourse; to guess at each other's thoughts, when eyes were averted, and cheeks blanched, and words stood still, arrested in their flow by some casual allusion.
At last a day, fine enough for Mary to travel on, arrived. She had wished to go, but now her courage failed her. How could she have said she was weary of that quiet house, where even Ben Sturgis's grumblings only made a kind of harmonious bass in the concord between him and his wife, so thoroughly did they know each other with the knowledge of many years! How could she have longed to quit that little peaceful room where she had experienced such loving tendence! Even the very check bed-curtains became dear to her under the idea of seeing them no more. If it was so with inanimate objects, if they had such power of exciting regret, what were her feelings with regard to the kind old couple, who had taken the stranger in, and cared for her, and nursed her, as though she had been a daughter? Each wilful sentence spoken in the half- unconscious irritation of feebleness came now with avenging self-reproach to her memory, as she hung about Mrs. Sturgis, with many tears, which served instead of words to express her gratitude and love.
Ben bustled about with the square bottle of Goldenwasser in one of his hands, and a small tumbler in the other; he went to Mary, Jem, and his wife in succession, pouring out a glass for each, and bidding them drink it to keep their spirits up; but as each severally refused, he drank it himself; and passed on to offer the same hospitality to another, with the like refusal, and the like result.
When he had swallowed the last of the three draughts, he condescended to give his reasons for having done so.
"I cannot abide waste. What's poured out mun be drunk. That's my maxim." So saying, he replaced the bottle in the cupboard.
It was he who, in a firm commanding voice, at last told Jem and Mary to be off, or they would be too late. Mrs. Sturgis had kept up till then; but as they left her house, she could no longer restrain her tears, and cried aloud in spite of her husband's upbraiding.
"Perhaps they'll be too late for the train!" exclaimed she, with a degree of hope, as the clock struck two.
"What! and come back again! No! no! that would never do. We've done our part, and cried our cry; it's no use going over the same ground again. I should ha' to give 'em more out of yon bottle when next parting time came, and them three glasses they ha' made a hole in the stuff, I can tell you. Time Jack was back from Hamburg with some more."
When they reached Manchester, Mary looked very white, and the expression of her face was almost stern. She was in fact summoning up her resolution to meet her father if he were at home. Jem had never named his midnight glimpse of John Barton to human being: but Mary had a sort of presentiment, that wander where he would, he would seek his home at last. But in what mood she dreaded to think. For the knowledge of her father's capability of guilt seemed to have opened a dark gulf in his character, into the depths of which she trembled to look. At one moment she would fain have claimed protection against the life she must lead, for some time at least, alone with a murderer! She thought of his gloom, before his mind was haunted by the memory of so terrible a crime; his moody, irritable ways. She imagined the evenings as of old; she, toiling at some work, long after houses were shut, and folks abed; he, more savage than he had ever been before with the inward gnawing of his remorse. At such times she could have cried aloud with terror, at the scenes her fancy conjured up.
But her filial duty, nay, her love and gratitude for many deeds of kindness done to her as a little child, conquered all fear. She would endure all imaginable terrors, although of daily occurrence. And she would patiently bear all wayward violence of temper; more than patiently would she bear it--pitifully, as one who knew of some awful curse awaiting the blood-shedder. She would watch over him tenderly, as the innocent should watch over the guilty; awaiting the gracious seasons, wherein to pour oil and balm into the bitter wounds.
With the untroubled peace which the resolve to endure to the end gives, she approached the house that from habit she still called home, but which possessed the holiness of home no longer. "Jem!" said she, as they stood at the entrance to the court, close by Job Legh's door, "you must go in there and wait half-an-hour. Not less. If in that time I don't come back, you go your ways to your mother. Give her my dear love. I will send by Margaret when I want to see you."
She sighed heavily.
"Mary! Mary! I cannot leave you. You speak as coldly as if we were to be nought to each other. And my heart's bound up in you. I know why you bid me keep away, but"--
She put her hand on his arm, as he spoke in a loud agitated tone; she looked into his face with upbraiding love in her eyes, and then she said, while her lips quivered, and he felt her whole frame trembling--
"Dear Jem! I often could have told you more of love, if I had not once spoken out so free. Remember that time, Jem, if ever you think me cold. Then, the love that's in my heart would out in words; but now, though I'm silent on the pain I'm feeling in quitting you, the love is in my heart all the same. But this is not the time to speak on such things. If I do not do what I feel to be right now, I may blame myself all my life long! Jem, you promised"--
And so saying she left him. She went quicker than she would otherwise have passed over those few yards of ground, for fear he should still try to accompany her. Her hand was on the latch, and in a breath the door was opened.
There sat her father, still and motionless--not even turning his head to see who had entered; but perhaps he recognised the footstep-- the trick of action.
He sat by the fire; the grate, I should say, for fire there was none. Some dull grey ashes, negligently left, long days ago, coldly choked up the bars. He had taken the accustomed seat from mere force of habit, which ruled his automaton body. For all energy, both physical and mental, seemed to have retreated inwards to some of the great citadels of life, there to do battle against the Destroyer, Conscience.
His hands were crossed, his fingers interlaced; usually a position implying some degree of resolution, or strength; but in him it was so faintly maintained, that it appeared more the result of chance; an attitude requiring some application of outward force to alter-- and a blow with a straw seemed as though it would be sufficient.
And as for his face, it was sunk and worn--like a skull, with yet a suffering expression that skulls have not! Your heart would have ached to have seen the man, however hardly you might have judged his crime.
But crime and all was forgotten by his daughter, as she saw his abashed look, his smitten helplessness. All along she had felt it difficult (as I may have said before) to reconcile the two ideas, of her father and a blood-shedder. But now it was impossible. He was her father! her own dear father! and in his sufferings, whatever their cause, more dearly loved than ever before. His crime was a thing apart, never more to be considered by her.
And tenderly did she treat him, and fondly did she serve him in every way that heart could devise, or hand execute.
She had some money about her, the price of her strange services as a witness; and when the lingering dusk grew on she stole out to effect some purchases necessary for her father's comfort.
For how body and soul had been kept together, even as much as they were, during the days he had dwelt alone, no one can say. The house was bare as when Mary had left it, of coal, or of candle, of food, or of blessing in any shape.
She came quickly home; but as she passed Job Legh's door, she stopped. Doubtless Jem had long since gone; and doubtless, too, he had given Margaret some good reason for not intruding upon her friend for this night at least, otherwise Mary would have seen her before now.
But to-morrow,--would she not come in to-morrow? And who so quick as blind Margaret in noticing tones, and sighs, and even silence?
She did not give herself time for further thought, her desire to be once more with her father was too pressing; but she opened the door, before she well knew what to say.
"It's Mary Barton! I know her by her breathing! Grandfather, it's Mary Barton!"
Margaret's joy at meeting her, the open demonstration of her love, affected Mary much; she could not keep from crying, and sat down weak and agitated on the first chair she could find.
"Ay, ay, Mary! thou'rt looking a bit different to when I saw thee last. Thou'lt give Jem and me good characters for sick nurses, I trust. If all trades fail, I'll turn to that. Jem's place is for life, I reckon. Nay, never redden so, lass. You and he know each other's minds by this time!"
Margaret held her hand, and gently smiled into her face.
Job Legh took the candle up, and began a leisurely inspection.
"Thou hast gotten a bit of pink in thy cheeks,--not much; but when last I see thee, thy lips were as white as a sheet. Thy nose is sharpish at th' end; thou'rt more like thy father than ever thou wert before. Lord! child, what's the matter? Art thou going to faint?"
For Mary had sickened at the mention of that name; yet she felt that now or never was the time to speak.
"Father's come home!" she said, "but he's very poorly; I never saw him as he is now before. I asked Jem not to come near him for fear it might fidget him."
She spoke hastily, and (to her own idea) in an unnatural manner. But they did not seem to notice it, nor to take the hint she had thrown out of company being unacceptable; for Job Legh directly put down some insect, which he was impaling on a corking-pin, and exclaimed--
"Thy father come home! Why, Jem never said a word of it! And ailing too! I'll go in, and cheer him with a bit of talk. I never knew any good come of delegating it."
"O Job! father cannot stand--father is too ill. Don't come; not but that you're very kind and good; but to-night--indeed," said she at last, in despair, seeing Job still persevere in putting away his things; "you must not come till I send or come for you. Father's in that strange way, I can't answer for it if he sees strangers. Please don't come. I'll come and tell you every day how he goes on. I must be off now to see after him. Dear Job! kind Job! don't be angry with me. If you knew all, you'd pity me."
For Job was muttering away in high dudgeon, and even Margaret's tone was altered as she wished Mary good-night. Just then she could ill brook coldness from any one, and least of all bear the idea of being considered ungrateful by so kind and zealous a friend as Job had been; so she turned round suddenly, even when her hand was on the latch of the door, and ran back, and threw her arms about his neck, and kissed him first, and then Margaret. And then, the tears fast falling down her cheeks, but no word spoken, she hastily left the house, and went back to her home.
There was no change in her father's position, or in his spectral look. He had answered her questions (but few in number, for so many subjects were unapproachable) by monosyllables, and in a weak, high, childish voice; but he had not lifted his eyes; he could not meet his daughter's look. And she, when she spoke, or as she moved about, avoided letting her eyes rest upon him. She wished to be her usual self; but while everything was done with a consciousness of purpose, she felt it was impossible.
In this manner things went on for some days. At night he feebly clambered upstairs to bed; and during those long dark hours Mary heard those groans of agony which never escaped his lips by day, when they were compressed in silence over his inward woe.
Many a time she sat up listening, and wondering if it would ease his miserable heart if she went to him, and told him she knew all, and loved and pitied him more than words could tell.
By day the monotonous hours wore on in the same heavy, hushed manner as on that first dreary afternoon. He ate,--but without that relish; and food seemed no longer to nourish him, for each morning his face had caught more of the ghastly foreshadowing of Death.
The neighbours kept strangely aloof. Of late years John Barton had had a repellent power about him, felt by all, except to the few who had either known him in his better and happier days, or those to whom he had given his sympathy and his confidence. People did not care to enter the doors of one whose very depth of thoughtfulness rendered him moody and stern. And now they contented themselves with a kind inquiry when they saw Mary in her goings-out or in her comings-in. With her oppressing knowledge, she imagined their reserved conduct stranger than it was in reality. She missed Job and Margaret too; who, in all former times of sorrow or anxiety since their acquaintance first began, had been ready with their sympathy.
But most of all she missed the delicious luxury she had lately enjoyed in having Jem's tender love at hand every hour of the day, to ward off every wind of heaven, and every disturbing thought.
She knew he was often hovering about the house; though the knowledge seemed to come more by intuition, than by any positive sight or sound for the first day or two. On the third day she met him at Job Legh's.
They received her with every effort of cordiality; but still there was a cobweb-veil of separation between them, to which Mary was morbidly acute; while in Jem's voice, and eyes, and manner, there was every evidence of most passionate, most admiring, and most trusting love. The trust was shown by his respectful silence on that one point of reserve on which she had interdicted conversation.
He left Job Legh's house when she did. They lingered on the step, he holding her hand between both of his, as loth to let her go; he questioned her as to when he should see her again.
"Mother does so want to see you," whispered he. "Can you come to see her to-morrow; or when?"
"I cannot tell," replied she softly. "Not yet. Wait awhile; perhaps only a little while. Dear Jem, I must go to him,--dearest Jem."
The next day, the fourth from Mary's return home, as she was sitting near the window, sadly dreaming over some work, she caught a glimpse of the last person she wished to see--of Sally Leadbitter!
She was evidently coming to their house; another moment, and she tapped at the door. John Barton gave an anxious, uneasy side-glance. Mary knew that if she delayed answering the knock, Sally would not scruple to enter; so as hastily as if the visit had been desired, she opened the door, and stood there with the latch in her hand, barring up all entrance, and as much as possible obstructing all curious glances into the interior.
"Well, Mary Barton! You're home at last! I heard you'd getten home; so I thought I'd just step over and hear the news."
She was bent on coming in, and saw Mary's preventive design. So she stood on tiptoe, looking over Mary's shoulders into the room where she suspected a lover to be lurking; but instead, she saw only the figure of the stern, gloomy father she had always been in the habit of avoiding; and she dropped down again, content to carry on the conversation where Mary chose, and as Mary chose, in whispers.
"So the old governor is back again, eh? And what does he say to all your fine doings at Liverpool, and before?--you and I know where. You can't hide it now, Mary, for it's all in print."
Mary gave a low moan--and then implored Sally to change the subject; for unpleasant as it always was, it was doubly unpleasant in the manner in which she was treating it. If they had been alone Mary would have borne it patiently--or she thought, but now she felt almost certain, her father was listening; there was a subdued breathing, a slight bracing-up of the listless attitude. But there was no arresting Sally's curiosity to hear all she could respecting the adventures Mary had experienced. She, in common with the rest of Miss Simmonds' young ladies, was almost jealous of the fame that Mary had obtained; to herself, such miserable notoriety.
"Nay! there's no use shunning talking it over. Why! it was in the Guardian--and the Courier--and some one told Jane Hodgson it was even copied into a London paper. You've set up heroine on your own account, Mary Barton. How did you like standing witness? Aren't them lawyers impudent things? staring at one so. I'll be bound you wished you'd taken my offer, and borrowed my black watered scarf! Now didn't you, Mary? Speak truth!"
"To tell the truth, I never thought about it then, Sally. How could I?" asked she reproachfully.
"Oh--I forgot. You were all for that stupid James Wilson. Well! if I've ever the luck to go witness on a trial, see if I don't pick up a better beau than the prisoner. I'll aim at a lawyer's clerk, but I'll not take less than a turnkey."
Cast down as Mary was, she could hardly keep from smiling at the idea, so wildly incongruous with the scene she had really undergone, of looking out for admirers during a trial for murder.
"I'd no thought to be looking out for beaux, I can assure you, Sally. But don't let us talk any more about it; I can't bear to think on it. How is Miss Simmonds? and everybody?"
"Oh, very well; and by the way, she gave me a bit of a message for you. You may come back to work if you'll behave yourself, she says. I told you she'd be glad to have you back, after all this piece of business, by way of tempting people to come to her shop. They'd come from Salford to have a peep at you, for six months at least."
"Don't talk so; I cannot come, I can never face Miss Simmonds again. And even if I could"--she stopped, and blushed.
"Ay! I know what you are thinking on. But that will not be this some time, as he's turned off from the foundry--you'd better think twice afore refusing Miss Simmonds' offer."
"Turned off from the foundry? Jem?" cried Mary.
"To be sure! didn't you know it? Decent men were not going to work with a--no! I suppose I mustn't say it, seeing you went to such trouble to get up an alibi; not that I should think much the worse of a spirited young fellow for falling foul of a rival--they always do at the theatre."
But Mary's thoughts were with Jem. How good he had been never to name his dismissal to her. How much he had had to endure for her sake!
"Tell me all about it," she gasped out.
"Why, you see, they've always swords quite handy at them plays," began Sally; but Mary, with an impatient shake of her head, interrupted--
"About Jem--about Jem, I want to know."
"Oh! I don't pretend to know more than is in every one's mouth: he's turned away from the foundry, because folk doesn't think you've cleared him outright of the murder; though perhaps the jury were loth to hang him. Old Mr. Carson is savage against judge and jury, and lawyers and all, as I heard."
"I must go to him, I must go to him," repeated Mary, in a hurried manner.
"He'll tell you all I've said is true, and not a word of lie," replied Sally. "So I'll not give your answer to Miss Simmonds, but leave you to think twice about it. Good afternoon!"
Mary shut the door, and turned into the house.
Her father sat in the same attitude; the old unchanging attitude. Only his head was more bowed towards the ground.
She put on her bonnet to go to Ancoats; for see, and question, and comfort, and worship Jem, she must.
As she hung about her father for an instant before leaving him, he spoke--voluntarily spoke for the first time since her return; but his head was drooping so low she could not hear what he said, so she stooped down; and after a moment's pause, he repeated the words--
"Tell Jem Wilson to come here at eight o'clock to-night."
Could he have overheard her conversation with Sally Leadbitter? They had whispered low, she thought. Pondering on this, and many other things, she reached Ancoats.