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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesMary Barton - Chapter XXII - Mary's efforts to prove an alibi.
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Mary Barton - Chapter XXII - Mary's efforts to prove an alibi. Post by :homebizwarrior Category :Long Stories Author :Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell Date :June 2011 Read :1249

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Mary Barton - Chapter XXII - Mary's efforts to prove an alibi.

Chapter XXII - Mary's efforts to prove an alibi

"There was a listening fear in her regard,
As if calamity had but begun;
As if the vanward clouds of evil days
Had spent their malice, and the sullen rear
Was, with its stored thunder, labouring up."
--KEATS' Hyperion.

No sooner was Mary alone than she fastened the door, and put the
shutters up against the window, which had all this time remained
shaded only by the curtains hastily drawn together on Esther's
entrance, and the lighting of the candle.

She did all this with the same compressed lips, and the same stony
look that her face had assumed on the first examination of the
paper. Then she sat down for an instant to think; and rising
directly, went, with a step rendered firm by inward resolution of
purpose, up the stairs; passed her own door, two steps, into her
father's room. What did she want there?

I must tell you; I must put into words the dreadful secret which she
believed that bit of paper had revealed to her.

Her father was the murderer.

That corner of stiff, shining, thick, writing paper, she recognised
as a part of the sheet on which she had copied Samuel Bamford's
beautiful lines so many months ago--copied (as you perhaps remember)
on the blank part of a valentine sent to her by Jem Wilson, in those
days when she did not treasure and hoard up everything he had
touched, as she would do now.

That copy had been given to her father, for whom it was made, and
she had occasionally seen him reading it over, not a fortnight ago
she was sure. But she resolved to ascertain if the other part still
remained in his possession. He might--it was just possible he
MIGHT, have given it away to some friend; and if so, that person was
the guilty one, for she could swear to the paper anywhere.

First of all she pulled out every article from the little old chest
of drawers. Amongst them were some things which had belonged to her
mother, but she had no time now to examine and try and remember
them. All the reverence she could pay them was to carry them and
lay them on the bed carefully, while the other things were tossed
impatiently out upon the floor.

The copy of Bamford's lines was not there. Oh! perhaps he might
have given it away; but then must it not have been to Jem? It was
his gun.

And she set to with redoubled vigour to examine the deal box which
served as chair, and which had once contained her father's Sunday
clothes, in the days when he could afford to have Sunday clothes.

He had redeemed his better coat from the pawn-shop before he left,
that she had noticed. Here was his old one. What rustled under her
hand in the pocket?

The paper! "O father!"

Yes, it fitted; jagged end to jagged end, letter to letter, and even
the part which Esther had considered blank had its tallying mark
with the larger piece, its tails of ys and gs. And then, as if that
were not damning evidence enough, she felt again, and found some
little bullets or shot (I don't know which you would call them) in
that same pocket, along with a small paper parcel of gunpowder. As
she was going to replace the jacket, having abstracted the paper,
and bullets, etc., she saw a woollen gun-case made of that sort of
striped horse-cloth you must have seen a thousand times appropriated
to such a purpose. The sight of it made her examine still further,
but there was nothing else that could afford any evidence, so she
locked the box, and sat down on the floor to contemplate the
articles; now with a sickening despair, now with a kind of wondering
curiosity, how her father had managed to evade observation. After
all it was easy enough. He had evidently got possession of some gun
(was it really Jem's? was he an accomplice? No! she did not believe
it; he never, never would deliberately plan a murder with another,
however he might be wrought up to it by passionate feeling at the
time. Least of all would he accuse her to her father, without
previously warning her; it was out of his nature).

Then having obtained possession of the gun, her father had loaded it
at home, and might have carried it away with him some time when the
neighbours were not noticing, and she was out, or asleep; and then
he might have hidden it somewhere to be in readiness when he should
want it. She was sure he had no such thing with him when he went
away the last time.

She felt it was of no use to conjecture his motives. His actions
had become so wild and irregular of late, that she could not reason
upon them. Besides, was it not enough to know that he was guilty of
this terrible offence? Her love for her father seemed to return
with painful force, mixed up as it was with horror at his crime.
That dear father who was once so kind, so warm-hearted, so ready to
help either man or beast in distress, to murder! But in the desert
of misery with which these thoughts surrounded her, the arid depths
of whose gloom she dared not venture to contemplate, a little spring
of comfort was gushing up at her feet, unnoticed at first, but soon
to give her strength and hope.

And THAT was the necessity for exertion on her part which this
discovery enforced.

Oh! I do think that the necessity for exertion, for some kind of
action (bodily or mental) in time of distress, is a most infinite
blessing, although the first efforts at such seasons are painful.
Something to be done implies that there is yet hope of some good
thing to be accomplished, or some additional evil that may be
avoided; and by degrees the hope absorbs much of the sorrow.

It is the woes that cannot in any earthly way be escaped that admit
least earthly comforting. Of all trite, worn-out, hollow mockeries
of comfort that were ever uttered by people who will not take the
trouble of sympathising with others, the one I dislike the most is
the exhortation not to grieve over an event, "for it cannot be
helped." Do you think if I could help it, I would sit still with
folded hands, content to mourn? Do you not believe that as long as
hope remained I would be up and doing? I mourn because what has
occurred cannot be helped. The reason you give me for not grieving,
is the very sole reason of my grief. Give me nobler and higher
reasons for enduring meekly what my Father sees fit to send, and I
will try earnestly and faithfully to be patient; but mock me not, or
any other mourner, with the speech, "Do not grieve, for it cannot be
helped. It is past remedy."

But some remedy to Mary's sorrow came with thinking. If her father
was guilty, Jem was innocent. If innocent, there was a possibility
of saving him. He must be saved. And she must do it; for, was not
she the sole depository of the terrible secret? Her father was not
suspected; and never should be, if by any foresight or any exertions
of her own she could prevent it.

She did not know how Jem was to be saved, while her father was also
to be considered innocent. It would require much thought and much
prudence. But with the call upon her exertions, and her various
qualities of judgment and discretion, came the answering
consciousness of innate power to meet the emergency. Every step
now, nay, the employment of every minute was of consequence; for you
must remember she had learnt at Miss Simmonds' the probability that
the murderer would be brought to trial the next week. And you must
remember, too, that never was so young a girl so friendless, or so
penniless, as Mary was at this time. But the lion accompanied Una
through the wilderness and the danger; and so will a high, resolved
purpose of right-doing ever guard and accompany the helpless.

It struck two; deep, mirk night.

It was of no use bewildering herself with plans this weary, endless
night. Nothing could be done before morning; and, at first in her
impatience, she began to long for day; but then she felt in how
unfit a state her body was for any plan of exertion, and she
resolutely made up her mind to husband her physical strength.

First of all she must burn the tell-tale paper. The powder,
bullets, and gun-case, she tied into a bundle, and hid in the
sacking of the bed for the present, although there was no likelihood
of their affording evidence against any one. Then she carried the
paper downstairs, and burned it on the hearth, powdering the very
ashes with her fingers, and dispersing the fragments of fluttering
black films among the cinders of the grate. Then she breathed

Her head ached with dizzying violence; she must get quit of the pain
or it would incapacitate her for thinking and planning. She looked
for food, but there was nothing but a little raw oatmeal in the
house: still, although it almost choked her, she ate some of this,
knowing from experience, how often headaches were caused by long
fasting. Then she sought for some water to bathe her throbbing
temples, and quench her feverish thirst. There was none in the
house, so she took the jug and went out to the pump at the other end
of the court, whose echoes resounded her light footsteps in the
quiet stillness of the night. The hard, square outlines of the
houses cut sharply against the cold bright sky, from which myriads
of stars were shining down in eternal repose. There was little
sympathy in the outward scene, with the internal trouble. All was
so still, so motionless, so hard! Very different to this lovely
night in the country in which I am now writing, where the distant
horizon is soft and undulating in the moonlight, and the nearer
trees sway gently to and fro in the night-wind with something of
almost human motion; and the rustling air makes music among their
branches, as if speaking soothingly to the weary ones who lie awake
in heaviness of heart. The sights and sounds of such a night lull
pain and grief to rest.

But Mary re-entered her home after she had filled her pitcher, with
a still stronger sense of anxiety, and a still clearer conviction of
how much rested upon her unassisted and friendless self, alone with
her terrible knowledge, in the hard, cold, populous world.

She bathed her forehead, and quenched her thirst, and then, with
wise deliberation of purpose, went upstairs, and undressed herself,
as if for a long night's slumber, although so few hours intervened
before day-dawn. She believed she never could sleep, but she lay
down, and shut her eyes; and before many minutes she was in as deep
and sound a slumber as if there was no sin or sorrow in the world.

She woke up, as it was natural, much refreshed in body; but with a
consciousness of some great impending calamity. She sat up in bed
to recollect, and when she did remember, she sank down again with
all the helplessness of despair. But it was only the weakness of an
instant; for were not the very minutes precious, for deliberation if
not for action?

Before she had finished the necessary morning business of dressing,
and setting her house in some kind of order, she had disentangled
her ravelled ideas, and arranged some kind of a plan for action. If
Jem was innocent (and now of his guilt, even his slightest
participation in, or knowledge of, the murder, she acquitted him
with all her heart and soul), he must have been somewhere else when
the crime was committed; probably with some others, who might bear
witness to the fact, if she only knew where to find them.
Everything rested on her. She had heard of an alibi, and believed
it might mean the deliverance she wished to accomplish; but she was
not quite sure, and determined to apply to Job, as one of the few
among her acquaintance gifted with the knowledge of hard words, for
to her, all terms of law, or natural history, were alike
many-syllabled mysteries.

No time was to be lost. She went straight to Job Legh's house, and
found the old man and his grand-daughter sitting at breakfast; as
she opened the door she heard their voices speaking in a grave,
hushed, subdued tone, as if something grieved their hearts. They
stopped talking on her entrance, and then she knew they had been
conversing about the murder; about Jem's probable guilt; and (it
flashed upon her for the first time) on the new light they would
have obtained regarding herself: for until now they had never
heard of her giddy flirting with Mr. Carson; not in all her
confidential talk with Margaret had she ever spoken of him. And
now, Margaret would hear her conduct talked of by all, as that of a
bold, bad girl; and even if she did not believe everything that was
said, she could hardly help feeling wounded, and disappointed in

So it was in a timid voice that Mary wished her usual good-morrow,
and her heart sunk within her a little, when Job, with a form of
civility, bade her welcome in that dwelling, where, until now, she
had been too well assured to require to be asked to sit down.

She took a chair. Margaret continued silent.

"I'm come to speak to you about this--about Jem Wilson."

"It's a bad business, I'm afeard," replied Job sadly.

"Ay, it's bad enough anyhow. But Jem's innocent. Indeed he is; I'm
as sure as sure can be."

"How can you know, wench? Facts bear strong again him, poor fellow,
though he'd a deal to put him up, and aggravate him, they say. Ay,
poor lad, he's done for himself, I'm afeard."

"Job," said Mary, rising from her chair in her eagerness, "you must
not say he did it. He didn't; I'm sure and certain he didn't. Oh!
why do you shake your head? Who is to believe me,--who is to think
him innocent, if you, who know'd him so well, stick to it he's

"I'm loth enough to do it, lass," replied Job; "but I think he's
been ill-used, and--jilted (that's plain truth, Mary, bare as it may
seem), and his blood has been up--many a man has done the like
afore, from like causes."

"O God! Then you won't help me, Job, to prove him innocent? O Job,
Job! believe me, Jem never did harm to no one."

"Not afore;--and mind, wench! I don't over-blame him for this." Job
relapsed into silence.

Mary thought a moment.

"Well, Job, you'll not refuse me this, I know. I won't mind what
you think, if you'll help me as if he was innocent. Now suppose I
know--I knew, he was innocent,--it's only supposing, Job,--what must
I do to prove it? Tell me, Job! Isn't it called an alibi, the
getting folk to swear to where he really was at the time?"

"Best way, if you know'd him innocent, would be to find out the real
murderer. Some one did it, that's clear enough. If it wasn't Jem
who was it?"

"How can I tell?" answered Mary, in agony of terror, lest Job's
question was prompted by any suspicion of the truth.

But he was far enough from any such thought. Indeed, he had no
doubt in his own mind that Jem had, in some passionate moment, urged
on by slighted love and jealousy, been the murderer. And he was
strongly inclined to believe, that Mary was aware of this, only
that, too late repentant of her light conduct which had led to such
fatal consequences, she was now most anxious to save her old
playfellow, her early friend, from the doom awaiting the shedder of

"If Jem's not done it, I don't see as any on us can tell who did it.
We might find out something if we'd time; but they say he's to be
tried on Tuesday. It's no use hiding it, Mary; things looks strong
against him."

"I know they do! I know they do! But, O Job! isn't an alibi a
proving where he really was at th' time of the murder; and how must
I set about an alibi?"

"An alibi is that, sure enough." He thought a little. "You mun ask
his mother his doings, and his whereabouts that night; the knowledge
of that will guide you a bit."

For he was anxious that on another should fall the task of
enlightening Mary on the hopelessness of the case, and he felt that
her own sense would be more convinced by inquiry and examination
than any mere assertion of his.

Margaret had sat silent and grave all this time. To tell the truth,
she was surprised and disappointed by the disclosure of Mary's
conduct, with regard to Mr. Henry Carson. Gentle, reserved, and
prudent herself, never exposed to the trial of being admired for her
personal appearance, and unsusceptible enough to be in doubt even
yet, whether the fluttering, tender, infinitely joyous feeling she
was for the first time experiencing, at sight or sound, or thought
of Will Wilson, was love or not,--Margaret had no sympathy with the
temptations to which loveliness, vanity, ambition, or the desire of
being admired, exposes so many; no sympathy with flirting girls, in
short. Then, she had no idea of the strength of the conflict
between will and principle in some who were differently constituted
from herself. With her, to be convinced that an action was wrong,
was tantamount to a determination not to do so again; and she had
little or no difficulty in carrying out her determination. So she
could not understand how it was that Mary had acted wrongly, and had
felt too much ashamed, in spite of internal sophistry, to speak of
her actions. Margaret considered herself deceived; felt aggrieved;
and, at the time of which I am now telling you, was strongly
inclined to give Mary up altogether, as a girl devoid of the modest
proprieties of her sex, and capable of gross duplicity, in speaking
of one lover as she had done of Jem, while she was encouraging
another in attentions, at best of a very doubtful character.

But now Margaret was drawn into the conversation. Suddenly it
flashed across Mary's mind, that the night of the murder was the
very night, or rather the same early morning, that Margaret had been
with Alice. She turned sharp round, with--

"O Margaret, you can tell me; you were there when he came back that
night; were you not? No! you were not; but you were there not many
hours after. Did not you hear where he'd been? He was away the
night before, too, when Alice was first taken; when you were there
for your tea. Oh! where was he, Margaret?"

"I don't know," she answered. "Stay! I do remember something about
his keeping Will company, in his walk to Liverpool. I can't justly
say what it was, so much happened that night."

"I'll go to his mother's," said Mary resolutely.

They neither of them spoke, either to advise or dissuade. Mary felt
she had no sympathy from them, and braced up her soul to act without
such loving aid of friendship. She knew that their advice would be
willingly given at her demand, and that was all she really required
for Jem's sake. Still her courage failed a little as she walked to
Jane Wilson's, alone in the world with her secret.

Jane Wilson's eyes were swelled with crying; and it was sad to see
the ravages which intense anxiety and sorrow had made on her
appearance in four-and-twenty hours. All night long she and Mrs.
Davenport had crooned over their sorrows, always recurring, like the
burden of an old song, to the dreadest sorrow of all, which was now
impending over Mrs. Wilson. She had grown--I hardly know what word
to use--but, something like proud of her martyrdom; she had grown to
hug her grief; to feel an excitement in her agony of anxiety about
her boy.

"So, Mary, you're here! O Mary, lass! He's to be tried on

She fell to sobbing, in the convulsive breath-catching manner which
tells of so much previous weeping.

"O Mrs. Wilson, don't take on so! We'll get him off, you'll see.
Don't fret; they can't prove him guilty!"

"But I tell thee they will," interrupted Mrs. Wilson, half-irritated
at the light way, as she considered it, in which Mary spoke; and a
little displeased that another could hope when she had almost
brought herself to find pleasure in despair.

"It may suit thee well," continued she, "to make light o' the misery
thou hast caused; but I shall lay his death at thy door, as long as
I live, and die I know he will; and all for what he never did--no,
he never did; my own blessed boy!"

She was too weak to be angry long; her wrath sank away to feeble
sobbing and worn-out moans.

Mary was most anxious to soothe her from any violence of either
grief or anger; she did so want her to be clear in her recollection;
and, besides, her tenderness was great towards Jem's mother. So she
spoke in a low gentle tone the loving sentences, which sound so
broken and powerless in repetition, and which yet have so much power
when accompanied with caressing looks and actions, fresh from the
heart; and the old woman insensibly gave herself up to the influence
of those sweet, loving blue eyes, those tears of sympathy, those
words of love and hope, and was lulled into a less morbid state of

"And now, dear Mrs. Wilson, can you remember where he said he was
going on Thursday night? He was out when Alice was taken ill; and
he did not come home till early in the morning, or, to speak true,
in the night: did he?"

"Ay! he went out near upon five; he went out with Will; he said he
were going to set* him a part of the way, for Will were hot upon
walking to Liverpool, and wouldn't hearken to Jem's offer of lending
him five shillings for his fare. So the two lads set off together.
I mind it all now: but, thou seest, Alice's illness, and this
business of poor Jem's, drove it out of my head; they went off
together, to walk to Liverpool; that's to say, Jem were to go a part
o' th' way. But, who knows" (falling back into the old desponding
tone) "if he really went? He might be led off on the road. O Mary,
wench! they'll hang him for what he's never done."

*"To set," to accompany.

"No they won't, they shan't! I see my way a bit now. We mun get
Will to help; there'll be time. He can swear that Jem were with
him. Where is Jem?"

"Folk said he were taken to Kirkdale, i' th' prison van this
morning, without my seeing him, poor chap! O wench! but they've
hurried on the business at a cruel rate."

"Ay! they've not let grass grow under their feet, in hunting out the
man that did it," said Mary sorrowfully and bitterly. "But keep up
your heart. They got on the wrong scent when they took to
suspecting Jem. Don't be afeard. You'll see it will end right for

"I should mind it less if I could do aught," said Jane Wilson; "but
I'm such a poor weak old body, and my head's so gone, and I'm so
dazed like, what with Alice and all, that I think and think, and can
do nought to help my child. I might ha' gone and seen him last
night, they tell me now, and then I missed it. O Mary, I missed it;
and I may never see the lad again."

She looked so piteously in Mary's face with her miserable eyes, that
Mary felt her heart giving way, and, dreading the weakness of her
powers, which the burst of crying she longed for would occasion,
hastily changed the subject to Alice; and Jane, in her heart,
feeling that there was no sorrow like a mother's sorrow, replied--

"She keeps on much the same, thank you. She's happy, for she knows
nothing of what's going on; but th' doctor says she grows weaker and
weaker. Thou'lt maybe like to see her?"

Mary went upstairs; partly because it is the etiquette in humble
life to offer to friends a last opportunity of seeing the dying or
the dead, while the same etiquette forbids a refusal of the
invitation; and partly because she longed to breathe, for an
instant, the atmosphere of holy calm, which seemed ever to surround
the pious, good old woman. Alice lay, as before, without pain, or
at least any outward expression of it; but totally unconscious of
all present circumstances, and absorbed in recollections of the days
of her girlhood, which were vivid enough to take the place of
reality to her. Still she talked of green fields, and still she
spoke to the long-dead mother and sister, low-lying in their graves
this many a year, as if they were with her and about her, in the
pleasant places where her youth had passed.

But the voice was fainter, the motions were more languid; she was
evidently passing away; but HOW happily!

Mary stood for a time in silence, watching and listening. Then she
bent down and reverently kissed Alice's cheek; and drawing Jane
Wilson away from the bed, as if the spirit of her who lay there were
yet cognisant of present realities, she whispered a few words of
hope to the poor mother, and kissing her over and over again in a
warm, loving manner, she bade her good-bye, went a few steps, and
then once more came back to bid her keep up her heart.

And when she had fairly left the house, Jane Wilson felt as if a
sunbeam had ceased shining into the room.

Yet oh! how sorely Mary's heart ached; for more and more the fell
certainty came on her that her father was the murderer! She
struggled hard not to dwell on this conviction; to think alone on
the means of proving Jem's innocence; that was her first duty, and
that should be done.

Content of Chapter XXII - Mary's efforts to prove an alibi (Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell's novel: Mary Barton)

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