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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesMary Barton - Chapter XXVIII - "John Cropper," ahoy!
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Mary Barton - Chapter XXVIII - 'John Cropper,' ahoy! Post by :Family_Freedom Category :Long Stories Author :Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell Date :June 2011 Read :3523

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Mary Barton - Chapter XXVIII - "John Cropper," ahoy!

Chapter XXVIII - "John Cropper," ahoy!

 

"A wet sheet and a flowing sea,
A wind that follows fast
And fills the white and rustling sail,
And bends the gallant mast!
And bends the gallant mast, my boys,
While, like the eagle free,
Away the good ship flies, and leaves
Old England on the lee."
--ALLAN CUNNINGHAM.

Mary had not understood that Charley was not coming with her. In
fact, she had not thought about it, till she perceived his absence,
as they pushed off from the landing-place, and remembered that she
had never thanked him for all his kind interest in her behalf; and
now his absence made her feel most lonely--even his, the little
mushroom friend of an hour's growth.

The boat threaded her way through the maze of larger vessels which
surrounded the shore, bumping against one, kept off by the oars from
going right against another, overshadowed by a third, until at
length they were fairly out on the broad river, away from either
shore; the sights and sounds of land being heard in the distance.

And then came a sort of pause.

Both wind and tide were against the two men, and labour as they
would they made but little way. Once Mary in her impatience had
risen up to obtain a better view of the progress they had made; but
the men had roughly told her to sit down immediately, and she had
dropped on her seat like a chidden child, although the impatience
was still at her heart.

But now she grew sure they were turning off from the straight course
which they had hitherto kept on the Cheshire side of the river,
whither they had gone to avoid the force of the current, and after a
short time she could not help naming her conviction, as a kind of
nightmare dread and belief came over her, that everything animate
and inanimate was in league against her one sole aim and object of
overtaking Will.

They answered gruffly. They saw a boatman whom they knew, and were
desirous of obtaining his services as a steersman, so that both
might row with greater effect. They knew what they were about. So
she sat silent with clenched hands while the parley went on, the
explanation was given, the favour asked and granted. But she was
sickening all the time with nervous fear.

They had been rowing a long, long time--half a day it seemed, at
least--yet Liverpool appeared still close at hand, and Mary began
almost to wonder that the men were not as much disheartened as she
was, when the wind, which had been hitherto against them, dropped,
and thin clouds began to gather over the sky, shutting out the sun,
and casting a chilly gloom over everything.

There was not a breath of air, and yet it was colder than when the
soft violence of the westerly wind had been felt.

The men renewed their efforts. The boat gave a bound forwards at
every pull of the oars. The water was glassy and motionless,
reflecting tint by tint of the Indian-ink sky above. Mary shivered,
and her heart sank within her. Still, now they evidently were
making progress. Then the steersman pointed to a rippling line on
the river only a little way off, and the men disturbed Mary, who was
watching the ships that lay in what appeared to her the open sea, to
get at their sails.

She gave a little start, and rose. Her patience, her grief, and
perhaps her silence, had begun to win upon the men.

"Yon second to the norrard is the John Cropper. Wind's right now,
and sails will soon carry us alongside of her."

He had forgotten (or perhaps he did not like to remind Mary) that
the same wind which now bore their little craft along with easy,
rapid motion, would also be favourable to the John Cropper.

But as they looked with straining eyes, as if to measure the
decreasing distance that separated them from her, they saw her sails
unfurled and flap in the breeze, till, catching the right point,
they bellied forth into white roundness, and the ship began to
plunge and heave, as if she were a living creature, impatient to be
off.

"They're heaving anchor!" said one of the boatmen to the other, as
the faint musical cry of the sailors came floating over the waters
that still separated them.

Full of the spirit of the chase, though as yet ignorant of Mary's
motives, the men sprung to hoist another sail. It was fully as much
as the boat could bear, in the keen, gusty east wind which was now
blowing, and she bent, and laboured, and ploughed, and creaked
upbraidingly as if tasked beyond her strength; but she sped along
with a gallant swiftness.

They drew nearer, and they heard the distant "ahoy" more clearly.
It ceased. The anchor was up, and the ship was away.

Mary stood up, steadying herself by the mast, and stretched out her
arms, imploring the flying vessel to stay its course, by that mute
action, while the tears streamed down her cheeks. The men caught up
their oars and hoisted them in the air, and shouted to arrest
attention.

They were seen by the men aboard the larger craft; but they were too
busy with all the confusion prevalent in an outward-bound vessel to
pay much attention. There were coils of ropes and seamen's chests
to be stumbled over at every turn; there were animals, not properly
secured, roaming bewildered about the deck, adding their pitiful
lowings and bleatings to the aggregate of noises. There were
carcases not cut up, looking like corpses of sheep and pigs rather
than like mutton and pork; there were sailors running here and there
and everywhere, having had no time to fall into method, and with
their minds divided between thoughts of the land and the people they
had left, and the present duties on board ship; while the captain
strove hard to procure some kind of order by hasty commands given in
a loud, impatient voice, to right and left, starboard and larboard,
cabin and steerage.

As he paced the deck with a chafed step, vexed at one or two little
mistakes on the part of the mate, and suffering himself from the
pain of separation from wife and children, but showing his suffering
only by his outward irritation, he heard a hail from the shabby
little river boat that was striving to overtake his winged ship.
For the men fearing that, as the ship was now fairly over the bar,
they should only increase the distance between them, and being now
within shouting range, had asked of Mary her more particular desire.

Her throat was dry, all musical sound had gone out of her voice; but
in a loud, harsh whisper she told the men her errand of life and
death, and they hailed the ship.

"We're come for one William Wilson, who is wanted to prove an alibi
in Liverpool Assize Courts to-morrow. James Wilson is to be tried
for a murder done on Thursday night when he was with William Wilson.
Anything more, missis?" asked the boatman of Mary, in a lower voice,
and taking his hands down from his mouth.

"Say I'm Mary Barton. Oh, the ship is going on! Oh, for the love
of Heaven, ask them to stop."

The boatman was angry at the little regard paid to his summons, and
called out again; repeating the message with the name of the young
woman who sent it, and interlarding it with sailors' oaths.

The ship flew along--away--the boat struggled after.

They could see the captain take his speaking-trumpet. And oh! and
alas! they heard his words.

He swore a dreadful oath; he called Mary a disgraceful name! and he
said he would not stop his ship for any one, nor could he part with
a single hand, whoever swung for it.

The words came in unpitying clearness with their trumpet-sound.
Mary sat down looking like one who prays in the death agony. For
her eyes were turned up to that heaven, where mercy dwelleth, while
her blue lips quivered, though no sound came. Then she bowed her
head, and hid it in her hands.

"Hark! yon sailor hails us."

She looked up, and her heart stopped its beating to listen.

William Wilson stood as near the stern of the vessel as he could
get; and unable to obtain the trumpet from the angry captain, made a
tube of his own hands.

"So help me God, Mary Barton, I'll come back in the pilot-boat time
enough to save the life of the innocent."

"What does he say?" asked Mary wildly, as the voice died away in the
increasing distance, while the boatmen cheered, in their kindled
sympathy with their passenger.

"What does he say?" repeated she. "Tell me. I could not hear."

She had heard with her ears, but her brain refused to recognise the
sense.

They repeated his speech, all three speaking at once, with many
comments; while Mary looked at them and then at the vessel far away.

"I don't rightly know about it," said she sorrowfully. "What is the
pilot-boat?"

They told her, and she gathered the meaning out of the sailors'
slang which enveloped it. There was a hope still, although so
slight and faint.

"How far does the pilot go with the ship?"

To different distances, they said. Some pilots would go as far as
Holyhead for the chance of the homeward-bound vessels; others only
took the ships over the Banks. Some captains were more cautious
than others, and the pilots had different ways. The wind was
against the homeward-bound vessels, so perhaps the pilot aboard the
John Cropper would not care to go far out.

"How soon would he come back?"

There were three boatmen, and three opinions, varying from twelve
hours to two days. Nay, the man who gave his vote for the longest
time, on having his judgment disputed, grew stubborn, and doubled
the time, and thought it might be the end of the week before the
pilot-boat came home.

They began disputing and urging reasons; and Mary tried to
understand them; but independently of their nautical language, a
veil seemed drawn over her mind, and she had no clear perception of
anything that passed. Her very words seemed not her own, and beyond
her power of control, for she found herself speaking quite
differently to what she meant.

One by one her hopes had fallen away, and left her desolate; and
though a chance yet remained, she could no longer hope. She felt
certain it, too, would fade and vanish. She sank into a kind of
stupor. All outward objects harmonised with her despair--the gloomy
leaden sky--the deep dark waters below, of a still heavier shade of
colour--the cold, flat yellow shore in the distance, which no ray
lightened up--the nipping, cutting wind.

She shivered with her depression of mind and body.

The sails were taken down, of course, on the return to Liverpool,
and the progress they made, rowing and tacking, was very slow. The
men talked together, disputing about the pilots at first, and then
about matters of local importance, in which Mary would have taken no
interest at any time, and she gradually became drowsy; irrepressibly
so, indeed, for in spite of her jerking efforts to keep awake, she
sank away to the bottom of the boat, and there lay crouched on a
rough heap of sails, rope, and tackles of various kinds.

The measured beat of the waters against the sides of the boat, and
the musical boom of the more distant waves, were more lulling than
silence, and she slept sound.

Once she opened her eyes heavily, and dimly saw the old grey, rough
boatman (who had stood out the most obstinately for the full fare)
covering her with his thick pea-jacket. He had taken it off on
purpose, and was doing it tenderly in his way, but before she could
rouse herself up to thank him she had dropped off to sleep again.

At last, in the dusk of evening, they arrived at the landing-place
from which they had started some hours before. The men spoke to
Mary, but though she mechanically replied, she did not stir; so, at
length, they were obliged to shake her. She stood up, shivering and
puzzled as to her whereabouts.

"Now tell me where you are bound to, missus," said the grey old man,
"and maybe I can put you in the way."

She slowly comprehended what he said, and went through the process
of recollection; but very dimly, and with much labour. She put her
hand into her pocket and pulled out her purse, and shook its
contents into the man's hand; and then began meekly to unpin her
shawl, although they had turned away without asking for it.

"No! no!" said the old man, who lingered on the step before
springing into the boat, and to whom she mutely offered the shawl.
"Keep it! we donnot want it. It were only for to try you,--some
folks say they've no more blunt, when all the while they've getten a
mint."

"Thank you," said she, in a dull, low tone.

"Where are you bound to? I axed that question afore," said the
gruff old fellow.

"I don't know. I'm a stranger," replied she quietly, with a strange
absence of anxiety under the circumstances.

"But you mun find out then," said he sharply: "pier-head's no
place for a young woman to be standing on, gapeseying."

"I've a card somewhere as will tell me," she answered, and the man,
partly relieved, jumped into the boat, which was now pushing off to
make way for the arrivals from some steamer.

Mary felt in her pocket for the card, on which was written the name
of the street where she was to have met Mr. Bridgnorth at two
o'clock; where Job and Mrs. Wilson were to have been, and where she
was to have learnt from the former the particulars of some
respectable lodging. It was not to be found.

She tried to brighten her perceptions, and felt again, and took out
the little articles her pocket contained, her empty purse, her
pocket-handkerchief, and such little things, but it was not there.

In fact, she had dropped it when, so eager to embark, she had pulled
out her purse to reckon up her money.

She did not know this, of course. She only knew it was gone.

It added but little to the despair that was creeping over her. But
she tried a little more to help herself, though every minute her
mind became more cloudy. She strove to remember where Will had
lodged, but she could not; name, street, everything had passed away,
and it did not signify; better she were lost than found.

She sat down quietly on the top step of the landing, and gazed down
into the dark, dank water below. Once or twice a spectral thought
loomed among the shadows of her brain; a wonder whether beneath that
cold dismal surface there would not be rest from the troubles of
earth. But she could not hold an idea before her for two
consecutive moments; and she forgot what she thought about before
she could act upon it.

So she continued sitting motionless, without looking up, or
regarding in any way the insults to which she was subjected.

Through the darkening light the old boatman had watched her:
interested in her in spite of himself, and his scoldings of himself.

When the landing-place was once more comparatively clear, he made
his way towards it, across boats, and along planks, swearing at
himself while he did so for an old fool.

He shook Mary's shoulder violently.

"D--- you, I ask you again where you're bound to? Don't sit there,
stupid. Where are going to?"

"I don't know," sighed Mary.

"Come, come; avast with that story. You said a bit ago you'd a
card, which was to tell you where to go."

"I had, but I've lost it. Never mind."

She looked again down upon the black mirror below.

He stood by her, striving to put down his better self; but he could
not. He shook her again. She looked up, as if she had forgotten
him.

"What do you want?" asked she wearily.

"Come with me and be d--d to you!" replied he, clutching her arm to
pull her up.

She arose and followed him, with the unquestioning docility of a
little child.

Content of Chapter XXVIII - "John Cropper," ahoy! (Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell's novel: Mary Barton)

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