Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Esther’s Search for Mary
By Elizabeth Gaskell (1810–1865)
From Mary Barton

I MUST go back a little to explain the motives which caused Esther to seek an interview with her niece.
  The murder had been committed early on Thursday night, and between then and the dawn of the following day there was ample time for the news to spread far and wide among all those whose duty, or whose want, or whose errors, caused them to be abroad in the streets of Manchester.  2
  Among those who listened to the tale of violence was Esther.  3
  A craving desire to know more took possession of her mind. Far away as she was from Turner Street, she immediately set off to the scene of the murder, which was faintly lighted by the gray dawn as she reached the spot. It was so quiet and still that she could hardly believe it to be the place. The only vestige of any scuffle or violence was a trail on the dust, as if somebody had been lying there, and then been raised by extraneous force. The little birds were beginning to hop and twitter in the leafless hedge, making the only sound that was near and distinct. She crossed into the field where she guessed the murderer to have stood; it was easy of access, for the worn, stunted hawthorn-hedge had many gaps in it. The night-smell of bruised grass came up from under her feet, as she went towards the saw-pit and carpenter’s shed, which as I have said before, were in a corner of the field near the road, and where one of her informants had told her it was supposed by the police that the murderer had lurked while waiting for his victim. There was no sign, however, that any one had been about the place. If the grass had been bruised or bent where he had trod, it had had enough of the elasticity of life to raise itself under the dewy influences of night. She hushed her breath in involuntary awe, but nothing else told of the violent deed by which a fellow-creature had passed away. She stood still for a minute, imagining to herself the position of the parties, guided by the only circumstance which afforded any evidence, the trailing mark on the dust in the road.  4
  Suddenly (it was before the sun had risen above the horizon) she became aware of something white in the hedge. All other colours wore the same murky hue, though the forms of objects were perfectly distinct. What was it? It could not be a flower;—that, the time of the year made clear. A frozen lump of snow, lingering late in one of the gnarled tufts of the hedge? She stepped forward to examine. It proved to be a little piece of stiff writing-paper compressed into a round shape. She understood it instantly; it was the paper that had served for wadding for the murderer’s gun. Then she had been standing just where the murderer must have been but a few hours before; probably (as the rumour had spread through the town reaching her ears) one of the poor maddened turn-outs, who hung about everywhere, with black, fierce looks, as if contemplating some deed of violence. Her sympathy was all with them, for she had known what they suffered; and besides this, there was her own individual dislike of Mr. Carson, and dread of him for Mary’s sake. Yet poor Mary! Death was a terrible, though sure remedy, for the evil Esther had dreaded for her; and how would she stand the shock, loving as her aunt believed her to do. Poor Mary! who would comfort her? Esther’s thoughts began to picture her sorrow, her despair, when the news of her lover’s death would reach her; and she longed to tell her there might have been a keener grief yet had he lived.  5
  Beautiful, bright came the slanting rays of the morning sun. It was time for such as she to hide themselves, with the other obscene things of night, from the glorious light of day, which was only for the happy. So she turned her steps towards town, still holding the paper. But in getting over the hedge it encumbered her to hold it in her clasped hand, and she threw it down. She passed on a few steps, her thoughts still of Mary, till the idea crossed her mind, could it (blank as it appeared to be) give any clue to the murderer? As I said before, her sympathies were all on that side, so she turned back and picked it up; and then feeling as if in some measure an accessory, she hid it unexamined in her hand, and hastily passed out of the street at the opposite end to that by which she had entered it.  6
  And, what do you think she felt, when having walked some distance from the spot, she dared to open the crushed paper, and saw written on it Mary Barton’s name, and not only that, but the street in which she lived! True, a letter or two was torn off, but, nevertheless, there was the name clear to be recognised. And oh! what a terrible thought flashed into her mind; or was it only fancy? But it looked very like the writing which she had once known well—the writing of Jem Wilson, who, when she lived at her brother-in-law’s, and he was a near neighbour, had often been employed by her to write her letters to people, to whom she was ashamed of sending her own misspelt scrawl. She remembered the wonderful flourishes she had so much admired in those days, while she sat by dictating, and Jem, in all the pride of newly-acquired penmanship, used to dazzle her eyes by extraordinary graces and twirls.  7
  If it were his!  8
  Oh! perhaps it was merely that her head was running so on Mary, that she was associating every trifle with her. As if only one person wrote in that flourishing, meandering style!  9
  It was enough to fill her mind to think from what she might have saved Mary by securing the paper. She would look at it just once more, and see if some very dense and stupid policeman could have mistaken the name, or if Mary would certainly have been dragged into notice in the affair.  10
  No! no one could have mistaken the “ry Barton,” and it was Jem’s handwriting!  11
  Oh! if it was so, she understood it all, and she had been the cause! With her violent and unregulated nature, rendered morbid by the course of life she led, and her consciousness of her degradation, she cursed herself for the interference which she believed had led to this; for the information and the warning she had given to Jem, which had roused him to this murderous action. How could she, the abandoned and polluted outcast, ever have dared to hope for a blessing, even on her efforts to do good? The black curse of Heaven rested on all her doings, were they for good or for evil.  12
  Poor, diseased mind! and there were none to minister to thee!  13
  So she wandered about, too restless to take her usual heavy morning’s sleep, up and down the streets, greedily listening to every word of the passers-by, and loitering near each group of talkers, anxious to scrape together every morsel of information, or conjecture, or suspicion, though without possessing any definite purpose in all this. And ever and always she clenched the scrap of paper which might betray so much, until her nails had deeply indented the palm of her hand; so fearful was she in her nervous dread, lest unawares she should let it drop.  14
  Towards the middle of the day she could no longer evade the body’s craving want of rest and refreshment; but the rest was taken in a spirit vault, and the refreshment was a glass of gin.  15
  Then she started up from the stupor she had taken for repose; and suddenly driven before the gusty impulses of her mind, she pushed her way to the place where at that very time the police were bringing the information they had gathered with regard to the all-engrossing murder. She listened with painful acuteness of comprehension to dropped words, and unconnected sentences, the meaning of which became clearer, and yet more clear to her. Jem was suspected. Jem was ascertained to be the murderer.  16
  She saw him (although he, absorbed in deep sad thought, saw her not), she saw him brought handcuffed, and guarded out of the coach. She saw him enter the station——she gasped for breath till he came out, still handcuffed, and still guarded, to be conveyed to the New Bailey.  17
  He was the only one who had spoken to her with hope that she might win her way back to virtue. His words had lingered in her heart with a sort of call to Heaven, like distant Sabbath bells, although in her despair she had turned away from his voice. He was the only one who had spoken to her kindly. The murder, shocking though it was, was an absent, abstract thing, on which her thoughts could not, and would not dwell; all that was present in her mind was Jim’s danger, and his kindness.  18
  Then Mary came to remembrance. Esther wondered till she was sick of wondering, in what way she was taking the affair. In some manner it would be a terrible blow for the poor motherless girl; with her dreadful father, too, who was to Esther a sort of accusing angel.  19
  She set off towards the court where Mary lived, to pick up what she could there of information. But she was ashamed to enter in where once she had been innocent, and hung about the neighbouring streets, not daring to question, so she learnt but little; nothing, in fact, but the knowledge of John Barton’s absence from home.  20
  She went up a dark entry to rest her weary limbs on a doorstep and think. Her elbows on her knees, her face hidden in her hands, she tried to gather together and arrange her thoughts. But still every now and then she opened her hand to see if the paper were yet there.  21
  She got up at last. She formed a plan, and had a course of action to look forward to that would satisfy one craving desire at least. The time was gone by when there was much wisdom or consistency in her projects.  22
  It was getting late, and that was so much the better. She went to a pawnshop, and took off her finery in a back room. She was known by the people, and had a character for honesty, so she had no very great difficulty in inducing them to let her have a suit of outer clothes, befitting the wife of a working man, a black silk bonnet, a printed gown, a plaid shawl, dirty and rather worn to be sure, but which had a sort of sanctity to the eyes of the street walker, as being the appropriate garb of that happy class to which she could never, never more belong.  23
  She looked at herself in the little glass which hung against the wall, and sadly shaking her head, thought how easy were the duties of that Eden of innocence from which she was shut out; how she would work, and toil, and starve, and die, if necessary, for a husband, a home—for children—but that thought she could not bear; a little form rose up, stern in its innocence, from the witches’ caldron of her imagination, and she rushed into action again.  24

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