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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 may be like to see her?"
Mary went up-stairs: 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 cognizant 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 sun-beam 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.
"And must it then depend on this poor eye
'the Constant Woman.'
Her heart beating, her head full of ideas, which required time and solitude to be reduced into order, Mary hurried home. She was like one who finds a jewel of which he cannot all at once ascertain the value, but who hides his treasure until some quiet hour when he may ponder over the capabilities its possession unfolds. She was like one who discovers the silken clue which guides to some bower of bliss, and secure of the power within his grasp, has to wait for a time before he may tread the labyrinth.
But no jewel, no bower of bliss was ever so precious to miser or lover as was the belief which now pervaded Mary's mind, that Jem's innocence might be proved, without involving any suspicion of that other — that dear one — so dear, although so criminal — on whose part in this cruel business she dared not dwell even in thought. For if she did, there arose the awful question, — if all went against Jem the innocent, if judge and jury gave the verdict forth which had the looming gallows in the rear, what ought she to do, possessed of her terrible knowledge? Surely not to inculpate her father — and yet — and yet — she almost prayed for the blessed unconsciousness of death or madness, rather than that awful question should have to be answered by her.
But now a way seemed opening, opening yet more clear. She was thankful she had thought of the alibi, and yet more thankful to have so easily obtained the clue to Jem's whereabouts that miserable night. The bright light that her new hope threw over all, seemed also to make her thankful for the early time appointed for the trial. It would be easy to catch Will Wilson on his return from the Isle of Man, which he had planned should be on the Monday; and on the Tuesday all would be made clear — all that she dared to wish to be made clear.
She had still to collect her thoughts and freshen her memory enough to arrange how to meet with Will — for to the chances of a letter she would not trust; to find outhis lodgings when in Liverpool; to try and remember the name of the ship in which he was to sail: and the more she considered these points, the more difficulty she found there would be in ascertaining these minor but important facts. For you are aware thatAlice, whose memory was clear and strong on all points in which her heart was interested, was lying in a manner senseless: that Jane Wilson was (to use her own word, so expressive to a Lancashire ear) "dazed,"* that is to say, bewildered, lost in the confusion of terrifying and distressing thoughts; incapable of concentrating her mind; and at the best of times Will's proceedings were a matter of little importance to her (or so she pretended), she was so jealous of aught which distracted attention from her pearl of price, her only son Jem. So Mary felt hopeless of obtaining any intelligence of the sailor's arrangements from her.
Then, should she apply to Jem himself! No! she knew him too well. She felt how thoroughly he must ere now have had it in his power to exculpate himself at another's expense. And his tacit refusal so to do had assured her of what she had never doubted, that the murderer was safe from any impeachment of his. But then neither would he consent, she feared, to any steps which might tend to proving himself innocent. At any rate, she could not consult him. He was removed to Kirkdale, and time pressed. Already it was Saturday at noon. And even if she could have gone to him, I believe she would not. She longed to do all herself, to be his liberator, his deliverer; to win him life, though she might never regain his lost love by her own exertions. And oh! how could she]see him to discuss a subject in which both knew who was the blood-stained man; and yet whose name might not be breathed by either, so dearly with all his faults, his sins, was he loved by both.
* "They make him so amazed.
And his eyes so dazed." — Stelton.
All at once, when she had ceased to try and remember, the name of Will's ship flashed across her mind. The John Cropper. He had named it, she had been sure, all along. He had named it in his conversation with her that last, thatfatal Thursday evening. She repeated it over and over again, through a nervous dread of again forgetting it. The John Cropper.
And then, as if she were rousing herself out of some strange stupor, she bethought her of Margaret. Who so likely as Margaret to treasure every little particular respecting Will, now Alice was dead to all the stirring purposes of life?
She had gone thus far in her process of thought, when a neighbour stepped in; she with whom they had usually deposited the house-key, when both Mary and her father were absent from home, and who consequently took upon herself to answer all inquiries, and receive all messages which any friends might make, or leave, on finding the house shut up.
"Here's somewhat for you, Mary! A policeman left it."
Many people have a dread of those mysterious pieces of parchment. I am one. Mary was another. Her heart misgave her as she took it, and looked at the unusual appearance of the writing, which, though legible enough, conveyed no idea to her, or rather her mind shut itself up against receiving any idea, which after all was rather a proof she had some suspicion of the meaning that awaited her.
"What is it?" asked she, in a voice from which all the pith and marrow seemed extracted.
"Nay! how should I know? Policeman said he'd call again towards evening, and see if you'd gotten it. He were loth to leave it, though I telledhim who I was, and all about my keeping th'key, and taking messages."
"What is it about?" asked Mary again, in the same hoarse, feeble voice, and turning it over in her fingers, as if she dreaded to inform herself of its meaning.
"Well! yo can read word of writing and I cannot, so it 's queer I should have to tell you. But my master says it's a summons for yo to bear witness again Jem Wilson, at th' trial at Liverpool Assize."
"God pity me!" saidMary, faintly, as white as a sheet."Nay, wench, never take on so. What yo can say will go little way either to help or hinder, for folk say he's certain to be hung; and sure enough it was t'other one as was your sweetheart."
Mary was beyond any pang this speech would have given at another time. Her thoughts were all busy picturing to herself the terrible occasion of their next meeting — notas lovers meet should they meet!
"Well!" said the neighbour, seeing no use in remaining with one who noticed her words or her presence so little; "thou 'lt tell policeman thou'st getten his precious bit of paper. He seemed to think I should be for keeping it mysel; he's th' first as has ever misdoubted me about giving messages, or notes. Good day." She left the house, but Mary did not know it. She sat still with the parchment in her hand.
All at once she started up. She would take it to Job Legh, and ask him to tell her the true meaning, for it could not be that. So she went, and choked out her words of inquiry. "It's a sub-poena," he replied, turning the parchment over with the air of a connoisseur; for Job loved hard words, and lawyer-like forms, and even esteemed himself slightly qualified for a lawyer, from the smattering of knowledge he had picked up from an odd volume ofBlackstone that he had once purchased at a book-stall. "A sub-poena — what is that?" gaspedMary, still in suspense. Job was struck with her voice, her changed, miserable voice, and peered at her countenance from over his spectacles.
"A sub-poena is neither more nor less than this, my dear. It's a summonsing you to attend, and answer such questions as may be asked of you regarding the trial of James Wilson, for the murder of Henry Carsons; that's the long and short of it, only more elegantly put, for the benefit of them who knows how to value--the gift of language. I've been at witness before-time myself; there's nothing much to be afeared on; if they are impudent, why, just you be impudent, and give 'em tit for tat."
"Nothing much to be afeared on!" echoed Mary, but in such a different tone.