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Mary Barton
by Mrs. Gaskell
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes


(1848)



Mrs. Gaskell, originally Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson, known as 'Mrs. Gaskell' after her marriage to a Manchester Unitarian minister, was born in London on Sept. 29, 1810.

'Mary Barton' was Mrs. Gaskell's first literary success, a passionate exposition of the plight of the Manchester poor, which was much admired by literary critics, but far from well received by the city grandees.

Abridged: JH

For more works by Mrs. Gaskell, see The Index



Mary Barton


I. - Rich and Poor

"Mary," said John Barton to his daughter, "what's come o'er thee and Jem Wilson? You were great friends at one time."

"Oh, folk say he is going to be married to Molly Gibson," answered Mary, as indifferently as she could.

"Thou'st played thy cards badly, then," replied her father in a surly tone. "At one time he were much fonder o' thee than thou deservedst."

"That's as people think," said Mary pertly, for she remembered that the very morning before, when on her way to her dressmaking work, she had met Mr. Harry Carson, who had sighed, and sworn and protested all manner of tender vows. Mr. Harry Carson was the son and the idol of old Mr. Carson, the wealthy mill-owner. Jem Wilson, her old playmate, and the son of her father's, closest friend, although he had earned a position of trust at the foundry where he worked, was but a mechanic after all! Mary was ambitious; she knew that she had beauty; she believed that when young Mr. Carson declared he meant to marry her he spoke the truth.

It so happened that Jem, after much anxious thought, had determined that day to "put his fortune to the touch." Just after John Barton had gone out, Jem appeared at the door, looking more awkward and abashed than he had ever done before.

He thought he had better begin at once.

"Mary, it's no new story I'm going to speak about. Since we were boy and girl I ha' loved you above father and mother and all. And now, Mary, I'm foreman at the works, and I've a home to offer you, and a heart as true as ever man had to love you and cherish you. Darling, say that you'll be mine."

Mary could not speak at once.

"Mary, they say, silence gives consent," he whispered.

"No, not with me! I can never be your wife."

"Oh, Mary, think awhile!" he urged.

"Jem, it cannot be," she said calmly, although she trembled from head to foot. "Once for all, I will never marry you."

"And this is the end!" he cried passionately. "Mary, you'll hear, maybe, of me as a drunkard, and maybe as a thief, and maybe as a murderer. Remember! it's your cruelty that will have made me what I feel I shall become."

He rushed out of the house.

When he had gone, Mary lay half across the dresser, her head hidden in her hands, and her body shaken with violent sobs. For these few minutes had unveiled her heart to her; it had convinced her that she loved Jem above all persons or things. What were the wealth and prosperity that Mr. Harry Carson might bring to her now that she had suddenly discovered the passionate secret of her soul?

Her first duty, she saw, was to reject the advances of her rich lover. She avoided him as far as possible, and slighted him when he forced his presence upon her. And how was she to redress the wrong she had done to Jem in denying him her heart? She took counsel with her friend, Margaret Legh. When Mary had first known Margaret and her grandfather, Job Legh - an old man who belonged to the class of Manchester workmen who are warm and devoted followers of science, a man whose home was like a wizard's dwelling, filled with impaled insects and books and instruments - Margaret had a secret fear of blindness. The fear had since been realised, but she remained the quiet, sensible, tender-hearted girl she had been before her great deprivation. She opposed Mary's notion of writing a letter to Jem.

"You must just wait and be patient," she advised; "being patient is the hardest work we have to do through life, I take it. Waiting is far more difficult than doing; but it's one of God's lessons we must learn, one way or another."

So Mary waited. But Jem took his disappointment as final, and her hopes of seeing him were always baffled.

John Barton, on the night of Jem's proposal, had gone to his union. The members of the union were all desperate men, ready for anything; made ready by want. Barton himself was out of work. He had seen much of the bitterness of poverty in Manchester; now he was feeling the pinch of it himself.

Ever since the death of his wife, whose end had been hastened by the sudden and complete disappearance of her darling sister Esther, the wan colourlessness of his face had been intensified; his stern enthusiasm, once latent, had become visible; his heart, tenderer than ever towards the victims of the misery around him, grew harder towards the employers, whom he believed to be the cause of that misery. Trade grew worse, but there was no sign that the masters were suffering; they still had their carriages and their comforts; the woe in these terrible years 1839, 1840, and 1841 seemed to fall wholly upon the poor. It is impossible even faintly to picture the state of distress which prevailed in Manchester at that time. Whole families went through a gradual starvation; John Barton saw them starve, saw fathers and mothers and children die of low, putrid fever in foetid cellars, and cursed the rich men who never extended a helping hand to the sufferers.

"Working folk won't be ground to the dust much longer," he declared. "We'n ha' had as much to bear as human nature can bear."

Fiercer grew he, and more sullen. Darker and darker were the schemes he brooded over in his desolate home, or discussed with others at the meetings of the union. Even Mary did not escape his ill-temper. Once he struck her. And yet Mary was the one being on earth he devotedly loved. What would he have thought had he known that his daughter had listened to the voice of an employer's son? But he did not know.

II. - The Rivals

One night, as Jem was leaving the foundry, a woman laid her hand upon his arm. A momentary glance at the faded finery she wore told him the class to which she belonged, and he made an effort to pass on. But she grasped him firmly.

"You must listen to me, Jem Wilson," she said, "for Mary Barton's sake."

"And who can you be to know Mary Barton?" he exclaimed.

"Do you remember Esther, Mary's aunt?"

'"Yes, I mind her well." He looked into her face. "Why, Esther! Where have ye been this many a year?"

She answered with fierce earnestness, "Where have I been? What have I been doing? Can you not guess? See after Mary, and take care she does not become like me. As she is loving now, so did I love once - one above me, far."

Jem cut her short with his hoarse, stern inquiry, "Who is this spark that Mary loves?"

"It's old Carson's son." Then, after a pause, she continued, "Oh, Jem, I charge you with the care of her! Her father won't listen to me." She cried a little at the recollection of John Barton's harsh words when she had timidly tried to approach him. "It would be better for her to die than to live to lead such a life as I do!"

"It would be better," said Jem, as if thinking aloud. Then he went on. "Esther, you may trust to my doing all I can for Mary. And now, listen. Come home with me. Come to my mother."

"God bless you, Jem!" she replied. "But it is too late now - too late!"

She rapidly turned away. Jem felt that the great thing was to reach home and solitude. His heart was filled with jealous anguish. Mary loved another! She was lost to him for evermore. A frenzied longing for blood entered his mind as he brooded that night over his loss. But at last the thought of duty brought peace to his soul. If Carson loved Mary, Carson must marry her. It was Jem's part to speak straightforwardly to Carson, to be unto Mary as a brother.

Four days later his opportunity came. He met Carson in an unfrequented lane.

"May I speak a word wi' you, sir?" said Jem respectfully.

"Certainly, my good man," replied Harry Carson.

"I think, sir, you're keeping company wi' Mary Barton?"

"Mary Barton! Ay, that is her name. An arrant flirt the little hussy is, but very pretty."

"I will tell you in plain words," said Jem, angered, "what I have got to say to you. I'm an old friend of Mary's and her father's, and I want to know if you mean fair by Mary or not."

"You will have the kindness to leave us to ourselves," answered Carson contemptuously. "No one shall interfere between my little girl and me. Get out of my way! Won't you? Then I'll make you!"

He raised his cane, and smote the mechanic on his face. An instant afterwards he lay stretched in the muddy road, Jem standing over him, panting with rage. Just then a policeman, who had been watching them unobserved, interfered with expostulations and warnings.

"If you dare to injure her," shouted Jem, as he was dragged away, "I will wait you where no policeman can step in between. And God shall judge between us two!"

* * * * *

The mill-workers had struck against low wages. Five haggard, earnestlooking men had presented the workpeople's demands to the assembled mill-owners, and the demands had been rejected. None had been fiercer in opposing the delegates, none more bitter in mockery of their rags and leanness, than the son of old Mr. Carson.

That evening, starved, irritated, despairing men gathered to hear the delegates tell of their failure.

"It's the masters as has wrought this woe," said John Barton in a low voice. "It's the masters as should pay for it. Set me to serve out the masters, and see if there's aught I'll stick at!"

Deeper and darker grew the import of the speeches as the men stood hoarsely muttering their meaning out with set teeth and livid looks. After a fierce and terrible oath had been sworn, a number of pieces of paper, one of them marked, were shuffled in a hat. The gas was extinguished; each drew a paper. The gas was re-lighted. Each examined his paper, with a countenance as immovable as he could make it. Then they went every one his own way.

He who had drawn the marked paper had drawn the lot of the assassin. And no one, save God and his own conscience, knew who was the appointed murderer.

III. - Murder

Two nights later, Barton was to leave for Glasgow, whither he was to travel as delegate to entreat assistance for the strikers. "What could be the matter with him?" thought Mary. He was so restless; he seemed so fierce, too.

Presently he rose, and in a short, cold manner bade her farewell. She stood at the door, looking after him, her eyes blinded with tears. He was so strange, so cold, so hard. Suddenly he came back, and took her in his arms.

"God in heaven bless thee, Mary!"

She threw her arms round his neck. He kissed her, unlaced her soft, twining arms, and set off on his errand.

When Mary reached the dressmaker's next morning, she noticed that the girls stopped talking. They eyed her! then they began to whisper. At last one of them asked her if she had heard the news.

"No! What news?" she answered.

"Have you not heard that young Mr. Carson was murdered last night?"

Mary could not speak, but no one who looked at her pale and terror-stricken face could have doubted that she had not heard before of the fearful occurrence.

She felt throughout the day as if the haunting horror were a nightmare from which awakening would relieve her. Everybody was full of the one subject.

In the evening she went to Mrs. Wilson's, hoping that at last she might see Jem. But here a new and terrible shock awaited her.

Mrs. Wilson turned fiercely upon her.

"And is it thee that dares set foot in this house, after what has come to pass? Dost thou know where my son is, all through thee?"

"No," quivered out poor Mary.

"He's lying in prison, waiting to take his trial for murdering young Mr. Carson."

So, indeed, it was. At the inquest the policeman who had witnessed the quarrel between the rivals testified to the threats uttered by Jem; and the gun used by the murderer, and thrown away by him in his haste to escape, had been proved to be Jem's property.

Jem an assassin, and because of her! In the agony of that night Mary saw the gallows standing black against the burning light which dazzled her shut eyes, press on them as she would. She thought she was going mad; then Heaven blessed her unawares, and she sank to sleep.

She was awakened by the coming of a visitor. It was her long-lost, unrecognised aunt Esther, who had come to her niece bringing her a little piece of paper compressed into a round shape. It was the paper that had served as wadding for the murderer's gun. Esther had picked it up while wandering in curiosity about the scene of the murder. There was writing on the paper, and she had brought it to Mary, fearing that if it fell into the hands of the police it would provide more evidence against Jem.

The paper told Mary everything. It had belonged to John Barton. Jem was innocent, and her own father was the murderer! Jem must be saved, and she must do it; for was she not the sole repository of the terrible secret? And how could she prove Jem's innocence without admitting her father's guilt?

When she could think calmly, she realised that she must discover where Jem had been on the Thursday night when the murder had been committed. Tremblingly she went to Mrs. Wilson, and learnt what she wanted to know. Jem had walked towards Liverpool with his cousin Will, a sailor who had spent all his money in Manchester, and could not afford railway-fare. Will's ship was to sail on Tuesday, and on Tuesday Jem was to be tried at the Liverpool assizes.

Job Legh engaged a lawyer to defend Jem, and Mary prepared to go to Liverpool to find the one man whose evidence could save her lover. Ere she left, a policeman brought her a bit of parchment. Her heart misgave her as she took it; she guessed its purport. It was a summons to bear witness against Jem Wilson at the assizes.

IV. - "Not Guilty"

Arrived at Liverpool on Monday, after the bewilderment of a railway journey - the first she had ever made - Mary found her way to the little court, not far from the docks, were Jem's sailor cousin lodged.

"Is Will Wilson here?" she asked the landlady.

"No, he is not," replied the woman, curtly.

"Tell me - where he is?" asked Mary, sickening.

"He's gone this very morning, my poor dear," answered the landlady, relenting at the sight of Mary's obvious distress. "He's sailed, my dear - sailed in the John Cropper this very blessed morning!"

Mary staggered into the house, stricken into hopelessness. Yet hope was not dead. The landlady's son told her that the John Cropper would be waiting for high-water to cross the sandbanks at the river's mouth, and that there was a chance that a sailing-boat might overtake the vessel.

Mary hurried down to the docks, spent every penny she had in hiring a boat, and presently was tossing on the water for the first time in her life, alone with two rough men.

The boatmen hailed the John Cropper just as the crew were heaving anchor, and told their errand. The captain refused with a dreadful oath to stop his ship for anyone, whoever swung for it. But Will Wilson, standing at the stern, shouted through his hands, "So help me God, Mary Barton, I'll come back in the pilot-boat time enough to save his life!"

As the ship receded in the distance, Mary asked anxiously when the pilot-boat would be back. The boatmen did not know; it might be twelve hours, it might be two days. A chance yet remained, but she could no longer hope. When she reached the landing-place, faint and penniless, one of the boatmen took her to his home, and there she sat sleeplessly awaiting the dawn of the day of trial.

When she entered the witness-box next day, the whole court reeled before her, save two figures only - that of the judge and that of the prisoner. Jem sat silent - he had held his peace ever since his arrest - with his face bowed on his hands.

Mary answered a few questions with a sort of wonder at the reality of the terrible circumstances in which she was placed.

"And pray, may I ask, which was the favoured lover?" went on the barrister.

A look of indignation for an instant contracted Mary's brow. She was aware that Jem had raised his head and was gazing at her. Turning towards the judge, she said steadily, "Perhaps I liked Mr. Harry Carson once; but I loved James Wilson beyond what tongue can tell. When he asked me to marry him, I was very hard in my answer; but he'd not been gone out of my sight above a minute before I knew I loved him - far above my life."

After these words the prisoner's head was no longer bowed. He stood erect and firm, with self-respect in his attitude; yet he seemed lost in thought.

But Will Wilson did not come, and the evidence against Jem grew stronger and stronger. Mary was flushed and anxious, muttering to herself in a wild, restless manner. Job Legh heard her repeat again and again, "I must not go mad; I must not!"

Suddenly she threw up her arms and shrieked aloud: "Oh, Jem! Jem! You're saved! and I am mad!" and was carried out of court stiff and convulsed. And as they bore her off, a sailor forced his way over rails and seats, through turnkeys and policemen. Will Wilson had come in time.

He told his tale clearly and distinctly; the efforts of the prosecution to shake him were useless. "Not guilty" was the verdict that thrilled through the breathless court. One man sank back in his seat in sickening despair. The vengeance that old Mr. Carson had longed to compass for the murder of his beloved boy was thwarted; he had been cheated of the desire that now ruled his life - the desire of blood for blood.

V. - "Forgive Us Our Trespasses"

For many days Mary hovered between life and death, and it was long ere she could make the journey back to Manchester under the tender care of the man who now knew she loved him. Not until she had recovered did he tell her that he had lost his situation at the foundry - the men refused to work under one who had been tried for murder - and that he was looking for work elsewhere.

"Mary," he asked, "art thou much bound to Manchester? Would it grieve thee sore to quit the old smoke-jack?"

"With thee?" was her quiet response.

"I've heard fine things of Canada. Thou knowest where Canada is, Mary?"

"Not rightly - but with thee, Jem" - her voice sank to a whisper - "anywhere." Then, after a pause, she added, "But father!"

John Barton was smitten, helpless, very near to death. His face was sunk and worn - like a skull, with yet a suffering expression that skulls have not! Crime and all had been forgotten by his daughter when she saw him; fondly did she serve him in every way that heart could devise.

Jem had known from the first that Barton was the murderer of Harry Carson. Several days before the murder Barton had borrowed Jem's gun, and Jem had seen the truth at the moment of his arrest. When Mary came to tell him that her father wished to speak to him, Jem could not guess what was before him, and did not try to guess.

When they entered the room, Mary saw all at a glance. Her father stood holding on to a chair as if for support. Behind him sat Job Legh, listening; before him stood the stern figure of Mr. Carson.

"Don't dare to think that I shall be merciful; you shall be hanged - hanged - man!" said Mr. Carson, with slow, emphasis.

"I've had far, far worse misery than hanging!" cried Barton. "Sir, one word! My hairs are grey with suffering."

"And have I had no suffering?" interrupted Mr. Carson. "Is not my boy gone - killed - out of my sight for ever? He was my sunshine, and now it is night! Oh, my God! comfort me, comfort me!" cried the old man aloud.

Barton lay across the table broken-hearted. "God knows I didn't know what I was doing," he whispered. "Oh, sir," he said wildly, "say you forgive me?"

"Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us," said Job solemnly.

Mr. Carson took his hands from his face.

"Let my trespasses be unforgiven, so that I may have vengeance for my son's murder."

John Barton lay on the ground as one dead.

When Mr. Carson had left the house, he leant against a railing to steady himself, for he was dizzy with agitation. He looked up to the calm, majestic depths of the heavens, and by-and-by the last words he had spoken returned upon him, as if they were being echoed through all that infinite space in tones of unutterable sorrow. He went homewards; not to the police-office. All night long, the archangel combated with the demon in his soul.

All night long, others watched by the bed of death. As morning dawned, Barton grew worse; his breathing seemed almost stopped. Jem had gone to the druggist's, and Mary cried out for assistance to raise her father.

A step, which was not Jem's, came up the stairs. Mr. Carson stood in the doorway. He raised up the powerless frame, and the departing soul looked out of the eyes with gratitude.

"Pray for us!" cried Mary, sinking on her knees.

"God be merciful to us sinners," was Mr. Carson's prayer. "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us."

And when the words were said, John Barton lay a corpse in Mr. Carson's arms.

* * * * *

At the door of a long, low wooden house stands Mary, watching the return of her husband from his work.

Her baby boy, in his grandmother's arms, sees him come with a crow of delight.

"English letters!" cries Jem. "Guess the good news!"

"Oh, tell me!" says Mary.

"Margaret has recovered her sight. She and Will are to be married, and he's bringing her out here to Canada; and Job Legh talks of coming, too - not to see you, Mary, but to try and pick up a few specimens of Canadian insects."

"Dear Job Legh!" said Mary, softly.

* * * * *


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