Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell.

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He came back to where she sat trembling.

"A part of the engine is broken, through the carelessness of these
Neapolitan engineers; they say we must make for the nearest port - return
to Civita, in fact."

"But Elba is not many miles away," said Ellinor. "If this steam were but
away, you could see it still."

"And if we were landed there we might stay on the island for many days;
no steamer touches there; but if we return to Civita, we shall be in time
for the Sunday boat."

"Oh, dear, dear!" said Ellinor. "To-day is the second - Sunday will be
the fourth - the assizes begin on the seventh; how miserably unfortunate!"

"Yes!" he said, "it is. And these things always appear so doubly
unfortunate when they hinder our serving others! But it does not follow
that because the assizes begin at Hellingford on the seventh, Dixon's
trial will come on so soon. We may still get to Marseilles on Monday
evening; on by diligence to Lyons; it will - it must, I fear, be Thursday,
at the earliest, before we reach Paris - Thursday, the eighth - and I
suppose you know of some exculpatory evidence that has to be hunted up?"

He added this unwillingly; for he saw that Ellinor was jealous of the
secresy she had hitherto maintained as to her reasons for believing Dixon
innocent; but he could not help thinking that she, a gentle, timid woman,
unaccustomed to action or business, would require some of the assistance
which he would have been so thankful to give her; especially as this
untoward accident would increase the press of time in which what was to
be done would have to be done.

But no. Ellinor scarcely replied to his half-inquiry as to her reasons
for hastening to England. She yielded to all his directions, agreed to
his plans, but gave him none of her confidence, and he had to submit to
this exclusion from sympathy in the exact causes of her anxiety.

Once more in the dreary sala, with the gaudy painted ceiling, the bare
dirty floor, the innumerable rattling doors and windows! Ellinor was
submissive and patient in demeanour, because so sick and despairing at
heart. Her maid was ten times as demonstrative of annoyance and disgust;
she who had no particular reason for wanting to reach England, but who
thought it became her dignity to make it seem as though she had.

At length the weary time was over; and again they sailed past Elba, and
arrived at Marseilles. Now Ellinor began to feel how much assistance it
was to her to have Dr. Livingstone for a "courier," as he had several
times called himself.


"Where now?" said the canon, as they approached the London Bridge

"To the Great Western," said she; "Hellingford is on that line, I see.
But, please, now we must part."

"Then I may not go with you to Hellingford? At any rate, you will allow
me to go with you to the railway station, and do my last office as
courier in getting you your ticket and placing you in the carriage."

So they went together to the station, and learnt that no train was
leaving for Hellingford for two hours. There was nothing for it but to
go to the hotel close by, and pass away the time as best they could.

Ellinor called for her maid's accounts, and dismissed her. Some
refreshment that the canon had ordered was eaten, and the table cleared.
He began walking up and down the room, his arms folded, his eyes cast
down. Every now and then he looked at the clock on the mantelpiece. When
that showed that it only wanted a quarter of an hour to the time
appointed for the train to start, he came up to Ellinor, who sat leaning
her head upon her hand, her hand resting on the table.

"Miss Wilkins," he began - and there was something peculiar in his tone
which startled Ellinor - "I am sure you will not scruple to apply to me if
in any possible way I can help you in this sad trouble of yours?"

"No indeed I won't!" said Ellinor, gratefully, and putting out her hand
as a token. He took it, and held it; she went on, a little more hastily
than before: "You know you were so good as to say you would go at once
and see Miss Monro, and tell her all you know, and that I will write to
her as soon as I can."

"May I not ask for one line?" he continued, still holding her hand.

"Certainly: so kind a friend as you shall hear all I can tell; that is,
all I am at liberty to tell."

"A friend! Yes, I am a friend; and I will not urge any other claim just
now. Perhaps - "

Ellinor could not affect to misunderstand him. His manner implied even
more than his words.

"No!" she said, eagerly. "We are friends. That is it. I think we shall
always be friends, though I will tell you now - something - this much - it
is a sad secret. God help me! I am as guilty as poor Dixon, if, indeed,
he is guilty - but he is innocent - indeed he is!"

"If he is no more guilty than you, I am sure he is! Let me be more than
your friend, Ellinor - let me know all, and help you all that I can, with
the right of an affianced husband."

"No, no!" said she, frightened both at what she had revealed, and his
eager, warm, imploring manner. "That can never be. You do not know the
disgrace that may be hanging over me."

"If that is all," said he, "I take my risk - if that is all - if you only
fear that I may shrink from sharing any peril you may be exposed to."

"It is not peril - it is shame and obloquy - " she murmured.

"Well! shame and obloquy. Perhaps, if I knew all I could shield you from

"Don't, pray, speak any more about it now; if you do, I must say 'No.'"

She did not perceive the implied encouragement in these words; but he
did, and they sufficed to make him patient.

The time was up, and he could only render her his last services as
"courier," and none other but the necessary words at starting passed
between them.

But he went away from the station with a cheerful heart; while she,
sitting alone and quiet, and at last approaching near to the place where
so much was to be decided, felt sadder and sadder, heavier and heavier.

All the intelligence she had gained since she had seen the _Galignani_ in
Paris, had been from the waiter at the Great Western Hotel, who, after
returning from a vain search for an unoccupied _Times_, had volunteered
the information that there was an unusual demand for the paper because of
Hellingford Assizes, and the trial there for murder that was going on.

There was no electric telegraph in those days; at every station Ellinor
put her head out, and enquired if the murder trial at Hellingford was
ended. Some porters told her one thing, some another, in their hurry;
she felt that she could not rely on them.

"Drive to Mr. Johnson's in the High street - quick, quick. I will give
you half-a-crown if you will go quick."

For, indeed, her endurance, her patience, was strained almost to
snapping; yet at Hellingford station, where doubtless they could have
told her the truth, she dared not ask the question. It was past eight
o'clock at night. In many houses in the little country town there were
unusual lights and sounds. The inhabitants were showing their
hospitality to such of the strangers brought by the assizes, as were
lingering there now that the business which had drawn them was over. The
Judges had left the town that afternoon, to wind up the circuit by the
short list of a neighbouring county town.

Mr. Johnson was entertaining a dinner-party of attorneys when he was
summoned from dessert by the announcement of a "lady who wanted to speak
to him immediate and particular."

He went into his study in not the best of tempers. There he found his
client, Miss Wilkins, white and ghastly, standing by the fireplace, with
her eyes fixed on the door.

"It is you, Miss Wilkins! I am very glad - "

"Dixon!" said she. It was all she could utter.

Mr. Johnson shook his head.

"Ah; that's a sad piece of business, and I'm afraid it has shortened your
visit at Rome."

"Is he - ?"

"Ay, I'm afraid there's no doubt of his guilt. At any rate, the jury
found him guilty, and - "

"And!" she repeated, quickly, sitting down, the better to hear the words
that she knew were coming -

"He is condemned to death."


"The Saturday but one after the Judges left the town, I suppose - it's the
usual time."

"Who tried him?"

"Judge Corbet; and, for a new judge, I must say I never knew one who got
through his business so well. It was really as much as I could stand to
hear him condemning the prisoner to death. Dixon was undoubtedly guilty,
and he was as stubborn as could be - a sullen old fellow who would let no
one help him through. I'm sure I did my best for him at Miss Monro's
desire and for your sake. But he would furnish me with no particulars,
help us to no evidence. I had the hardest work to keep him from
confessing all before witnesses, who would have been bound to repeat it
as evidence against him. Indeed, I never thought he would have pleaded
'Not Guilty.' I think it was only with a desire to justify himself in
the eyes of some old Hamley acquaintances. Good God, Miss Wilkins!
What's the matter? You're not fainting!" He rang the bell till the rope
remained in his hands. "Here, Esther! Jerry! Whoever you are, come
quick! Miss Wilkins has fainted! Water! Wine! Tell Mrs. Johnson to
come here directly!"

Mrs. Johnson, a kind, motherly woman, who had been excluded from the
"gentleman's dinner party," and had devoted her time to superintending
the dinner her husband had ordered, came in answer to his call for
assistance, and found Ellinor lying back in her chair white and

"Bessy, Miss Wilkins has fainted; she has had a long journey, and is in a
fidget about Dixon, the old fellow who was sentenced to be hung for that
murder, you know. I can't stop here, I must go back to those men. You
bring her round, and see her to bed. The blue room is empty since Horner
left. She must stop here, and I'll see her in the morning. Take care of
her, and keep her mind as easy as you can, will you, for she can do no
good by fidgeting."

And, knowing that he left Ellinor in good hands, and with plenty of
assistance about her, he returned to his friends.

Ellinor came to herself before long.

"It was very foolish of me, but I could not help it," said she,

"No; to be sure not, dear. Here, drink this; it is some of Mr. Johnson's
best port wine that he has sent out on purpose for you. Or would you
rather have some white soup - or what? We've had everything you could
think of for dinner, and you've only to ask and have. And then you must
go to bed, my dear - Mr. Johnson says you must; and there's a well-aired
room, for Mr. Horner only left us this morning."

"I must see Mr. Johnson again, please."

"But indeed you must not. You must not worry your poor head with
business now; and Johnson would only talk to you on business. No; go to
bed, and sleep soundly, and then you'll get up quite bright and strong,
and fit to talk about business."

"I cannot sleep - I cannot rest till I have asked Mr. Johnson one or two
more questions; indeed I cannot," pleaded Ellinor.

Mrs. Johnson knew that her husband's orders on such occasions were
peremptory, and that she should come in for a good conjugal scolding if,
after what he had said, she ventured to send for him again. Yet Ellinor
looked so entreating and wistful that she could hardly find in her heart
to refuse her. A bright thought struck her.

"Here is pen and paper, my dear. Could you not write the questions you
wanted to ask? and he'll just jot down the answers upon the same piece of
paper. I'll send it in by Jerry. He has got friends to dinner with him,
you see."

Ellinor yielded. She sat, resting her weary head on her hand, and
wondering what were the questions which would have come so readily to her
tongue could she have been face to face with him. As it was, she only
wrote this:

"How early can I see you to-morrow morning? Will you take all the
necessary steps for my going to Dixon as soon as possible? Could I be
admitted to him to-night?"

The pencilled answers were:

"Eight o'clock. Yes. No."

"I suppose he knows best," said Ellinor, sighing, as she read the last
word. "But it seems wicked in me to be going to bed - and he so near, in

When she rose up and stood, she felt the former dizziness return, and
that reconciled her to seeking rest before she entered upon the duties
which were becoming clearer before her, now that she knew all and was on
the scene of action. Mrs. Johnson brought her white-wine whey instead of
the tea she had asked for; and perhaps it was owing to this that she
slept so soundly.


When Ellinor awoke the clear light of dawn was fully in the room. She
could not remember where she was; for so many mornings she had wakened up
in strange places that it took her several minutes before she could make
out the geographical whereabouts of the heavy blue moreen curtains, the
print of the lord-lieutenant of the county on the wall, and all the
handsome ponderous mahogany furniture that stuffed up the room. As soon
as full memory came into her mind, she started up; nor did she go to bed
again, although she saw by her watch on the dressing-table that it was
not yet six o'clock. She dressed herself with the dainty completeness so
habitual to her that it had become an unconscious habit, and then - the
instinct was irrepressible - she put on her bonnet and shawl, and went
down, past the servant on her knees cleaning the doorstep, out into the
fresh open air; and so she found her way down the High Street to
Hellingford Castle, the building in which the courts of assize were
held - the prison in which Dixon lay condemned to die. She almost knew
she could not see him; yet it seemed like some amends to her conscience
for having slept through so many hours of the night if she made the
attempt. She went up to the porter's lodge, and asked the little girl
sweeping out the place if she might see Abraham Dixon. The child stared
at her, and ran into the house, bringing out her father, a great burly
man, who had not yet donned either coat or waistcoat, and who,
consequently, felt the morning air as rather nipping. To him Ellinor
repeated her question.

"Him as is to be hung come Saturday se'nnight? Why, ma'am, I've nought
to do with it. You may go to the governor's house and try; but, if
you'll excuse me, you'll have your walk for your pains. Them in the
condemned cells is never seen by nobody without the sheriff's order. You
may go up to the governor's house and welcome; but they'll only tell you
the same. Yon's the governor's house."

Ellinor fully believed the man, and yet she went on to the house
indicated, as if she still hoped that in her case there might be some
exception to the rule, which she now remembered to have heard of before,
in days when such a possible desire as to see a condemned prisoner was
treated by her as a wish that some people might have, did have - people as
far removed from her circle of circumstances as the inhabitants of the
moon. Of course she met with the same reply, a little more abruptly
given, as if every man was from his birth bound to know such an obvious

She went out past the porter, now fully clothed. He was sorry for her
disappointment, but could not help saying, with a slight tone of
exultation: "Well, you see I was right, ma'am!"

She walked as nearly round the castle as ever she could, looking up at
the few high-barred windows she could see, and wondering in what part of
the building Dixon was confined. Then she went into the adjoining
churchyard, and sitting down upon a tombstone, she gazed idly at the view
spread below her - a view which was considered as the lion of the place,
to be shown to all strangers by the inhabitants of Hellingford. Ellinor
did not see it, however; she only saw the blackness of that fatal night,
the hurried work - the lanterns glancing to and fro. She only heard the
hard breathing of those who are engaged upon unwonted labour; the few
hoarse muttered words; the swaying of the branches to and fro. All at
once the church clock above her struck eight, and then pealed out for
distant labourers to cease their work for a time. Such was the old
custom of the place. Ellinor rose up, and made her way back to Mr.
Johnson's house in High Street. The room felt close and confined in
which she awaited her interview with Mr. Johnson, who had sent down an
apology for having overslept himself, and at last made his appearance in
a hurried half-awakened state, in consequence of his late hospitality of
the night before.

"I am so sorry I gave you all so much trouble last night," said Ellinor,
apologetically. "I was overtired, and much shocked by the news I heard."

"No trouble, no trouble, I am sure. Neither Mrs. Johnson nor I felt it
in the least a trouble. Many ladies I know feel such things very trying,
though there are others that can stand a judge's putting on the black cap
better than most men. I'm sure I saw some as composed as could be under
Judge Corbet's speech."

"But about Dixon? He must not die, Mr. Johnson."

"Well, I don't know that he will," said Mr. Johnson, in something of the
tone of voice he would have used in soothing a child. "Judge Corbet said
something about the possibility of a pardon. The jury did not recommend
him to mercy: you see, his looks went so much against him, and all the
evidence was so strong, and no defence, so to speak, for he would not
furnish any information on which we could base defence. But the judge
did give some hope, to my mind, though there are others that think

"I tell you, Mr. Johnson, he must not die, and he shall not. To whom
must I go?"

"Whew! Have you got additional evidence?" with a sudden sharp glance of
professional inquiry.

"Never mind," Ellinor answered. "I beg your pardon . . . only tell me
into whose hands the power of life and death has passed."

"Into the Home Secretary's - Sir Phillip Homes; but you cannot get access
to him on such an errand. It is the judge who tried the case that must
urge a reprieve - Judge Corbet."

"Judge Corbet?"

"Yes; and he was rather inclined to take a merciful view of the whole
case. I saw it in his charge. He'll be the person for you to see. I
suppose you don't like to give me your confidence, or else I could
arrange and draw up what will have to be said?"

"No. What I have to say must be spoken to the arbiter - to no one else. I
am afraid I answered you impatiently just now. You must forgive me; if
you knew all, I am sure you would."

"Say no more, my dear lady. We will suppose you have some evidence not
adduced at the trial. Well; you must go up and see the judge, since you
don't choose to impart it to any one, and lay it before him. He will
doubtless compare it with his notes of the trial, and see how far it
agrees with them. Of course you must be prepared with some kind of
proof; for Judge Corbet will have to test your evidence."

"It seems strange to think of him as the judge," said Ellinor, almost to

"Why, yes. He's but a young judge. You knew him at Hamley, I suppose? I
remember his reading there with Mr. Ness."

"Yes, but do not let us talk more about that time. Tell me when can I
see Dixon? I have been to the castle already, but they said I must have
a sheriff's order."

"To be sure. I desired Mrs. Johnson to tell you so last night. Old
Ormerod was dining here; he is clerk to the magistrates, and I told him
of your wish. He said he would see Sir Henry Croper, and have the order
here before ten. But all this time Mrs. Johnson is waiting breakfast for
us. Let me take you into the dining-room."

It was very hard work for Ellinor to do her duty as a guest, and to allow
herself to be interested and talked to on local affairs by her host and
hostess. But she felt as if she had spoken shortly and abruptly to Mr.
Johnson in their previous conversation, and that she must try and make
amends for it; so she attended to all the details about the restoration
of the church, and the difficulty of getting a good music-master for the
three little Miss Johnsons, with all her usual gentle good breeding and
patience, though no one can tell how her heart and imagination were full
of the coming interview with poor old Dixon.

By-and-by Mr. Johnson was called out of the room to see Mr. Ormerod, and
receive the order of admission from him. Ellinor clasped her hands tight
together as she listened with apparent composure to Mrs Johnson's never-
ending praise of the Hullah system. But when Mr. Johnson returned, she
could not help interrupting her eulogy, and saying -

"Then I may go now?"

Yes, the order was there - she might go, and Mr. Johnson would accompany
her, to see that she met with no difficulty or obstacle.

As they walked thither, he told her that some one - a turnkey, or some
one - would have to be present at the interview; that such was always the
rule in the case of condemned prisoners; but that if this third person
was "obliging," he would keep out of earshot. Mr. Johnson quietly took
care to see that the turnkey who accompanied Ellinor was "obliging."

The man took her across high-walled courts, along stone corridors, and
through many locked doors, before they came to the condemned cells.

"I've had three at a time in here," said he, unlocking the final door,
"after Judge Morton had been here. We always called him the 'Hanging
Judge.' But its five years since he died, and now there's never more
than one in at a time; though once it was a woman for poisoning her
husband. Mary Jones was her name."

The stone passage out of which the cells opened was light, and bare, and
scrupulously clean. Over each door was a small barred window, and an
outer window of the same description was placed high up in the cell,
which the turnkey now opened.

Old Abraham Dixon was sitting on the side of his bed, doing nothing. His
head was bent, his frame sunk, and he did not seem to care to turn round
and see who it was that entered.

Ellinor tried to keep down her sobs while the man went up to him, and
laying his hand on his shoulder, and lightly shaking him, he said:

"Here's a friend come to see you, Dixon." Then, turning to Ellinor, he
added, "There's some as takes it in this kind o' stunned way, while
others are as restless as a wild beast in a cage, after they're
sentenced." And then he withdrew into the passage, leaving the door
open, so that he could see all that passed if he chose to look, but
ostentatiously keeping his eyes averted, and whistling to himself, so
that he could not hear what they said to each other.

Dixon looked up at Ellinor, but then let his eyes fall on the ground
again; the increasing trembling of his shrunken frame was the only sign
he gave that he had recognised her.

She sat down by him, and took his large horny hand in hers. She wanted
to overcome her inclination to sob hysterically before she spoke. She
stroked the bony shrivelled fingers, on which her hot scalding tears kept

"Dunnot do that," said he, at length, in a hollow voice. "Dunnot take on
about it; it's best as it is, missy."

"No, Dixon, it's not best. It shall not be. You know it shall
not - cannot be."

"I'm rather tired of living. It's been a great strain and labour for me.
I think I'd as lief be with God as with men. And you see, I were fond on
him ever sin' he were a little lad, and told me what hard times he had at
school, he did, just as if I were his brother! I loved him next to Molly
Greaves. Dear! and I shall see her again, I reckon, come next Saturday
week! They'll think well on me, up there, I'll be bound; though I cannot
say as I've done all as I should do here below."

"But, Dixon," said Ellinor, "you know who did this - this - "

"Guilty o' murder," said he. "That's what they called it. Murder! And
that it never were, choose who did it."

"My poor, poor father did it. I am going up to London this afternoon; I
am going to see the judge, and tell him all."

"Don't you demean yourself to that fellow, missy. It's him as left you
in the lurch as soon as sorrow and shame came nigh you."

He looked up at her now, for the first time; but she went on as if she
had not noticed those wistful, weary eyes.

"Yes! I shall go to him. I know who it is; and I am resolved. After
all, he may be better than a stranger, for real help; and I shall never
remember any - anything else, when I think of you, good faithful friend."

"He looks but a wizened old fellow in his grey wig. I should hardly ha'

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Online LibraryElizabeth Cleghorn GaskellA Dark Night's Work → online text (page 14 of 16)