Mary Barton

Esther’s term of imprisonment was ended. She received a good character in the governor’s books; she had picked her daily quantity of oakum, had never deserved the extra punishment of the treadmill, and had been civil and decorous in her language. And once more she was out of prison. The door closed behind her with a ponderous clang, and in her desolation she felt as if shut out of home–from the only shelter she could meet with, houseless and penniless as she was, on that dreary day.

But it was but for an instant that she stood there doubting. One thought had haunted her both by night and by day, with monomaniacal incessancy; and that thought was how to save Mary (her dead sister’s only child, her own little pet in the days of her innocence) from following in the same downward path to vice. To whom could she speak and ask for aid? She shrank from the idea of addressing John Barton again; her heart sank within her, at the remembrance of his fierce repulsing action, and far fiercer words. It seemed worse than death to reveal her condition to Mary, else she sometimes thought that this course would be the most terrible, the most efficient warning. She must speak; to that she was soul-compelled; but to whom? She dreaded addressing any of her former female acquaintance, even supposing they had sense, or spirit, or interest enough to undertake her mission.

To whom shall the outcast prostitute tell her tale? Who will give her help in the day of need? Hers is the leper sin, and all stand aloof dreading to be counted unclean.

Mary Barton, Elizabeth Gaskell

Mary Barton


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