A long pause - judge, jury, bar, audience, all held their breath. At length Nathan said -
'What did you do then? (My lord, I am compelled to ask these painful questions.)'
'I saw she wadna be quiet: she had allays thought he would come back to us, like the Prodigal i' th' Gospels.' (His voice choked a little; but he tried to make it steady, succeeded, and went on.) 'She said, if I wadna get up, she would; and just then I heerd a voice. I'm not quite mysel', gentlemen - I've been ill and i' bed, an' it makes me trembling-like. Someone said, 'Father, mother, I'm here, starving i' the cold - wunnot yo' get up and let me in?''
'And that voice was - ?'
'It were like our Benjamin's. I see whatten yo're driving at, sir, and I'll tell yo' truth, though it kills me to speak it. I dunnot say it were our Benjamin as spoke, mind yo'- I only say it were like' -
'That's all I want, my good fellow. And on the strength of that entreaty, spoken in your son's voice, you went down and opened the door to these two prisoners at the bar, and to a third man?'
Nathan nodded assent, and even that counsel was too merciful to force him to put more into words.
'Call Hester Huntroyd.'
An old woman, with a face of which the eyes were evidently blind, with a sweet, gentle, careworn face, came into the witness-box, and meekly curtseyed to the presence of those whom she had been taught to respect - a presence she could not see.
There was something in her humble, blind aspect, as she stood waiting to have something done to her - what her poor troubled mind hardly knew - that touched all who saw her, inexpressibly. Again the counsel apologised, but the judge could not reply in words; his face was quivering all over, and the jury looked uneasily at the prisoner's counsel. That gentleman saw that he might go too far, and send their sympathies off on the other side; but one or two questions he must ask. So, hastily recapitulating much that he had learned from Nathan, he said, 'You believed it was your son's voice asking to be let in?'
'Ay! Our Benjamin came home, I'm sure; choose where he is gone.'
She turned her head about, as if listening for the voice of her child, in the hushed silence of the court.
'Yes; he came home that night - and your husband went down to let him in?'
'Well! I believe he did. There was a great noise of folk downstair.'
'And you heard your son Benjamin's voice among the others?'
'Is it to do him harm, sir?' asked she, her face growing more intelligent and intent on the business in hand.
'That is not my object in questioning you. I believe he has left England; so nothing you can say will do him any harm. You heard your son's voice, I say?'
'Yes, sir. For sure I did.'
'And some men came upstairs into your room? What did they say?'
'They axed where Nathan kept his stocking.'
'And you - did you tell them?'
'No, sir, for I knew Nathan would not like me to.'
'What did you do then?'
A shade of reluctance came over her face, as if she began to perceive causes and consequences.
'I just screamed on Bessy - that's my niece, sir.'
'And you heard someone shout out from the bottom of the stairs?'
She looked piteously at him, but did not answer.
'Gentlemen of the jury, I wish to call your particular attention to this fact; she acknowledges she heard someone shout - some third person, you observe - shout out to the two above. What did he say? That is the last question I shall trouble you with. What did the third person, left behind, downstairs, say?'
Her face worked - her mouth opened two or three times as if to speak - she stretched out her arms imploringly; but no word came, and she fell back into the arms of those nearest to her. Nathan forced himself forward into the witness-box -
'My Lord judge, a woman bore ye, as I reckon; it', a cruel shame to serve a mother so. It wur my son, my only child, as called out for us t' open door, and who shouted out for to hold th' oud woman's throat if she did na stop her noise, when hoo'd fain ha' cried for her niece to help. And now yo've truth, and a' th' truth, and I'll leave yo' to th' judgement o' God for th' way yo've getten at it.'
Before night the mother was stricken with paralysis, and lay on her death-bed. But the broken-hearted go Home, to be comforted of God.