It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
George Fielding cultivated a small farm in Berkshire.
This position is not so enviable as it was. Years ago, the farmers of England, had they been as intelligent as other traders, could have purchased the English soil by means of the huge percentage it offered them.
But now, I grieve to say, a farmer must be as sharp as his neighbors, or like his neighbors he will break. What do I say? There are soils and situations where, in spite of intelligence and sobriety, he is almost sure to break; just as there are shops where the lively, the severe, the industrious, the lazy, are fractured alike.
This last fact I make mine by perambulating a certain great street every three months, and observing how name succeeds to name as wave to wave.
Readers hardened by the Times will not perhaps go so far as to weep over a body of traders for being reduced to the average condition of all other traders. But the individual trader, who fights for existence against unfair odds, is to be pitied whether his shop has plate glass or a barn door to it; and he is the more to be pitied when he is sober, intelligent, proud, sensitive, and unlucky.
George Fielding was all these, who, a few years ago, assisted by his brother William, filled "The Grove"--as nasty a little farm as any in Berkshire.
Discontented as he was, the expression hereinbefore written would have seemed profane to young Fielding, for a farmer's farm and a sailor's ship have always something sacred in the sufferer's eyes, though one sends one to jail, and the other the other to Jones.
It was four hundred acres, all arable, and most of it poor sour land. George's father had one hundred acres grass with it, but this had been separated six years ago.
There was not a tree, nor even an old stump to show for this word "Grove."
But in the country oral tradition still flourishes.
There had been trees in "The Grove," only the title had outlived the timber a few centuries.
On the morning of our tale George Fielding might have been seen near his own homestead, conversing with the Honorable Frank Winchester.
This gentleman was a character that will be common some day, but was nearly unique at the date of our story.
He had not an extraordinary intellect, but he had great natural gayety, and under that he had enormous good sense; his good sense was really brilliant, he had a sort of universal healthy mind that I can't understand how people get.
He was deeply in love with a lady who returned his passion, but she was hopelessly out of his reach, because he had not much money or expectations; instead of sitting down railing, or sauntering about whining, what did me the Honorable Frank Winchester? He looked over England for the means of getting this money, and not finding it there, he surveyed the globe and selected Australia, where, they told him, a little money turns to a deal, instead of dissolving in the hand like a lozenge in the mouth, as it does in London.
So here was an earl's son (in this age of commonplace events) going to Australia with five thousand pounds, as sheep farmer and general speculator.
He was trying hard to persuade George Fielding to accompany him as bailiff or agricultural adviser and manager.
He knew the young man's value, but to do him justice his aim was not purely selfish; he was aware that Fielding had a bad bargain in "The Grove," and the farmer had saved his life at great personal risk one day that he was seized with cramp bathing in the turbid waters of Cleve millpool, and he wanted to serve him in return. This was not his first attempt of the kind, and but for one reason perhaps he might have succeeded.
"You know me and I know you," said Mr. Winchester to George Fielding; "I must have somebody to put me in the way. Stay with me one year, and after that I'll square accounts with you about that thundering millpool."
"Oh! Mr. Winchester," said George, hastily and blushing like fire, "that's an old story, sir?" with a sweet little half-cunning smile that showed he was glad it was not forgotten.
"Not quite," replied the young gentleman dryly; "you shall have five hundred sheep and a run for them, and we will both come home rich and consequently respectable."
"It is a handsome offer, sir, and a kind offer and like yourself, sir, but transplanting one of us," continued George, "dear me, sir, it's like taking up an oak tree thirty years in the ground--besides--besides--did you ever notice my cousin, Susanna, sir?"
"Notice her! why, do you think I am a heathen, and never go to the parish church? Miss Merton is a lovely girl; she sits in the pew by the pillar."
"Isn't she, sir?" said George.
Mr. Winchester endeavored to turn this adverse topic in his favor; he made a remark that produced no effect at the time. He said, "People don't go to Australia to die--they go to Australia to make money, and come home and marry--and it is what you must do--this "Grove" is a millstone round your neck. Will you have a cigar, farmer?"
George consented, premising, however, that hitherto he had never got beyond a yard of clay, and after drawing a puff or two he took the cigar from his mouth, and looking at it said, "I say, sir! seems to me the fire is uncommon near the chimbly." Mr. Winchester laughed; he then asked George to show him the blacksmith shop. "I must learn how to shoe a horse," said the honorable Frank.
"Well, I never!" thought George. "The first nob in the country going to shoe a horse," but with his rustic delicacy he said nothing, and led Mr. Winchester to the blacksmith's shop.
While this young gentleman is hammering nails into a horse's hoof, and Australia into an English farmer's mind, we must introduce other personages.
Susanna Merton was beautiful and good. George Fielding and she were acknowledged lovers, but marriage was not spoken of as a near event, and latterly old Merton had seemed cool whenever his daughter mentioned the young man's name.
Susanna appeared to like George, though not so warmly as he loved her; but at all events she accepted no other proffers of love. For all that she had, besides a host of admirers, other lovers besides George; and what is a great deal more singular (for a woman's eye is quick as lightning in finding out who loves her), there was more than one of whose passion she was not conscious.
William Fielding, George's brother, was in love with his brother's sweetheart, but though he trembled with pleasure when she was near him, he never looked at her except by stealth; he knew he had no business to love her.
On the morning of our tale Susan's father, old Merton, had walked over from his farm to "The Grove," and was inspecting a field behind George's house, when he was accosted by his friend, Mr. Meadows, who had seen him, and giving his horse to a boy to hold had crossed the stubbles to speak to him.
Mr. Meadows was not a common man, and merits some preliminary notice.
He was what is called in the country "a lucky man"; everything he had done in life had prospered.
The neighbors admired, respected, and some of them even hated this respectable man, who had been a carter in the midst of them, and now at forty years of age was a rich corn-factor and land-surveyor.
"All this money cannot have been honestly got," said the envious ones among themselves; yet they could not put their finger on any dishonest action he had done. To the more candid the known qualities of the man accounted for his life of success.
This John Meadows had a cool head, an iron will, a body and mind alike indefatigable, and an eye never diverted from the great objects of sober industrious men--wealth and respectability. He had also the soul of business--method!
At one hour he was sure to be at church; at another, at market; in his office at a third, and at home when respectable men should be at home.
By this means Mr. Meadows was always to be found by any man who wanted to do business; and when you had found him, you found a man superficially coy perhaps, but at bottom always ready to do business, and equally sure to get the sunny side of it and give you the windy.
Meadows was generally respected; by none more than by old Merton, and during the last few months the intimacy of these two men had ripened into friendship; the corn-factor often hooked his bridle to the old farmer's gate, and took a particular interest in all his affairs.
Such was John Meadows.
In person he was a tall, stout man, with iron gray hair, a healthy, weather-colored complexion, and a massive brow that spoke to the depth and force of the man's character.
"What, taking a look at the farm, Mr. Merton? It wants some of your grass put to it, doesn't it?"
"I never thought much of the farm," was the reply, "it lies cold; the sixty-acre field is well enough, but the land on the hill is as poor as death."
Now this idea, which Merton gave out as his, had dropped into him from Meadows three weeks before.
"Farmer," said Meadows, in an undertone, "they are thrashing out new wheat for the rent."
"You don't say so? Why I didn't hear the flail going."
"They have just knocked off for dinner--you need not say I told you, but Will Fielding was at the bank this morning, trying to get money on their bill, and the bank said No! They had my good word, too. The people of the bank sent over to me."
They had his good word! but not his good tone! he had said. "Well, their father was a safe man;" but the accent with which he eulogized the parent had somehow locked the bank cash-box to the children.
"I never liked it, especially of late," mused Merton. "But you see the young folk being cousins--"
"That is it, cousins," put in Meadows; "it is not as if she loved him with all her heart and soul; she is an obedient daughter, isn't she?"
"Never gainsaid me in her life; she has a high spirit, but never with me; my word is law. You see, she is a very religious girl, is Susan."
"Well, then, a word from you would save her--but there--all that is your affair, not mine," added he.
"Of course it is," was the reply. "You are a true friend. I'll step round to the barn and see what is doing." And away went Susan's father uneasy in his mind.
Meadows went to the "Black Horse," the village public house, to see what farmers wanted to borrow a little money under the rose, and would pawn their wheat ricks, and pay twenty per cent for that overrated merchandise.
At the door of the public-house he was met by the village constable, and a stranger of gentlemanly address and clerical appearance. The constable wore a mysterious look and invited Meadows into the parlor of the public-house.
"I have news for you, sir," said he, "leastways I think so; your pocket was picked last Martinmas fair of three Farnborough bank-notes with your name on the back."
"Is this one of them?" said the man, producing a note.
Meadows examined it with interest, compared the number with a memorandum in his pocketbook, and pronounced that it was.
"Who passed it?" inquired he.
"A chap that has got the rest--a stranger--Robinson--that lodges at "The Grove" with George Fielding; that is, if his name is Robinson, but we think he is a Londoner come down to take an airing. You understand, Sir."
Meadows' eyes flashed actual fire. For so rich a man, he seemed wonderfully excited by this circumstance.
To an inquiry who was his companion, the constable answered sotto voce, "Gentleman from Bow Street, come to see if he knows him." The constable went on to inform Meadows that Robinson was out fishing somewhere, otherwise they would already have taken him; "but we will hang about the farm, and take him when he comes home."
"You had better be at hand, sir, to identify the notes," said the gentleman from Bow Street, whose appearance was clerical.
Meadows had important business five miles off; he postponed it. He wrote a line in pencil, put a boy upon his black mare, and hurried him off to the rendezvous, while he stayed and entered with strange alacrity into this affair. "Stay," cried he, "if he is an old hand he will twig the officer."
"Oh, I'm dark, sir," was the answer; "he won't know me till I put the darbies on him."
The two men then strolled as far as the village stocks, keeping an eye ever on the farm-house.
Thus a network of adverse events was closing round George Fielding this day.
He was all unconscious of them; he was in good spirits. Robinson had showed him how to relieve the temporary embarrassment that had lately depressed him.
"Draw a bill on your brother," said Robinson, "and let him accept it. The Farnborough Bank will give you notes for it. These country banks like any paper better than their own. I dare say they are right."
George had done this, and expected William every minute with this and other moneys. And then Susanna Merton was to dine at "The Grove" to-day, and this, though not uncommon, was always a great event with poor George.
Dilly would not come to be killed just when he was wanted. In other words, Robinson, who had no idea how he was keeping people waiting, fished tranquilly till near dinner-time, neither taking nor being taken.
This detained Meadows in the neighborhood of the farm, and was the cause of his rencontre with a very singular personage, whose visit he knew at sight must be to him.
As he hovered about among George Fielding's ricks, the figure of an old man slightly bowed but full of vigor stood before him. He had a long gray beard with a slight division in the center, hair abundant but almost white, and a dark, swarthy complexion that did not belong to England; his thick eyebrows also were darker than his hair, and under them was an eye like a royal jewel; his voice had the Oriental richness and modulation--this old man was Isaac Levi; an Oriental Jew who had passed half his life under the sun's eye, and now, though the town of Farnborough had long been too accustomed to him to wonder at him, he dazzled any thoughtful stranger; so exotic and apart was he--so romantic a grain in a heap of vulgarity--he was as though a striped jasper had crept in among the paving-stones of their marketplace, or a cactus grandiflora shone among the nettles of a Berkshire meadow.
Isaac Levi, unlike most Jews, was familiar with the Hebrew tongue, and this and the Eastern habits of his youth colored his language and his thoughts, especially in his moments of emotion, and above all, when he forgot the money-lender for a moment, and felt and thought as one of a great nation, depressed, but waiting for a great deliverance. He was a man of authority and learning in his tribe.
At sight of Isaac Levi Meadows' brow towered, and he called out rather rudely without allowing the old gentleman to speak, "If you are come to talk to me about that house you are in you may keep your breath to cool your porridge."
Meadows had bought the house Isaac rented, and had instantly given him warning to leave.
Isaac, who had become strangely attached to the only place in which he had ever lived many years, had not doubted for a moment that Meadows merely meant to raise the rent to its full value, so he had come to treat with his new landlord. "Mr. Meadows," said he persuasively, "I have lived there twenty years--I pay a fair rent--but, if you think any one would give you more you shall lose nothing by me--I will pay a little more; and you know your rent is secure?"
"I do," was the answer.
"Thank you, sir! well, then--"
"Well, then, next Lady-day you turn out bag and baggage.
"Nay, sir," said Isaac Levi, "hear me, for you are younger than I. Mr. Meadows, when this hair was brown I traveled in the East; I sojourned in Madras and Benares, in Bagdad, Ispahan, Mecca and Bassora, and found no rest. When my hair began to turn gray, I traded in Petersburg and Rome and Paris, Vienna and Lisbon and other western cities and found no rest. I came to this little town, where, least of all, I thought to pitch my tent for life, but here the God of my fathers gave me my wife, and here He took her to Himself again--"
"What the deuce is all this to me, man?"
"Much, sir, if you are what men say; for men speak well of you; be patient, and hear me. Two children were born to me and died from me in the house you have bought; and there my Leah died also; and there at times in the silent hours I seem to hear their voices and their feet. In another house I shall never hear them--I shall be quite alone. Have pity on me, sir, an aged and a lonely man; tear me not from the shadows of my dead. Let me prevail with you?"
"No!" was the stern answer.
"No?" cried Levi, a sudden light darting into his eye; "then you must be an enemy of Isaac Levi?"
"Yes!" was the grim reply to this rapid inference.
"Aha!" cried the old Jew, with a sudden defiance, which he instantly suppressed. "And what have I done to gain your enmity, sir?" said he, in a tone crushed by main force into mere regret.
"You lend money."
"A little, sir, now and then--a very little."
"That is to say, when the security is bad, you have no money in hand; but when the security is good, nobody has ever found the bottom of Isaac Levi's purse."
"Our people," said Isaac apologetically, "can trust one another--they are not like yours. We are brothers, and that is why money is always forthcoming when the deposit is sound."
"Well," said Meadows, "what you are, I am; what I do on the sly you do on the sly, old thirty per cent."
"The world is wide enough for us both, good sir--"
"It is!" was the prompt reply. "And it lies before you, Isaac. Go where you like, for the little town of Farnborough is not wide enough for me and any man that works my business for his own pocket--"
"But this is not enmity, sir."
Meadows gave a coarsish laugh. "You are hard to please," cried he. "I think you will find it is enmity."
"Nay! sir, this is but matter of profit and loss. Well, let me stay, and I promise you shall gain and not lose. Our people are industrious and skillful in all bargains, but we keep faith and covenant. So be it. Let us be friends. I covenant with you, and I swear by the tables of the law, you shall not lose one shilling per annum by me."
"I'll trust you as far as I can fling a bull by the tail. You gave me your history--take mine. I have always put my foot on whatever man or thing has stood in my way. I was poor, I am rich, and that is my policy."
"It is frail policy," said Isaac, firmly. "Some man will be sure to put his foot on you, soon or late."
"What, do you threaten me?" roared Meadows.
"No, sir," said Isaac, gently but steadily. "I but tell you what these old eyes have seen in every nation, and read in books that never lie. Goliath defied armies, yet he fell like a pigeon by a shepherd-boy's sling. Samson tore a lion in pieces with his hands, but a woman laid him low. No man can defy us all, sir! The strong man is sure to find one as strong and more skillful; the cunning man one as adroit and stronger than himself. Be advised, then, do not trample upon one of my people. Nations and men that oppress us do not thrive. Let me have to bless you. An old man's blessing is gold. See these gray hairs. My sorrows have been as many as they. His share of the curse that is upon his tribe has fallen upon Isaac Levi." Then, stretching out his hands with a slight but touching gesture, he said, "I have been driven to and fro like a leaf these many years, and now I long for rest. Let me rest in my little tent, till I rest forever. Oh! let me die where those I loved have died, and there let me be buried."
Age, sorrow, and eloquence pleaded in vain, for they were wasted on the rocks of rocks, a strong will and a vulgar soul. But indeed the whole thing was like epic poetry wrestling with the Limerick Chronicle or Tuam Gazette.
I am almost ashamed to give the respectable western brute's answer.
"What! you quote Scripture, eh? I thought you did not believe in that. Hear t'other side. Abraham and Lot couldn't live in the same place, because they both kept sheep, and we can't, because we fleece 'em. So Abraham gave Lot warning as I give it you. And as for dying on my premises, if you like to hang yourself before next Lady-day, I give you leave, but after Lady-day no more Jewish dogs shall die in my house nor be buried for manure in my garden."
Black lightning poured from the old Jew's eyes, and his pent-up wrath burst out like lava from an angry mountain.
"Irreverent cur! do you rail on the afflicted of Heaven? The Founder of your creed would abhor you, for He, they say, was pitiful. I spit upon ye, and I curse ye. Be accursed!" And flinging up his hands, like St. Paul at Lystra, he rose to double his height and towered at his insulter with a sudden Eastern fury that for a moment shook even the iron Meadows. "Be accursed!" he yelled again. "Whatever is the secret wish of your black heart Heaven look on my gray hairs that you have insulted, and wither that wish. Ah, ah!" he screamed, "you wince. All men have secret wishes--Heaven fight against yours. May all the good luck you have be wormwood for want of that--that---that--that. May you be near it, close to it, upon it, pant for it, and lose it; may it sport, and smile, and laugh, and play with you till Gehenna burns your soul upon earth!"
The old man's fiery forked tongue darted so keen and true to some sore in his adversary's heart that he in turn lost his habitual self-command.
White and black with passion he wheeled round on Isaac with a fierce snarl, and lifting his stick discharged a furious blow at his head.
Fortunately for Isaac wood encountered leather instead of gray hairs.
Attracted by the raised voices, and unseen in their frenzy by either of these antagonists, young George Fielding had drawn near them. He had, luckily, a stout pig-whip in his hand, and by an adroit turn of his muscular wrist he parried a blow that would have stopped the old Jew's eloquence perhaps forever. As it was, the corn-factor's stick cut like a razor through the air, and made a most musical whirr within a foot of the Jew's ear. The basilisk look of venom and vengeance he instantly shot back amounted to a stab.
"Not if I know it," said George. And he stood cool and erect with a calm manly air of defiance between the two belligerents. While the stick and the whip still remained in contact, Meadows glared at Isaac's champion with surprise and wrath, and a sort of half fear half wonder that this of all men in the world should be the one to cross weapons with and thwart him. "You are joking, Master Meadows," said George coolly. "Why the man is twice your age, and nothing in his hand but his fist. Who are ye, old man, and what d'ye want? It's you for cursing, anyway."
"He insults me," cried Meadows, "because I won't have him for a tenant against my will. Who is he? A villainous old Jew."
"Yes, young man," said the other, sadly, "I am Isaac Levi, a Jew. And what is your religion" (he turned upon Meadows)? "It never came out of Judea in any name or shape. D'ye call yourself a heathen? Ye lie, ye cur; the heathen were not without starlight from heaven; they respected sorrow and gray hairs."
"You shall smart for this. I'll show you what my religion is," said Meadows, inadvertent with passion, and the corn-factor's fingers grasped his stick convulsively.
"Don't you be so aggravating, old man," said the good-natured George, "and you, Mr. Meadows, should know how to make light of an old man's tongue; why it's like a woman's, it's all he has got to hit with; leastways you mustn't lift hand to him on my premises, or you will have to settle with me first; and I don't think that would suit your book or any man's for a mile or two round about Farnborough," said George with his little Berkshire drawl.
"He!" shrieked Isaac, "he dare not! see! see!" and he pointed nearly into the man's eye, "he doesn't look you in the face. Any soul that has read men from east to west can see lion in your eye, young man, and cowardly wolf in his."
"Lady-day! Lady-day!" snorted Meadows, who was now shaking with suppressed rage.
"Ah!" cried Isaac, and he turned white and quivered in his turn.
"Lady-day!" said George, uneasily, "Confound Lady-day, and every day of the sort--there, don't you be so spiteful, old man--why if he isn't all of a tremble. Poor old man." He went to his own door, and called "Sarah!"
A stout servant-girl answered the summons.
"Take the old man in, and give him whatever is going, and his mug and pipe," then he whispered her, "and don't go lumping the chine down under his nose now."
"I thank you, young man," faltered Isaac, "I must not eat with you, but I will go in and rest my limbs which fail me, and compose myself; for passion is unseemly at my years."
Arrived at the door, he suddenly paused, and looking upward, said:
"Peace be under this roof, and comfort and love follow me into this dwelling."
"Thank ye kindly," said young Fielding, a little surprised and touched by this. "How old are you, daddy, if you please?" added he respectfully.
"My son, I am threescore years and ten--a man of years and grief--grief for myself, grief still more for my nation and city. Men that are men pity us; men that are dogs have insulted us in all ages."
"Well," said the good-natured young man soothingly--"don't you vex yourself any more about it. Now you go in, and forget all your trouble awhile, please God, by my fireside, my poor old man."
Isaac turned, the water came to his eyes at this after being insulted so; a little struggle took place in him, but nature conquered prejudice and certain rubbish he called religion. He held out his hand like the king of all Asia; George grasped it like an Englishman.
"Isaac Levi is your friend," and the expression of the man's whole face and body showed these words carried with them a meaning unknown in good society.
He entered the house, and young Fielding stood watching him with a natural curiosity.
Now Isaac Levi knew nothing about the corn-factor's plans. When at one and the same moment he grasped George's hand, and darted a long, lingering glance of demoniacal hatred on Meadows, he coupled two sentiments by pure chance. And Meadows knew this; but still it struck Meadows as singular and ominous.
When, with the best of motives, one is on a wolf's errand, it is not nice to hear a hyena say to the shepherd's dog, "I am your friend," and see him contemptuously shoot the eye of a rattlesnake at one's self.
The misgiving, however, was but momentary; Meadows respected his own motives and felt his own power; an old Jew's wild fury could not shake his confidence.
He muttered, "One more down to your account, George Fielding," and left the young man watching Isaac's retreating form.
George, who didn't know he was gone, said:
"Old man's words seem to knock against my bosom, Mr. Meadows--Gone, eh?--that man," thought George Fielding, "has everybody's good word, parson's and all--who'd think he'd lift his hand, leastways his stick it was and that's worse, against a man of three score and upward--Ugh!" thought George Fielding, yeoman of the midland counties--and unaffected wonder mingled with his disgust.
His reverie was broken by William Fielding just ridden in from Farnborough.
"Better late than never," said the elder brother, impatiently.
"Couldn't get away sooner, George; here's the money for the sheep, 13 pounds 10s.; no offer for the cow, Jem is driving her home."
"Well, but the money--the 80 pounds, Will?"
William looked sulkily down.
"I haven't got it, George! There's your draft again, the bank wouldn't take it."
A keen pang shot across George's face, as much for the affront as the disappointment.
"They wouldn't take it?" gasped he. "Ay, Will, our credit is down, the whole town knows our rent is overdue. I suppose you know money must be got some way."
"Any way is better than threshing out new wheat at such a price," said William sullenly. "Ask a loan of a neighbor."
"Oh, Will," appealed George, "to ask a loan of a neighbor, and be denied--it is bitterer than death. You can do it."
"I! Am I master here?" retorted the younger. "The farm is not farmed my way, nor ever was. No! Give me the plow-handle and I'll cut the furrow, George."
"No doubt, no doubt!" said the other, very sharply, "you'd like to draw the land dry with potato crops, and have fourscore hogs snoring in the farmyard; that's your idea of a farm. Oh! I know you want to be elder brother. Well, I tell'ee what do; you kill me first, Bill Fielding, and then you will be elder brother, and not afore."
Here was a pretty little burst of temper! We have all our sore part.
"So be it, George!" replied William, "you got us into the mud, elder brother, you get us out of the mire!"
George subdued his tone directly.
"Who shall I ask?" said he, as one addressing a bosom counselor.
"Uncle Merton, or--or---Mr. Meadows the corn-factor; he lends money at times to friends. It would not be much to either of them."
"Show my empty pockets to Susanna's father! Oh, Will! how can you be so cruel?"
"No use for me, I've just offended him a hit; beside he's a man that never knew trouble or ill luck in his life; they are like flints, all that sort."
"Well, look here, I'm pretty well with Meadows. I'll ask him if you will try uncle; the first that meets his man to begin."
"That sounds fair," said George, "but I can't--well--yes," said he, suddenly changing his mind. "I agree," said he, with simple cunning, and lowered his eyes; but suddenly raising them, he said cheerfully, "Why, you're in luck, Bill; here's your man," and he shot like an arrow into his own kitchen.
"Confound it," said the other, fairly caught.
Meadows, it is to be observed, was wandering about the premises until such time as Robinson should return; and while the brothers were arguing, he had been in the barn, and finding old Merton there had worked still higher that prudent man's determination to break off matters between his daughter and the farmer of "The Grove."
After the usual salutations William Fielding, sore against the grain, began:
"I did not know you were here, sir! I want to speak to you."
"I am at your service, Mr. Willum."
"Well, sir. George and I are a little short just at present; it is only for a time, and George says he should take it very kind if you would lend us a hundred pound, just to help us over the stile."
"Why, Mr. Willum," replied Meadows, "I should be delighted, and if you had only asked me yesterday, I could have done it as easy as stand here; but my business drinks a deal of money, Mr. Willum, and I laid out all my loose cash yesterday; but, of course, it is of no consequence--another time--good morning, Mr. Willum."
Away sauntered Meadows, leaving William planted there, as the French say.
George ran out of the kitchen.
"He says he has got no money loose."
"He is a liar! he paid 1,600 pounds into the bank yesterday, and you knew it; didn't you tell him so?"
"No; what use? A man that lies to avoid lending won't be driven to lend."
"You don't play fair," retorted George. "You could have got it from Meadows, if you had a mind; but you want to drive your poor brother against his sweetheart's father; you are false, my lad."
"You are the only man that ever said so; and you durstn't say it if you weren't my brother."
"If it wasn't for that, I'd say a deal more."
"Well, show your high stomach to Uncle Merton, for there he is. Hy!--uncle!" cried William to Merton, who turned instantly and came toward them. "George wants to speak to you," said William, and shot like a cross-bow bolt behind the house.
"That is lucky," said Merton, "for I want to speak to you."
"Who would have thought of his being about?" muttered George.
While George was calling up his courage and wits to open his subject, Mr. Merton, who had no such difficulties, was beforehand with him.
"You are threshing out new wheat?" said Merton, gravely.
"Yes," answered George, looking down.
"That is a bad lookout; a farmer has no business to go to his barn door for his rent."
"Where is he to go, then? to the church door, and ask for a miracle?"
"No; to his ship-fold, to be sure."
"Ay! you can; you have got grass and water and everything to hand."
"And so must you, young man, or you'll never be a farmer. Now, George, I must speak to you seriously" (George winced).
"You are a fine lad, and I like you very well, but I love my own daughter better."
"So do I!" said George simply.
"And I must look out for her," resumed Merton. "I have seen a pretty while how things are going here, and if she marries you she will have to keep you instead of you her."
"Heaven forbid! Matters are not so bad as that, uncle."
"You are too much of a man, I hope," continued Merton, "to eat a woman's bread; and if you are not, I am man enough to keep the girl from it."
"These are hard words to bear," gasped George. "So near my own house, old man."
"Well, plain speaking is best when the mind is made up," was the reply.
"Is this from Susanna, as well as you?" said George, with a trembling lip, and scarce able to utter the words.
"Susan is an obedient daughter. What I say she'll stand to; and I hope you know better than to tempt her to disobey me; you wouldn't succeed."
"Enough said," answered George very sternly. "Enough said, old man; I've no need to tempt any girl."
"Good morning, George!" and away stumped Merton.
"Good morning, uncle! (ungrateful old thief)."
"William," cried he, to his brother, who came the next minute to hear the news, "our mother took him out of the dirt.--I have heard her say as much--or he'd not have a ship-fold to brag of. Oh! my heart--oh! Will!--"
"Well, will he lend the money?"
"I never asked him."
"You never asked him!" cried William.
"Bill, he began upon me in a moment," said George, looking appealingly into his brother's face; "he sees we are going down hill, and he as good as bade me think no more of Susan."
"Well," said the other, harshly, "it was your business to own the truth and ask him help us over the stile--he's our own blood."
"You want to let me down lower than I would let that Carlo dog of yours. You're no brother of mine," retorted George fiercely and bitterly.
"A bargain is a bargain," replied the other sullenly: "I asked Meadows, and he said No. You fell talking with uncle about Susan, and never put the question to him at all. Who is the false one, eh?"
"If you call me false, I'll knock your ugly head off, sulky Bill."
"You're false, and a fool into the bargain, bragging George!"
"What, you will have it, then?"
"If you can give it me."
"Well, if it is to be," said George, "I'll give you something to put you on your mettle. The best man shall farm 'The Grove,' and the other shall be a servant on it, or go elsewhere, for I am sick of this."
"And so am I!" cried William, hastily; "and have been any time this two years."
They tucked up their sleeves a little, shook hands, and then retired each one step, and began to fight.
And how came these two honest men to forget that the blood they proposed to shed was thicker than water? Was it the farm, money, agricultural dissension, temper? They would have told you it was, and perhaps thought it was. It was Susanna Merton!
The secret subtle influence of jealousy had long been fermenting, and now it exploded in this way and under this disguise.
Ah! William Fielding, and all of you, "Beware of jealousy"--cursed jealousy! it is the sultan of all the passions, and the Tartar chief of all the crimes. Other passions affect the character; this changes, and, if good, always reverses it! Mind that, reverses it! turns honest men to snakes, and doves to vultures. Horrible unnatural mixture of Love with Hate--you poison the whole mental constitution--you bandage the judgment--you crush the sense of right and wrong--you steel the bowels of compassion--you madden the brain--you corrupt the heart--you damn the soul.
The Fieldings, then, shook hands mechanically, and receding each a step began to spar.
Each of these farmers fancied himself slightly the best man; but they both knew they had an antagonist with whom it would not do to make the least mistake.
They therefore sparred and feinted with wary eye before they ventured to close; George, however, the more impetuous, was preparing to come to closer quarters when all of a sudden, to the other's surprise, he dropped his hands by his sides, and turned the other way with a face anything but warlike, fear being now the prominent expression.
William followed the direction of his eye, and then William partook his brother's uneasiness; however, he put his hands in his pockets, and began to saunter about, in a circumference of three yards, and to get up a would-be-careless whistle, while George's hands became dreadfully in his way, so he washed them in the air.
While they were employed in this peaceful pantomime a beautiful young woman glided rapidly between the brothers.
Her first words renewed their uneasiness.
"What is this?" cried she, haughtily, and she looked from one to the other like a queen rebuking her subjects.
George looked at William--William had nothing ready.
So George said, with some hesitation, but in a mellifluous voice, "William was showing me--a trick--he learned at the fair--that is all, Susan."
"That is a falsehood, George," replied the lady, "the first you ever told me"--(George colored)--"you were fighting, you two boys--I saw your eyes flash!"
The rueful wink exchanged by the combatants at this stroke of sagacity was truly delicious.
"Oh, fie! oh, fie! brothers by one mother fighting--in a Christian land--within a stone's throw of a church, where brotherly love is preached as a debt we owe to strangers, let alone our own blood."
"Yes! it is a sin, Susan," said William, his conscience suddenly illuminated. "So I ask your pardon, Susanna."
"Oh! it wasn't your fault, I'll be bound," was the gracious reply. "What a ruffian you must be, George, to shed your brother's blood."
"La! Susan," said George, with a doleful whine, "I wasn't going to shed the beggar's blood. I was only going to give him a hiding for his impudence."
"Or take one for your own," replied William coolly.
"That is more likely," said Susan. "George, take William's hand; take it this instant, I say," cried she, with an air imperative and impatient.
"Well, why not? don't you go in a passion, Susan, about nothing," said George coaxingly.
They took hands; she made them hold one another by the hand, which they did with both their heads hanging down. "While I speak a word to you two," said Susan Merton.
"You ought both to go on your knees, and thank Providence that sent me here to prevent so great a crime; and as for you, your character must change greatly, George Fielding, before I trust myself to live in a house of yours."
"Is all the blame to fall on my head?" said George, letting go William's hand with no great apparent reluctance.
"Of course it is! William is a quiet lad that quarrels with nobody; you are always quarreling; you thrashed our carter last Candlemas."
"He spoke saucy words about you."
Susan, smiling inwardly, made her face as repulsive outside as lay in her power.
"I don't believe it," said Susan; "your time was come round to fight and be a ruffian, and so it was to-day, no doubt."
"Ah!" said George, sorrowfully, "it is always poor George that does all the wrong.
"Oh!" replied the lady, an arch smile playing for a moment about her lips, "I could scold William, too, if you think I am as much interested in his conduct and behavior as in yours."
"No, no!" cried George, brightening up, "don't think to scold anybody but me, Susan; and William," said he, suddenly and frankly, "I ask your pardon."
"No more about it, George, if you please," answered William in his dogged way.
"Susan," said George, "you don't know all I have to bear. My heart is sore, Susan, dear. Uncle twitted me not an hour ago with my ill luck, and almost bade me to speak to you no more, leastways as my sweetheart; and that was why, when William came at me on the top of such a blow, it was more than I could bear; and Susan--Susan--uncle said you would stand to whatever he said."
"George," said Susan gently, "I am very sorry my father was so unkind."
"Thank ye kindly, Susan; that is the first drop of dew that has fallen on me to-day."
"But obedience to parents," continued Susan, interrogating, as it were, her conscience, "is a great duty. I hope I shall never disobey my father," faltered she.
"Oh!" answered the goose George hastily, "I don't want any girl to be kind to me that does not love me; I am so unlucky, it would not be worth her while, you know."
At this Susan answered still more sharply, "No, I don't think it would be worth any woman's while, till your character and temper undergo a change."
George never answered a word, but went and leaned his head upon the side of a cart that stood half in and half out of a shed close by.
At this juncture a gay personage joined the party. He had a ball waistcoat, as alarming tie, a shooting jacket, wet muddy trousers and shoes, and an empty basket on his back.
He joined our group, just as George was saying to himself very sadly, "I am in everybody's way here"--and he attacked him directly.
"Everybody is in this country."
The reader is to understand that this Robinson was last from California; and California had made such an impression upon him, that he turned the conversation that way oftener than a well-regulated understanding recurs to any one topic, except, perhaps, religion.
He was always pestering George to go to California with him, and it must be owned that on this one occasion George had given him a fair handle.
"Come out of it," continued Robinson, "and make your fortune."
"You did not make yours there," said Susan sharply.
"I beg your pardon, miss. I made it, or how could I have spent it?"
"No doubt," said William. "What comes by the wind goes by the water."
"Alluding to the dust?" inquired the Cockney.
"Gold dust especially," retorted Susan Merton.
Robinson laughed. "The ladies are sharp, even in Berkshire," said he.
Mr. Robinson then proceeded to disabuse their minds about the facility of gold.
"A crop of gold," said he, "does not come by the wind any more than a crop of corn; it comes by harder digging than your potatoes ever saw, and harder work than you ever did--oxen and horses perspire for you, Fielding No. 2."
"Did you ever see a horse or an ox mow an acre of grass or barley?" retorted William dryly.
"Don't brag," replied the other; "they'll eat all you can mow and never say a word about it."
This repartee was so suited to their rustic idea of wit, that Robinson's antagonists laughed heartily, except George.
"What is the matter with him?" said Robinson, sotto voce, indicating George.
"Oh! he is cross, never mind him," replied Susan ostentatiously loud. George winced, but never spoke back to her.
Robinson then proceeded to disabuse the rural mind of the notion that gold is to be got without hard toil, even in California. He told them how the miners' shirts were wet through and through in the struggle for gold; he told them how the little boys demanded a dollar apiece for washing these same garments; and how the miners to escape this extortion sent their linen to China in ships on Monday morning, and China sent them back on Saturday, only it was Saturday six weeks.
Next Mr. Robinson proceeded to draw a parallel between England and various nations on the other side of the Atlantic, not at all complimentary to his island home; above all, he was eloquent on the superior dignity of labor in new countries.
"I heard one of your clodhoppers say the other day, 'The squire is a good gentleman, he often gives me a day's work.' Now I should think it was the clodhopper gave the gentleman the day's work, and the gentleman gave him a shilling for it--and made five by it."
William Fielding scratched his head. This was a new view of things to him, but there seemed to be something in it.
"Ay! rake that into your upper soil," cried our republican orator; then collecting into one his scattered items of argument, he invited his friend George to take his muscle, pluck, wind, backbone, and self, out of this miserable country, and come where the best man has a chance to win.
"Come, George," he cried, "England is the spot if you happen to be married to a duke's daughter, and got fifty thousand a year and three houses.
"And a coach.
"And a brougham.
"And a curricle.
"And ten brace of pointers.
"And a telescope so big the stars must move to it, instead of it to the stars.
"And no end of pretty housemaids.
"And a butler with a poultice round his neck and whiskers like a mop-head.
"And a silver tub full of rose-water to sit in and read the Morning Post.
"And a green-house full of peaches--and green peas all the year round.
"And a pew in the church warmed with biling eau de Cologne.
"And a carpet a foot thick.
"And a piano-forte in every blessed room in the house. But this island is the Dead Sea to a poor man."
He then, diverging from the rhetorical to the metropolitan style, proposed to his friend "to open one eye. That will show you this hole you are in is all poor hungry arable ground. You know you can't work it to a profit." (George winced.) "No! steal, borrow, or beg 500 pounds. Carry out a cargo of pea-jackets and fourpenny bits to swap for gold-dust, a few tools, a stout heart, and a light pair of--'Oh, no; we never mention them; their name is never heard'--and we'll soon fill both pockets with the shiney in California."
All this Mr. Robinson delivered with a volubility to which Berkshire had hitherto been a stranger.
"A crust of bread in England before buffalo beef in California," was George's reply; but it was not given in that assured tone with which he would have laughed at Robinson's eloquence a week ago.
"I could not live with all those thieves and ruffians that are settled down there like crows on a dead horse; but I thank you kindly, my lad, all the same," said the tender-hearted young man.
"Strange," thought he, "that so many should sing me the same tune, and he fell back into his reverie.
Here they were all summoned to dinner, with a dash of asperity, by Sarah the stout farm servant.
Susan lingered an instant to speak to George. She chose an unfortunate topic. She warned him once more against Mr. Robinson.
"My father says that he has no business nor trade, and he is not a gentleman, in spite of his red and green cravat, so he must be a rogue of some sort."
"Shall I tell you his greatest fault?" was the bitter reply. "He is my friend; he is the only creature that has spoken kind words to me to-day. Oh! I saw how cross you looked at him."
Susan's eyes flashed, and the color rose in her cheek, and the water in her eyes.
"You are a fool, George," said she; "you don't know how to read a woman, nor her looks, nor her words either."
And Susan was very angry and disdainful, and did not speak to George all dinner-time.
As for poor George, he followed her into the house with a heart both sick and heavy.
This Berkshire farmer had a proud and sensitive nature under a homely crust.
Old Merton's words had been iron passing through his soul, and besides he felt as if everything was turning cold and slippery and gliding from his hand. He shivered with vague fears, and wished the sun would set at one o'clock and the sorrowful day come to an end.