It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
Mr. Meadows lived in a house that he had conquered three years ago by lending money on it at fair interest in his own name. Mr. David Hall, the proprietor, paid neither principal nor interest. Mr. Meadows expected this contingency, and therefore lent his money. He threatened to foreclose and sell the house under the hammer; to avoid this Mr. Hall said, "Pay yourself the interest by living rent free in the house till such time as my old aunt dies, drat her, and then I'll pay your money. I wish I had never borrowed it." Meadows acquiesced with feigned reluctance. "Well, if I must, I must; but let me have my money as soon as you can--" (aside) "I will end my days in this house."
It had many conveniences; among the rest a very long though narrow garden inclosed within high walls. At the end of the garden was a door which anybody could open from the inside, but from the outside only by a Bramah key.
The access to this part of the premises was by a short, narrow lane, very dirty and very little used, because, whatever might have been in old times, it led now from nowhere to nowhere. Meadows received by this entrance one or two persons whom he never allowed to desecrate his knocker. At the head of these furtive visitors was Peter Crawley, attorney-at-law, a gentleman who every New Year's Eve used to say to himself with a look of gratified amazement--"Another year gone, and I not struck off the Rolls!!!"
Peter had a Bramah key intrusted to him.
His visits to Mr. Meadows were conducted thus: he opened the garden-gate and looked up at the window in a certain passage. This passage was not accessible to the servants, and the window with its blinds was a signal-book.
Blinds up, Mr. Meadows out.
White blind down, Mr. Meadows in.
Blue blind down, Mr. Meadows in, but not alone.
The same key that opened the garden-door opened a door at the back of the house which led direct to the passage above-mentioned. On the window-seat lay a peculiar whistle constructed to imitate the whining of a dog. Then Meadows would go to his book-shelves, which lined one side of the room, and pressing a hidden spring open a door that nobody ever suspected, for the books came along with it. To provide for every contingency, there was a small secret opening in another part of the shelves by which Meadows could shoot unobserved a note or the like into the passage, and so give Crawley instructions without dismissing a visitor, if he had one.
Meadows provided against surprise and discovery. His study had double doors. Neither of them could be opened from the outside. His visitors or servants must rap with an iron knocker; and while Meadows went to open, the secret visitor stepped into the passage and shut the books behind him.
It was a room that looked business. One side was almost papered with ordnance maps of this and an adjoining county. Pigeon-holes abounded, too, and there was a desk six feet long, chock full of little drawers--contents indicated outside in letters of which the proprietor knew the meaning, not I.
Between the door and the fireplace was a screen, on which, in place of idle pictures, might be seen his plans and calculations as a land surveyor, especially those that happened to be at present in operation or under consideration. So he kept his business before his eye, on the chance of a good idea striking him at a leisure moment.
"Will Fielding's acceptance falls due to-morrow, Crawley."
"Yes, sir, what shall I do?"
"Present it; he is not ready for it, I know.
"Well, sir; what next?"
"Serve him with a writ."
"He will be preciously put about."
"He will. Seem sorry; say you are a little short, but won't trouble him for a month, if it is inconvenient; but he must make you safe by signing a judgment."
"Ay! ay! Sir, may I make bold to ask what is the game with this young Fielding?"
"You ought to know the game--to get him in my power."
"And a very good game it is, sir! Nobody plays it better than you. He won't be the only one that is in your power in these parts--he! he!" And Crawley chuckled without merriment. "Excuse my curiosity, sir, but when about is the blow to fall?"
"What is that to you?"
"Nothing, sir, only the sooner the better. I have a grudge against the family."
"Have you? then don't act upon it. I don't employ you to do your business, but mine.
"Certainly, Mr. Meadows. You don't think I'd be so ungrateful as to spoil your admirable plans by acting upon any little feeling of my own."
"I don't think you would be so silly. For if you did, we should part."
"Don't mention such an event, sir."
"You have been drinking, Crawley!"
"Not a drop, sir, this two days."
"You are a liar! The smell of it comes through your skin. I won't have it. Do you hear what I say? I won't have it. No man that drinks can do business--especially mine."
"I'll never touch a drop again. They called me into the public-house--they wouldn't take a denial."
"Hold your prate and listen to me. The next time you look at a public-house say to yourself, Peter Crawley, that is not a public-house to you--it is a hospital, a workhouse, for a dunghill--for if you go in there John Meadows, that is your friend, will be your enemy."
"Heaven forbid, Mr. Meadows."
"Drink this basinful of coffee."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. It is very bitter."
"Is your head clear now?"
"As a bell."
"Then go and do my work, and don't do an atom more or an atom less than your task."
"No, sir. Oh, Mr. Meadows! it is a pleasure to serve you. You are as deep as the sea, sir, and as firm as the rock. You never drink, nor anything else, that I can find. A man out of a thousand! No little weakness, like the rest of us, sir. You are a great man, sir. You are a model of a man of bus--"
"Good-morning," growled Meadows roughly, and turned his back.
"Good-morning, sir," said Peter mellifluously. And opening the back door about ten inches, he wriggled out like a weasel going through a chink in a wall.
William Fielding fell like a child into the trap. "Give me time, and it will be all right," is the debtor's delusion. William thanked Crawley for not pressing him, and so compelling him to force a sale of all his hogs, fat or lean. Crawley received his thanks with a leer, returned in four days, got the judgment signed, and wriggled away with it to Meadows' back door.
"You take out an arrest"--Meadows gave him a pocketbook--"put it in this, and keep it ready in your pocket night and day."
"I dare say it will come into use before the year is out, sir."
"I hope not."
George Fielding gone to Australia to make a thousand pounds by farming and cattle-feeding, that so he may claim old Merton's promised consent to marry Susan. Susan observing Mr. Eden's precepts even more religiously than when he was with her; active, full of charitable deeds, often pensive, always anxious, but not despondent now, thanks to the good physician. Meadows falling deeper and deeper in love, but keeping it more jealously secret than ever; on his guard against Isaac, on his guard against William, on his guard against John Meadows; hoping everything from time and accidents, from the distance between the lovers, from George's incapacity, of which he had a great opinion--"He will never make a thousand pence"--but not trusting to the things he hoped. On the contrary, watching with keen eye, and working with subtle threads to draw everybody into his power who could assist or thwart him in the object his deep heart and iron will were set on. William Fielding going down the hill Meadows was mounting; getting the better of his passion, and substituting, by degrees, a brother-in-law's regard.
Flowers and weeds have one thing in common--while they live they grow. Natural growth is a slow process, to describe it day by day a slower. For the next four months matters glided so quietly on the slopes I have just indicated that an intelligent calculation by the reader may very well take the place of a tedious chronicle by the writer. Moreover, the same monotony did not hang over every part of our story. These very four months were eventful enough to one of our characters; and through him, by subtle and positive links, to every man and every woman who fills any considerable position in this matter-of-fact romance. Therefore our story drags us from the meadows round Grassmere to a massive, castellated building, glaring red brick with white stone corners. These colors and their contrast relieve the stately mass of some of that grimness which characterizes the castles of antiquity; but enough remains to strike some awe into the beholder.
Two round towers flank the principal entrance. On one side of the right-hand tower is a small house constructed in the same style as the grand pile. The castle is massive and grand. This, its satellite, is massive and tiny, like the frog doing his little bit of bull--like Signor Hervio Nano, a tremendous thick dwarf now no more. There is one dimple to all this gloomy grandeur--a rich little flower-garden, whose frame of emerald turf goes smiling up to the very ankle of the frowning fortress, as some few happy lakes in the world wash the very foot of the mountains that hem them. From this green spot a few flowers look up with bright and wondering wide-opened eyes at the great bullying masonry over their heads; and to the spectator of both, these sparks of color at the castle-foot are dazzling and charming; they are like rubies, sapphires and pink topaz in some uncouth angular ancient setting.
Between the central towers is a sharp arch, filled by a huge oak door of the same shape and size, which, for further security or ornament, is closely studded with large diamond-headed nails. A man with keys at his girdle like the ancient housewives opens the huge door to you with slight effort, so well oiled is it. You slip under a porch into an inclosed yard, the great door shuts almost of itself, and now it depends upon the housewifely man whether you ever see the vain, idle and every-way objectionable world again.
Passing into the interior of the vast building, you find yourself in an extensive aisle traversed at right angles by another of similar dimensions, the whole in form of a cross. In the center of each aisle is an iron staircase, so narrow that two people cannot pass, and so light and open that it merely ornaments, not obstructs, the view of the aisle. These staircases make two springs; the first takes them to the level of two corridors on the first floor. Here there is a horizontal space of about a yard, whence the continuation staircase rises to the second and highest floor. This gives three corridors, all studded with doors opening on small separate apartments, whereof anon.
Nearly all the inmates of this grim palace wear a peculiar costume and disguise, one feature of which is a cap of coarse materials, with a vizor to it, which conceals the features all but the chin and the eyes, which last peep, in a very droll way, through two holes cut for that purpose.
They are distinguished by a courteous manner to strangers, whom they never fail to salute in passing, with great apparent cordiality; indeed, we fear we shall never meet in the busy world with such uniform urbanity as in this and similar retreats. It arises from two causes. One is that here strangers are welcome from their rarity; another, that politeness is a part of the education of the place, which, besides its other uses, is an adult school of manners, morals, religion, grammar, writing and cobbling.
With the exception of its halls and corridors, the building is almost entirely divided into an immense number of the small apartments noticed above. These are homely inside, but exquisitely clean. The furniture, movable and fixed, none of which is superfluous, can be briefly described. A bedstead, consisting of the side walls of the apartment; polished steel staples are fixed in these walls, two on each side the apartment at an elevation of about two feet and a half. The occupant's mattress (made of cocoa bark) has two stout steel hooks at each end; these are hooked into the staples, and so he lies across his abode. A deal table the size of a pocket-handkerchief; also a deal tripod. A waterspout so ingeniously contrived that, turned to the right it sends a small stream into a copper basin, and to the left into a bottomless close stool at some distance. A small gas-pipe tipped with polished brass. In one angle of the wall a sort of commode, or open cupboard; on whose shelves a bright pewter plate, a knife and fork and a wooden spoon. In a drawer of this commode yellow soap and a comb and brush. A grating down low for hot air to come in, if it likes, and another up high for foul air to go out, if it chooses. On the wall a large placard containing rules for the tenant's direction, and smaller placards containing texts from Scripture, the propriety of returning thanks after food, etc.; a slate and a couple of leathern kneeguards used in polishing the room. And that is all. But the deal furniture is so clean you might eat off it. The walls are snow, the copper basin and the brass gaspipe glitter like red gold and pale gold, and the bed-hooks like silver hot from the furnace. Altogether it is inviting at first sight.
To one of these snowy snug retreats was now ushered an acquaintance of ours, Tom Robinson. A brief retrospect must dispose of his intermediate history.
When he left us he went to the county bridewell, where he remained until the assizes, an interval of about a month. He was tried; direct evidence was strong against him, and he defended himself with so much ingenuity and sleight of intellect that the jury could not doubt his sleight of hand and morals, too. He was found guilty, identified as a notorious thief, and condemned to twelve months' imprisonment and ten years' transportation. He returned to the county bridewell for a few days, and then was shifted to the castellated building.
Tom Robinson had not been in jail this four years, and, since his last visit great changes had begun to take place in the internal economy of these skeleton palaces and in the treatment of their prisoners.
Prisons might be said to be in a transition state. In some, as in the county bridewell Robinson had just left, the old system prevailed in full force. The two systems vary in their aims. Under the old, the jail was a finishing school of felony and petty larceny. Under the new, it is intended to be a penal hospital for diseased and contagious souls.
The treatment of prisoners is not at present invariable. Within certain limits the law unwisely allows a discretionary power to the magistrates of the county where the jail is; and the jailer, or, as he is now called, the governor, is their agent in these particulars.
Hence, in some new jails you may now see the non-separate system; in others, the separate system without silence; in others, the separate and silent system; in others, a mixture of these, i. e., the hardened offenders kept separate, the improving ones allowed to mix; and these varieties are at the discretion of the magistrates, who settle within the legal limits each jail's system.
The magistrates, in this part of their business, are represented by certain of their own body, who are called "the visiting justices;" and these visiting justices can even order and authorize a jailer to flog a prisoner for offenses committed in jail.
Now, a year or two before our tale, one Captain O'Connor was governor of this jail. Captain O'Connor was a man of great public merit. He had been one of the first dissatisfied with the old system, and had written very intelligent books on crime and punishment, which are supposed to have done their share in opening the nation's eyes to the necessity of regenerating its prisons. But after a while the visiting justices of this particular county became dissatisfied with him; he did not go far enough nor fast enough with the stone he had helped to roll. Books and reports came out which convinced the magistrates that severe punishment of mind and body was the essential object of a jail, and that it was wrong and chimerical to attempt any cures by any other means.
Captain O'Connor had been very successful by other means, and could not quite come to this opinion; but he had a deputy governor who did. System, when it takes a hold of the mind, takes a strong hold, and the men of system became very impatient of opposition, and grateful for thorough acquiescence.
Hence it came to pass that in the course of a few months Captain O'Connor found himself in an uncomfortable position. His deputy-governor, Mr. Hawes, enjoyed the confidence of the visiting justices; he did not. His suggestions were negatived; Hawes's accepted. And, to tell the truth, he became at last useless as well as uncomfortable; for these gentlemen were determined to carry out their system, and had a willing agent in the prison. O'Connor was little more than a drag on the wheel he could not hinder from gliding down the hill. At last, it happened that he had overdrawn his account, without clearly stating at the time that the sum, which amounted nearly to one hundred pounds, was taken by him as an accommodation, or advance of salary. This, which though by no means unprecedented, was an unbusiness-like though innocent omission, justified censure.
The magistrates went farther than censure; they had long been looking for an excuse to get rid of him and avail themselves of the zeal and energy of Hawes. They therefore removed O'Connor, stating publicly as their reason that he was old; and their interest put Hawes into his place. There was something melancholy in such a close to O'Connor's public career. Fortune used him hardly. He had been one of the first to improve prisons, yet he was dismissed on this or that pretense, but really because he could not keep pace with the soi-disant improvements of three inexperienced persons. Honorable mention of his name, his doings and his words is scattered about various respectable works by respectable men on this subject, yet he ended in something very like discredit.
However, the public gained this by the injustice done him--that an important experiment was tried under an active and a willing agent.
With Governor Hawes the separate and silent system flourished in ---- Jail.
The justices and the new governor were of one mind. They had been working together about two years when Robinson came into the jail.
During this period three justices had periodically visited the jail, perused the reports, examined, as in duty bound, the surgeon, the officers and prisoners, and were proud of the system and its practical working here.
With respect to Hawes the governor, their opinion of him was best shown in the reports they had to make to the Home Office from time to time. In these they invariably spoke of him as an active, zealous and deserving officer.
Robinson had heard much of the changes in jail treatment, but they had not yet come home to him. When, therefore, instead of being turned adrift among seventy other spirits as bad as himself, and greeted with their boisterous acclamations and the friendly pressure of seven or eight felonious hands, he was ushered into a cell white as driven snow, and his housewifely duties explained to him, under a heavy penalty if a speck of dirt should ever be discovered on his little wall, his little floor, his little table, or if his cocoa-bark mattress should not be neatly rolled up after use, and the strap tight, and the steel hook polished like glass, and his little brass gas-pipe glittering like gold, etc., Thomas looked blank and had a misgiving.
"I say, guv'nor," said he to the under-turnkey, "how long am I to be here before I go into the yard?"
"Talking not allowed out of hours," was the only reply.
Robinson whistled. The turnkey, whose name was Evans, looked at him with a doubtful air, as much as to say, "Shall I let that pass unpunished or not?"
However, he went out without any further observation, leaving the door open; but the next moment he returned and put his head in: "Prisoners shut their own doors," said he.
"Well!" drawled Robinson, looking coolly and insolently into the man's face, "I don't see what I shall gain by that." And Mr. Robinson seated himself, and turning his back a little rudely, immersed himself ostentatiously in his own thoughts.
"You will gain as you won't be put in the black hole for refractory conduct, No. 19," replied Evans, quietly and sternly.
Robinson made a wry face and pushed the door peevishly; it shut with a spring, and no mortal power or ingenuity could now open it from the inside.
"Well I'm blest," said the self-immured, "every man his own turnkey now; save the queen's pocket, whatever you do. Times are so hard. Box at the opera costs no end. What have we got here? A Bible! my eye! invisible print! Oh! I see; 'tisn't for us to read, 'tis for the visitors to admire--like the new sheet over the dirty blankets! What's this hung up?
"GRACE AFTER MEAT.
"Oh! with all my heart, your reverence! Here, turnkey, fetch up the venison and the sweet sauce--you may leave the water-gruel till I ring for it. If I am to say grace let me feel it first; drat your eyes all round, governor, turnkeys, chaplain and all the hypocritical crew!"
The next morning, at half-past five, the prison bell rang for the officers to rise, and at six a turnkey unlocked Robinson's door, and delivered the following in an imperious key, all in one note and without any rests: "Prisoner to open and shake bedding, wash face, hands and neck on pain of punishment, and roll up hammocks and clean cells and be ready to clean corridors if required." So chanting-- slammed door--vanished.
Robinson set to work with alacrity upon the little arrangements; he soon finished them, and then he would not have been sorry to turn out and clean the corridor for a change, but it was not his turn. He sat, dull and lonely, till eight o'clock, when suddenly a key was inserted into a small lock in the center of his door, but outside; the effect of this was to open a small trap in the door, through this aperture a turnkey shoved in the man's breakfast without a word, "like one flinging guts to a bear" (Scott); and on the sociable Tom attempting to say a civil word to him, drew the trap sharply back, and hermetically sealed the aperture with a snap. The breakfast was in a round tin, with two compartments; one pint of gruel and six ounces of bread. These two phases of farina were familiar to Mr. Robinson. He ate the bread and drank the gruel, adding a good deal of salt.
At nine the chapel bell rang. Robinson was glad. Not that he admired the Liturgy, but he said to himself, "Now I shall see a face or two, perhaps some old pals."
To his dismay, the warder who opened his cell bade him at the same time put on the prison cap, with the peak down; and when he and the other male prisoners were mustered in the corridor, he found them all like himself, vizor down, eyes glittering like basilisks' or cats' through two holes, features undistinguishable. The word was given to march in perfect silence, five paces apart, to the chapel.
The sullen pageant started.
"I've heard of this, but who'd have thought they carried the game so far? Well, I must wait till we are in chapel and pick up a pal by the voice, while the parson is doing his patter."
On reaching the chapel he found, to his dismay, that the chapel was as cellular as any other part of the prison; it was an agglomeration of one hundred sentry-boxes, open only on the side facing the clergyman, and even there only from the prisoner's third button upward. Warders stood on raised platforms and pointed out his sentry-box to each prisoner with very long slender wands; the prisoner went into it and pulled the door (it shut with a spring), and next took his badge or number from his neck and hung it up on a nail above his head in the sentry-box. Between the reading-desk and the male prisoners was a small area where the debtors sat together.
The female prisoners were behind a thick veil of close lattice-work.
Service concluded, the governor began to turn a wheel in his pew; this wheel exhibited to the congregation a number, the convict whose number corresponded instantly took down his badge (the sight and position of which had determined the governor in working his wheel), drew the peak of his cap over his face, and went out and waited in the lobby. When all the sentry-boxes were thus emptied, dead march of the whole party back to the main building; here the warders separated them, and sent them, dead silent, vizors down, some to clean the prison, some to their cells, some to hard labor, and some to an airing in the yard.
Robinson was to be aired. "Hurrah!" thought sociable Tom. Alas! he found the system in the yard as well as in the chapel. The promenade was a number of passages radiating from a common center; the sides of passage were thick walls; entrance to passage an iron gate locked behind the promenader. An officer remained on the watch the whole time to see that a word did not creep out or in through one of the gates.
"And this they call out of doors," grunted Robinson.
After an hour's promenade he was taken into his cell, where at twelve the trap in his door was opened and his dinner shoved in and the trap snapped to again, all in three seconds. A very good dinner, better than paupers always get--three ounces of meat--no bone, eight ounces of potatoes, and eight ounces of bread. After dinner three weary hours without an incident. At about three o'clock one of the warders opened his cell door and put his head in and swiftly withdrew it. Three more monotonous hours, and then supper--one pint of gruel, and eight ounces of bread. He ate it as slowly as he could to eke out a few minutes in the heavy day. Quarter before eight a bell to go to bed. At eight the warders came round and saw that all the prisoners were in bed. The next day the same thing, and the next ditto, with this exception, that one of the warders came into his cell and minutely examined it in dead silence. The fourth day the chaplain visited him, asked him a few questions, repeated a few sentences on the moral responsibility of every human being, and set him some texts of Scripture to learn by heart. This visit, though merely one of routine, broke the thief's dead silence and solitude, and he would have been thankful to have a visit every day from the chaplain, whose manner was formal, but not surly and forbidding like the turnkeys or warders.
Next day the governor of the jail came suddenly into the cell and put to Robinson several questions, which he answered with great affability; then, turning on his heel, said bruskly, "Have you anything to say to me?"
"Yes, sir, if you please."
"Out with it then, my man," said the governor impatiently.
"Sir, I was condemned to hard labor; now I wanted to ask you when my hard labor is to begin, because I have not been put upon anything yet."
"We are kinder to you than the judges then, it seems."
"Yes, sir! but I am not naturally lazy, and--"
"A little hard work would amuse you just now?"
"Indeed, sir, I think it would; I am very much depressed in spirits."
"You will be worse before you are better."
"Heaven forbid! I think if you don't give me something to do I shall go out of my mind soon, sir."
"That is what they all say! You will be put on hard labor, I promise you, but not when it suits you. We'll choose the time." And the governor went out with a knowing smile upon his face.
The thief sat himself down disconsolately, and the heavy hours, like leaden waves, seemed to rise and rise, and roll over his head and suffocate him, and weigh him down, down, down to bottomless despair.
At length, about the tenth day, this human being's desire to exchange a friendly word with some other human creature became so strong that in the chapel during service he scratched the door of his sentry-box, and whispered, "Mate, whisper me a word, for pity's sake." He received no answer; but even to have spoken himself relieved his swelling soul for a minute or two. Half an hour later four turnkeys came into his cell, and took him down stairs and confined him in a pitch-dark dungeon.
The prisoner whose attention he had tried to attract in chapel had told to curry favor, and was reported favorably for the same.
The darkness in which Robinson now lay was not like the darkness of our bedrooms at night, in which the outlines of objects are more or less visible; it was the frightful darkness that chilled and crushed the Egyptians soul and body; it was a darkness that might be felt.
This terrible and unnatural privation of all light is very trying to all God's creatures, to none more so than to man, and among men it is most dangerous and distressing to those who have imagination and excitability. Now Robinson was a man of this class, a man of rare capacity, full of talent and the courage and energy that vent themselves in action, but not rich in the tough fortitude which does little, feels little and bears much.
When they took him out of the black hole after six hours' confinement he was observed to be white as a sheet, and to tremble violently all over, and in this state at the word of command he crept back all the way to his cell, his hand to his eyes, that were dazzled by what seemed to him bright daylight, his body shaking, while every now and then a loud, convulsive sob burst from his bosom.
The governor happened to be on the corridor, looking down over the rails as Robinson passed him. He said to him, with a victorious sneer, "You won't be refractory in chapel again in a hurry."
"No," said the thief, in a low, gentle voice, despairingly.
The day after Robinson was put in the black hole the surgeon came his rounds. He found him in a corner of his cell with his eyes fixed on the floor.
The man took no notice of his entrance. The surgeon went up to him and shook him rather roughly. Robinson raised his heavy eyes and looked stupidly at him.
The surgeon laid hold of him, and placing a thumb on each side of his eye, inspected that organ fully. He then felt his pulse; this done, he went out with the warder. Making his report to the governor, he came in turn to Robinson.
"No. 19 is sinking."
"Oh! is he? Fry" (turning to a warder), "what has 19's treatment been?"
"Been in his cell, sir, without labor since he came. Blackhole yesterday, for communicating in chapel."
"What is the matter with him?"
"Doctor says he is sinking."
"What the devil do you mean by his sinking?"
"Well, sir," replied the surgeon, with a sort of dry deference, "he is dying--that is what I mean."
"Oh, he is dying, is he; d--n him, we'll stop that. Here, Fry, take No. 19 out into the garden, and set him to work. And put him on the corridors to-morrow."
"Is he to be let talk to us, sir?"
Robinson was taken out into the garden; it was a small piece of ground that had once been a yard; it was inclosed within walls of great height, and to us would have seemed a cheerless place for horticulture, but to Robinson it appeared the garden of Eden. He gave a sigh of relief and pleasure, but the next moment his countenance fell.
"They won't let me stay here!"
Fry took him into the center of the garden, and put a spade into his hand. "Now you dig this piece," said he in his dry, unfriendly tone, "and if you have time cut the edges of this grass path square." The words were scarcely out of his mouth before Robinson drove the spade into the soil with all the energy of one of God's creatures escaping from system back to nature.
Fry left him in the garden after making him pull down his vizor, for there was one more prisoner working at some distance.
Robinson set to with energy, and dug for the bare life. It was a sort of work he knew very little about, and a gardener would have been disgusted at his ridges, but he threw his whole soul into it and very soon had nearly completed his task. Having been confined so long without exercise his breath was short, and he perspired profusely; but he did not care for that. "Oh, how sweet this is after being buried alive," cried he, and in went the spade again. Presently he was seized with a strong desire to try the other part of his task, the more so as it required more skill and presented a difficulty to overcome. A part of the path had been shaved and the knippers lay where they had been last used. Robinson inspected the recent work with an intelligent eye, and soon discovered traces of a white line on one side of the path, that served as a guide to the knippers. "Oh! I must draw a straight line," said Robinson out loud, indulging himself with the sound of a human voice. "But how? can you tell me that," he inquired of a gooseberry bush that grew near. The words were hardly out of his mouth before, peering about in every direction, he discovered an iron spike with some cord wrapped round it and, not far off, a piece of chalk. He pounced on them, and fastening the spike at the edge of the path attempted to draw a line with the chalk, using the string as a ruler. Not succeeding, he reflected a little, and the result was that he chalked several feet of the line all round until it was all white; then with the help of a stake, which he took for his other terminus, he got the chalked string into a straight line just above the edge of the grass. Next pressing it tightly down with his foot, he effected a white line on the grass. He now removed the string, took the knippers, and following his white line, trimmed the path secundum artem. "There," said Robinson, to the gooseberry-bush, but not very loud for fear of being heard and punished, "I wonder whether that is how the gardeners do it. I think it must be." He viewed his work with satisfaction, then went back to his digging, and as he put the finishing stroke Fry came to bring him back to his cell. It was bedtime.
"I never worked in a garden before," began Robinson, "so it is not so well done as it might be, but if I was to come every day for a week, I think I could master it. I did not know there was a garden in this prison. If ever I build a prison there shall be a garden in it as big as Belgrave Square."
"You are precious fond of the sound of your own voice, No. 19," said Fry dryly.
"We are not forbidden to speak to the warders, are we?"
"Not at proper times."
He threw open cell-door 19, and Robinson entered.
Before he could close the door Robinson said, "Good-night and thank you."
"G'night," snarled Fry sullenly, as one shamed against his will into a civility.
Robinson lay awake half the night, and awoke the next morning rather feverish and stiff, but not the leaden thing he was the day before.
A feather turns a balanced scale. This man's life and reason had been engaged in a drawn battle with three mortal enemies--solitude, silence and privation of all employment. That little bit of labor and wholesome thought, whose paltry and childish details I half blush to have given you, were yet due to my story, for they took a man out of himself, checked the self-devouring process, and helped elastic nature to recover herself this bout.
The next day Robinson was employed washing the prison. The next he got two hours in the garden again, and the next the trades'-master was sent into his cell to teach him how to make scrubbing-brushes. The man sat down and was commencing a discourse when Robinson interrupted him politely:
"Sir, let me see you work, and watch me try to do the same, and correct me."
"With all my heart," said the trades'-master.
He remained about half an hour with his pupil, and when he went out he said to one of the turnkeys, "There is a chap in there that can pick up a handicraft as a pigeon picks up peas."
The next day the surgeon happened to look in. He found Robinson as busy as a bee making brushes, pulled his eye open again, felt his pulse, and wrote something down in his memorandum-book. He left directions with the turnkey that No. 19 should be kept employed, with the governor's permission.
Robinson's hands were now full; he made brushes, and every day put some of them to the test upon the floor and walls of the building.
It happened one day as he was doing housemaid in corridor B, that he suddenly heard unwonted sounds issue from a part of the premises into which he had not yet been introduced, the yard devoted to hard labor. First he heard a single voice shouting: that did not last long; then a dead silence; then several voices, among which his quick ear recognized Fry's and the governor's. He could see nothing; the sounds came from one of the hard-labor cells. Robinson was surprised and puzzled. What were these sounds that broke the silence of the living tomb? An instinct told him it was no use asking a turnkey, so he devoured his curiosity and surprise as best he might.
The very next day, about the same hour, both were again excited by noises from the same quarter equally unintelligible. He heard a great noise of water slashed in bucketsful against a wall, and this was followed by a sort of gurgling that seemed to him to come from a human throat; this latter, however, was almost drowned in an exulting chuckle of several persons, among whom he caught the tones of a turnkey called Hodges and of the governor himself. Robinson puzzled and puzzled himself, but could not understand these curious sounds, and he could see nothing except a quantity of water running out of one of the labor cells, and coursing along till it escaped by one of the two gutters that drained the yard. Often and often Robinson meditated on this, and exerted all his ingenuity to conceive what it meant. His previous jail experience afforded him no clew, and as he was one of those who hate to be in the dark about anything this new riddle tortured him.
However, the prison was generally so dead dumb and gloomy that upon two such cheerful events as water splashing and creatures laughing he could not help crowing a little out of sympathy without knowing why.
The next day, as Robinson was working in the corridor, the governor came in with a gentleman whom he treated with unusual and marked respect. This gentleman was the chairman of the quarter-sessions, and one of those magistrates who had favored the adoption of the present system.
Mr. Williams inspected the prison; was justly pleased with its exquisite cleanness; he questioned the governor as to the health of the prisoners, and received for answer that most of them were well, but that there were some exceptions; this appeared to satisfy him. He went into the labor-yard, looked at the cranks, examined the numbers printed on each in order to learn their respective weights, and see that the prisoners were not overburdened.
Went with the governor into three or four cells, and asked the prisoners if they had any complaint to make.
The unanimous answer was "No!"
He then complimented the governor--and drove home to his own house, Ashtown Park.
There, after dinner, he said to a brother magistrate, "I inspected the jail to-day; was all over it."
The next morning Fry, the morose, came into Robinson's cell with a more cheerful countenance than usual. Robinson noticed it.
"You are put on the crank," said Fry.
"Oh! am I?"
"Of course you are. Your sentence was hard labor, wasn't it? I don't know why you weren't sent on a fortnight ago."
Fry then took him out into the labor-yard, which he found perforated with cells about half the size of his hermitage in the corridor. In each of these little quiet grottoes lurked a monster, called a crank. A crank is a machine of this sort--there springs out of a vertical post an iron handle, which the workman, taking it by both hands, works round and round, as in some country places you may have seen the villagers draw a bucket up from a well. The iron handle goes at the shoulder into a small iron box at the top of the post; and inside that box the resistance to the turner is regulated by the manufacturer, who states the value of the resistance outside in cast-iron letters. Thus:
5-lb. crank. 7-lb. crank. 10, 12, etc., etc.
"Eighteen hundred revolutions per hour," said Mr. Fry, in his voice of routine, and "you are to work two hours before dinner."
So saying he left him, and Robinson, with the fear of punishment before him, lost not a moment in getting to work. He found the crank go easy enough at first, but the longer he was at it the stiffer it seemed to turn. And after about four hundred turns he was fain to breathe and rest himself. He took three minutes' rest, then at it again. All this time there was no taskmaster, as in Egypt, nor whipper-up of declining sable energy, as in Old Kentucky. So that if I am so fortunate as to have a reader aged ten, he is wondering why the fool did not confine his exertions to saying he had made the turns. My dear, it would not do. Though no mortal oversaw the thief at his task, the eye of science was in that cell and watched every stroke and her inexorable finger marked it down. In plain English, on the face of the machine was a thing like a chronometer with numbers set all round and a hand which, somehow or other, always pointed to the exact number of turns the thief had made. The crank was an autometer, or self-measurer, and in that respect your superior and mine, my little drake.
This was Robinson's first acquaintance with the crank. The tread-wheel had been the mode in his time; so by the time he had made three thousand turns he was rather exhausted. He leaned upon the iron handle and sadly regretted his garden and his brushes; but fear and dire necessity were upon him; he set to his task and to work again. "I won't look at the meter again, for it always tells me less than I expect. I'll just plow on till that beggar comes. I know he will come to the minute."
Sadly and doggedly he turned the iron handle, and turned and turned again; and then he panted and rested a minute, and then doggedly to his idle toil again. He was now so fatigued that his head seemed to have come loose, he could not hold it up, and it went round and round and round with the crank-handle. Hence it was that Mr. Fry stood at the mouth of the den without the other seeing him.
"Halt," said Fry. Robinson looked up, and there was the turnkey inspecting him with a discontented air. "I'm done," thought Robinson, "here he is as black as thunder--the number not right, no doubt."
"What are ye at," growled Fry. "You are forty over," and the said Fry looked not only ill-used but a little unhappy. Robinson's good behavior had disappointed the poor soul.
This Fry was a grim oddity; he experienced a feeble complacency when things went wrong--but never else.
The thief exulted, and was taken back to his cell. Dinner came almost immediately. Four ounces of meat instead of three; two ounces less bread, but a large access of potatoes, which more than balanced the account.
The next day Robinson was put on the crank again, but not till the afternoon. He had finished about half his task, when he heard at some little distance from him a faint moaning. His first impulse was to run out of his cell and see what was the matter, but Hodges and Fry were both in the yard, and he knew that they would report him for punishment upon the least breach of discipline. So he turned and turned the crank, with these moans ringing in his ears and perplexing his soul.
Finding they did not cease, he peeped cautiously into the yard, and there he saw the governor himself as well as Hodges and Fry. All three were standing close to the place whence these groans issued, and with an air of complete unconcern.
But presently the groans ceased, and then mysteriously enough the little group of disciplinarians threw off their apathy. Hodges and Fry went hastily to the pump with buckets, which they filled, and then came back to the governor; the next minute Robinson heard water dashed repeatedly against the walls of the cell, and then the governor laughed, and Hodges laughed, and even the gloomy Fry vented a brief grim chuckle.
And now Robinson quivered with curiosity as he turned his crank, but there was no means of gratifying it. It so happened, however, that some ten minutes later the governor sent Hodges and Fry to another part of the prison, and they had not been gone long before a message came to himself, on which he went hastily out, and the yard was left empty. Robinson's curiosity had reached such a pitch that notwithstanding the risk he ran--for he knew the governor would send back to the yard the very first disengaged officer he met--he could not stay quiet. As the governor closed the gate he ran with all speed to the cell, he darted in, and then the thief saw what made the three honest men laugh so. He saw it, and started back with a cry of dismay, for the sight chilled the felon to the bone.
A lad about fifteen years of age was pinned against the wall in agony by a leathern belt passed round his shoulders and drawn violently round two staples in the wall. His arms were jammed against his sides by a straight waistcoat fastened with straps behind, and those straps drawn with the utmost severity. But this was not all. A high leathern collar a quarter of an inch thick squeezed his throat in its iron grasp. His hair and his clothes were drenched with water which had been thrown in bucketsful over him, and now dripped from him on the floor. His face was white, his lips livid, his eyes were nearly glazed, and his teeth chattered with cold and pain.
A more unprincipled man than Robinson did not exist; but burglary and larceny do not extinguish humanity in a thinking rascal as resigning the soul to system can extinguish it in a dull dog.
"Oh, what is this!" cried Robinson, "what are the villains doing to you?"
He received no answer; but the boy's eyes opened wide, and he turned those glazing eyes, the only part of his body he could turn, toward the speaker. Robinson ran up to him, and began to try and loosen him.
At this the boy cried out, almost screaming with terror, "Let me alone! let me alone! They'll give it me worse if you do, and they'll serve you out, too!"
"But you will die, boy. Look at his poor lips!"
"No, no, no! I shan't die! No such luck!" cried the boy impatiently and wildly. "Thank you for speaking kind to me. Who are you? tell me quick, and go. I am ---- Josephs, No. 15, Corridor A."
"I am Robinson, No. 19, Corridor B."
"Good-bye, Robinson, I shan't forget you. Hark, the door! Go! go! go! go! go!"
Robinson was already gone. He had fled at the first click of a key in the outward door, and darted into his cell at the moment Fry got into the yard. An instinct of suspicion led this man straight to Robinson's hermitage. He found him hard at work. Fry scrutinized his countenance, but Robinson was too good an actor to betray himself; only when Fry passed on he drew a long breath. What he had seen surprised as well as alarmed him, for he had always been told the new system discouraged personal violence of all sorts; and in all his experience of the old jails he had never seen a prisoner abused so savagely as the young martyr in the adjoining cell. His own work done, he left for his own dormitory. He was uneasy, and his heart was heavy for poor Josephs; but he dared not even cast a look toward his place of torture, for the other executioners had returned, and Fry followed grim at his heels like a mastiff dogging a stranger out of the premises.
That evening Robinson spent in gloomy reflections and forebodings. "I wish I was in the hulks or anywhere out of this place," said he. As for Josephs, the governor, after inspecting his torture for a few minutes, left the yard again with his subordinates, and Josephs was left alone with his great torture for two hours more; then Hodges came in and began to loose him, swearing at him all the time for a little rebellious monkey that gave more trouble than enough. The rebellious monkey made no answer, but crawled slowly away to his dungeon, shivering in his drenched clothes, stiff and sore, his bones full of pain, his heart full of despondency.
Robinson had now eight thousand turns of the crank per day, and very hard work he found it; but he preferred it to being buried alive all day in his cell; and warned by Josephs' fate, he went at the crank with all his soul, and never gave them an excuse for calling him "refractory." It happened, however, one day, just after breakfast, that he was taken with a headache and shivering; and not getting better after chapel, but rather worse, he rang his bell and begged to see the surgeon. The surgeon ought to have been in the jail at this hour. He was not, though, and as he had been the day before, and was accustomed to neglect the prisoners for any one who paid better, he was not expected this day. Soon after Fry came to the cell and ordered Robinson out to the crank. Robinson told him he was too ill to work.
"I must have the surgeon's authority for that, before I listen to it," replied Fry, amateur of routine.
"But he is not in the jail, or you would have it."
"Then he ought to be."
"Well, is it my fault he's shirking his duty? Send for him, and you'll see he will tell you I am not fit for the crank to-day; my head is splitting."
"Come, no gammon, No. 19; it is the crank or the jacket, or else the black hole. So take which you like best."
Robinson rose with a groan of pain and despondency.
"It is only eight thousand words you have got to say to it, and they are not many for such a tongue as yours."
At the end of the time Fry came to the mouth of the labor-cell with a grim chuckle. "He will never have done his number this time." He found Robinson kneeling on the ground, almost insensible, the crank-handle convulsively grasped in his hands. Fry's first glance was at this figure, that a painter might have taken for a picture of labor overtasked; but this was neither new nor interesting to Fry. He went eagerly to examine the meter of the crank--there lay his heart, such as it was--and to his sorrow he found that No. 19 had done his work before he broke down. What it cost the poor fever-stricken wretch to do it can easier be imagined than described.
They assisted Robinson to his cell, and that night he was in a burning fever. The next day the surgeon happened by some accident to be at his post, and prescribed change of diet and medicines for him. "He would be better in the infirmary."
"Why?" said the governor.
"Nonsense, there is plenty of air here. There is a constant stream of air comes in through this," and he pointed to a revolving cylinder in the window constructed for that purpose. "You give him the right stuff, doctor," said Hawes jocosely, "and he won't slip his wind this time."
The surgeon acquiesced according to custom.
It was not for him to contradict Hawes, who allowed him to attend the jail or neglect it, according to his convenience, i. e., to come three or four times a week at different hours, instead of twice every day at fixed hours.
It was two days after this that the governor saw Hodges come out of a cell laughing.
"What are ye grinning at?" said he, in his amiable way.
"No. 19 is light-headed, sir, and I have been listening to him. It would make a cat laugh," said Hodges apologetically. He knew well enough the governor did not approve of laughing in the jail.
The governor said nothing, but made a motion with his hand, and Hodges opened cell 19 and they both went in.
No. 19 lay on his back flushed and restless with his eyes fixed on vacancy. He was talking incessantly and without sequence. I should fail signally were I to attempt to transfer his words to paper. I feel my weakness and the strength of others who in my day have shown a singular power of fixing on paper the volatile particles of frenzy; however, in a word, the poor thief was talking as our poetasters write, and amid his gunpowder, daffodils, bosh and other constellations there mingled gleams of sense and feeling that would have made you and me very sad.
He often recurred to a girl he called Mary, and said a few gentle words to her; then off again into the wildest flights. While Mr. Hawes and his myrmidons were laughing at him, he suddenly fixed his eyes on some imaginary figure on the opposite wall and began to cry out loudly, "Take him down. Don't you see you are killing him? The collar is choking him! See how White he is! His eyes stare! The boy will die! Murder! murder! murder! I can't bear to see him die." And with these words he buried his head in the bedclothes.
Mr. Hawes looked at Mr. Fry; Mr. Fry answered the look. "He must have seen Josephs the other day."
"Ay! he is mighty curious. Well, when he gets well!" and, shaking his fist at the sufferer, Mr. Hawes went out of the cell soon after.