It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
Solitude is no barrier whatever to sin. Such prayers as Robinson's are a disgrace to those who provoke them, but a calamity to him who utters them. Robinson was now a far worse man than ever he had been out of prison. The fiend had fixed a claw in his heart, and we may be sure he felt the recoil of his ill prayers. He hated the human race, which produced such creatures as Hawes and nothing to keep them in check.
"From this hour I speak no more to any of those beasts!"
Such was his resolve, made with clinched teeth and nails. And he curled himself up like a snake and turned his back upon mankind, and his face to the wall. Robinson had begun his career in this place full of hopes. He hoped by good conduct to alleviate his condition as he had done in other jails; conscious of various talents, he hoped by skill as well as by good conduct to better his condition even in a jail. Such hopes are a part of our nature, and were not in his case unreasonable. These hopes were soon extinguished. He came down to a confident hope that by docility and good conduct he should escape all evils except those inseparable from a prisoner's lot.
When he discovered that Hawes loved to punish his prisoners, and indeed could hardly get through the day without it, and that his crank was an unavoidable trap to catch the prisoners and betray them to punishment, he sunk lower and lower in despondency, till at last there was but one bit of blue hope in all his horizon. He still hoped something against tyranny and cruelty from the representative of the gospel of mercy in the place. But when his reverence told him nothing was to be expected from that quarter, his last hope went out and he was in utter darkness.
Yet Mr. Jones was not a hypocrite nor a monster; he was only a commonplace man--a thing molded by circumstances instead of molding them. In him the official outweighed the apostle, for a very good reason--he was commonplace. This was his defect. His crime was misplacing his commonplace self. A man has a right to be commonplace in the middle of the New Forest, or in the great desert, or at Fudley-cum-Pipes in the fens of Lincolnshire. But at the helm of a struggling nation, or in the command of an army in time of war, or at the head of the religious department of a jail, fighting against human wolves, tigers and foxes, to be commonplace is an iniquity and leads to crime.
The man was a humane man. It was not in his nature to be cruel to a prisoner, and his humanity was, like himself, negative not positive, passive not active--of course; it was commonplace humanity.
After looking on in silence for a twelvemonth or two he remonstrated against Hawes's barbarity. He would have done more; he would have stopped it--if it could have been stopped without any trouble. Cold water was thrown on his remonstrance; he cooled directly!
Now cold water and hot fire have been thrown on men battling for causes no higher nor holier than this, yet neither has fire been able to wither nor water to quench their honest zeal. But this good soul on being sprinkled laid down his arms; he was commonplace. Moreover, he was guilty of something beside cowardice. He let a small egotistical pique sully as well as betray a great cause. "The justices have thrown cold water on my remonstrance--very well, gentlemen, torture your prisoners ad libitum; I shall interfere no more; we shall see which was in the right, you or I."
This was a narrow little view of wide and terrible consequences; it was infinitesimal egotism--the spirit and essence of commonplace.
His inclinations were good, but feeble--he was commonplace. His heart was good, but tepid--he was commonplace. Had he loved the New Testament and the Saviour of mankind, he would have fought Hawes tooth and nail; he could not have helped it. But he did not love either; he only liked them--he was commonplace. When the thief cursed this man, he was guilty of an extravagance as well as a crime; the man was not worth cursing--he was commonplace.
The new chaplain arrived soon after these events. The new chaplain was accompanied by his friend, the Rev. James Lepel, chaplain of a jail in the north of England. After five years' unremitting duty he was now enjoying a week's leave of absence.
The three clergymen visited the cells. Mr. Lepel cross-examined several prisoners. The new chaplain spoke little, but seemed observant, and once or twice made a note. Now it so happened that almost the last cell they entered was Tom Robinson's. They found him sitting all of a heap in a corner, moody and sullen.
At sight of three black coats and white ties the thief opened his eyes, and with a sort of repugnance turned his back on the intruders.
"Come, my lad," said the turnkey sternly, "no tricks, if you please. Turn round," cried he savagely, "and make your bow to the gentlemen."
Robinson wheeled round with flashing eyes, and checking an evident desire to dash at them, instantly made a bow so very low, so very obsequious, and, by a furtive expression, so contemptuous, that Mr. Lepel colored with indignation and moved toward the door in silence.
The turnkey muttered, "He has been very strange this few days past. Mr. Fry thinks he is hardly safe." Then, turning to the new chaplain, the man, whose name was Evans, said, "Better not go into his cell, sir, without one of us with you."
"What is the matter with him?" inquired the reverend gentleman.
"Oh, I don't know as there is anything the matter with him; only he has been disciplined once or twice, and it goes down the wrong way with some of them at first starting. Governor says he will have to be put in the dark cell if he does not get better."
"The dark cell? hum! Pray what is the effect of the dark cell on a prisoner?"
"Well, sir, it cows them more than anything."
"Where are your dark cells?"
"They are down below, sir. You can look at them after the kitchen."
"I must go into the town," said Mr. Lepel, looking at his watch. "I promised to dine with my relations at three o'clock."
"Come and see the oubliettes first. We have seen everything else."
"With all my heart!"
They descended below the ground-floor, and then Evans unlocked a massive tight-fitting door opening upon what appeared to be a black substance; this was, however, no substance--but vacancy without any degree of light. The light crossing the threshold from the open door seemed to cut a slice out of it.
The newcomers looked into it. Mr. Lepel with grim satisfaction, the other with awe and curiosity.
"When shall you be back, Lepel?" inquired he thoughtfully.
"Oh, before nine o'clock."
"Then perhaps you will both do me the honor to drink a cup of tea with me," said Mr. Jones, courteously.
"Good-by, then, for the present," said the new chaplain.
"Why, where are you going?"
"What, into the dark cell?"
"Well!" ejaculated Evans.
"You won't stay there long."
"Until you return, Lepel."
"What a fancy!"
Mr. Jones looked not a little surprised. The turnkey grinned. The reverend gentleman stepped at once into the cell and was lost to sight.
"Do not let me out before eight o'clock," said his voice, "and you, Lepel, inquire for me as soon as you return, for I feel a little nervous. Now shut the door."
The door was closed on the reverend gentleman, and the little group outside, after looking at one another with a humorous expression, separated, and each went after his own affairs.
Evans lingered behind, and took a look at the massy door, behind which for the first time a man had gone voluntarily, and after grave deliberation delivered himself at long intervals of the two following profound reflections:
"Well! I'm blest!!"
"Well! I'm blowed!!"