It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
"Two ladies to see you," grunted the red-haired servant, throwing open the door without ceremony; and she actually bounced out again without seeing anything more than that her master was lying on the sofa.
Susan Merton and her aunt came rapidly and cheerfully into the room.
"Here we are, Mr. Eden, Aunt Davies and I--Oh!" The table being between the sofa and the door the poor gentleman's actual condition was not self-evident from the latter, but Susan was now in the middle of the room and her gayety gave way in a moment to terror.
"Why, the man has fainted!" cried Mrs. Davies hurriedly. Susan clasped her hands together and turned very pale; but for all that she was the first at Mr. Eden's head; "he is choking! he is choking! help me, aunt, help me!" but even while crying for help her nimble fingers had untied and flung away Mr. Eden's white neck-tie, which, being high and stiff, was doing him a very ill turn, as the air forcing itself violently through his nostrils plainly showed.
"Take his legs, aunt; oh! oh! oh!"
"Don't be a fool, girl, it is only a faint." Susan flew to the window and threw it open, then flew back and seized one end of the couch. Her aunt comprehended at a glance, and the two carried it with its burden to the window.
"Open the door, aunt," cried Susan, as she whipped out her scent-bottle and with her finger wetted the inside of his nostrils with the spirit as the patient lay in the thorough draught. Susan sobbed with sorrow and fear, but her emotion was far from disabling her.
She poured some of her scent into a water-glass and diluted it largely. She made her aunt take a hand-screen from the mantel-piece. She plunged her hand into the liquid and flung the drops sharply into Mr. Eden's face; and Mrs. Davies fanned him rapidly at the same time.
These remedies had a speedy effect. First the film cleared from the patient's bright eye, then a little color diffused itself gradually over his cheek, and last his lips lost their livid tint. As soon as she saw him coming to, Susan composed herself; and Mr. Eden, on his return to consciousness, looked up and saw a beautiful young woman looking down on him with a cheerful, encouraging smile and wet cheeks.
"Ah!" sighed he, and put out his hand faintly to welcome Susan; "but what--how do I come here?"
"You have been a little faint," said Susan smiling, "but you are better now, you know!"
"Yes, thank you! how good of you to come! Who is this lady?"
"My aunt, sir--a very notable woman. See, she is setting your things to rights already. Aunt, I wonder at you!"
She then dipped the corner of her handkerchief in scent, and slightly coloring now that her patient was conscious, she made the spirit enter his nostrils.
He gave a sigh of languid pleasure--"That is so invigorating." Then he looked upward--"See how good God is to me! in my sore need He has sent me help. Oh! how pleasant is the face of a friend. By-the-way, I took you for an angel at first," added he naively.
"But you have come to your senses now, sir! ha! ha! ha!" cried busy, merry Mrs. Davies, hard at work. For as soon as the patient began visibly to return to life, she had turned her back on him and fallen on the furniture.
"I hope you are come to stay with me." As Susan was about to answer in the negative, Mrs. Davies made signals for a private conference; and after some whispering, Susan replied, "that her aunt wanted to put the house in apple-pie order, and that she, Susan, felt too anxious about him to go until he should be quite recovered."
"In that case, ladies," said he, "I consecrate to you my entire second floor, three rooms," and he rang the bell and said to the servant, "Take your orders from these ladies, and show them the second floor."
While his visitors were examining their apartments, Mr. Eden sought a little rest, and had no sooner dropped upon his bed than sleep came to his relief.
He slept for nearly four hours; at first soundly, then dozing and dreaming. While he slept a prisoner sent for him, but Susan would not have him awakened for that.
By-and-by Susan went into the town, leaving her aunt sole guardian.
"Now, aunt," said she, "don't let him be disturbed whoever comes for him. It is as much as his life is worth!"
"Well, then, I won't! there."
Susan had not been long gone when a turnkey called, and was shown into the parlor where Mrs. Davies was very busy. He looked about him and told her he had called for a book Mr. Eden promised him.
"Mr. Eden is asleep."
"Asleep at this time of day?" said the man incredulously.
"Yes, asleep," answered Mrs. Davies sharply; "is he never to have any sleep?"
"Well, perhaps you will tell him Mr. Fry has come for the book as requested."
"Couldn't think of disturbing him for that, Mr. Fry," replied Mrs. Davies, not intermitting her work for a single moment.
"Very well, ma'am!" said Mr. Fry, in dudgeon. "I never was here before, and I shan't ever come again--that is all--" and off he went. Mrs. Davies showed her dismay at this threat by dusting on without once taking her eye or her mind off her job.
It was eight o'clock. Mr. Eden woke and found it almost dark.
He rose immediately. "Why, I have slept the day away," thought he in dismay, "and my memorial to the Home Office; it is past post time, and I have not sent it." He came hastily downstairs and entered the parlor; he found it in a frightful state. All the chairs were in the middle of the room, every part of which was choked up except a pathway three feet broad that ran by the side of the wall all round it. From this path all access into the interior was blocked by the furniture, which now stood upon an area frightfully diminished by this loss of three feet taken from each wall. Mrs. Davies was a character--a notable woman. Mr. Eden's heart sank at the sight.
To find himself put to rights gives a bachelor an innocent pleasure, but the preliminary process of being put entirely to wrongs crushes his soul. "Another fanatic let loose on me," thought he, "and my room is like a road that is just mended, as they call it." He peered about here and there through a grove of chairs whose legs were kicking in the air as they sat bosom downward upon their brethren, but he could see no memorial. He rang the bell and inquired of the servant whether she had seen it. While he was describing it to her Mrs. Davies broke in:
"I saw it--I picked it up off the floor--it was lying between the sofa and the table."
"And what did you do with it?"
"Why, dusted it, to be sure."
"But where did you put it?"
"On the table, I suppose."
Another search and no memorial.
"Somebody has taken it."
"But who? has anybody been in this room since?"
"Plenty. You don't get much peace here, I should say; but Susan gave the order you were not to be disturbed."
"This won't do," thought Mr. Eden.
"Who has been here?" said he to the servant.
"Mr. Fry is the only one that came into this room."
"Mr. Fry!" said Mr. Eden, with some surprise.
"Ay! ay!" cried Mrs. Davies. "I remember now there was an ill-looking fellow of that name here talking to me, pretending you had promised him a book."
"But I did promise him a book."
"Oh, you did, did you! well he looked like a thief, perhaps he has--goodness gracious me, I hope there was no money in it," and Mrs. Davies lost her ruddy color in a moment.
"No! no! it was only a letter, but of great importance."
Another violent search at the risk of shins and hands.
"That Fry has taken it. I never saw such a hang-dog looking fellow."
Mr. Eden was much vexed; but he had a trick of blaming himself, Heaven only knows where he caught it. "My own forgetfulness; even if the paper had not been lost I had allowed post-time to go by--and Mr. Hawes will anticipate me with the Home Secretary." He sighed.
In so severe a struggle he was almost as reluctant to give an unfair advantage as to take one.
He ordered a fire in his little back parlor; and with a sigh sat down to rewrite his memorial and to try and recover, if he could, the exact words, and save the next post that left in the morning.
As Mr. Eden sat trying to recover the words of his memorial, Hawes was seated in Mr. Williams' study at Ashtown Park, concerting with that worthy magistrate the best way of turning the new chaplain out of ---- Jail. He found no difficulty. Mr. Williams had two very strong prejudices, one in favor of Hawes personally, the other in favor of the system pursued this two years in that jail. Egotism was here, too, and rendered these prejudices almost impregnable. Williams had turned out O'Connor and his milder system, and put in Hawes and his more rigorous one. Hawes was "my man--his system mine."
He told his story, and Williams burned to avenge his injured friend, whose patron and director he called himself, and whose tool he was.
"Nothing can be done until the twenty-fifth, when Palmer returns. We must be all there for an act of this importance. Do your duty as you always have, carry out the discipline, and send for me if he gives you any great annoyance in the meantime."
That zealous servant of her majesty, earnest Mr. Hawes, had never taken a day's holiday before. No man could accuse him of indolence, carelessness, or faint discharge of the task he had appointed himself. He perverted his duties too much to neglect them. He had been reluctant to leave the prison on a personal affair. The drive, however, was pleasant, and he returned freshened and animated by assurances of support from the magistrate.
As he strode across the prison yard to inspect everything before going to his house, he felt invulnerable and sneered at himself for the momentary uneasiness he had let a crack-brained parson give him. He went home; there was a nice fire, a clean-swept hearth, a glittering brass kettle on the hob for making toddy, and three different kinds of spirits in huge cruets. For system reigned in the house as well as the jail, with this difference, that the house system was devoted to making self comfortable the jail system to making others wretched.
He rang the bell. In came the servant with slippers and candles unlighted, for he was wont to sip his grog by fire-light. He put on his slippers. Then he mixed his grog. Then he noticed a paper on the table, and putting it to the fire he found it was sealed. So he lighted the candles and placed them a little behind him. Then he stirred his grog and sipped it, and placing it close beside him, leaned back with a grunt of satisfaction, opened the paper, read it first slowly, then all in a flutter, started up as if he was going to act upon some impulse; but the next moment sat down again and stared wildly a picture of stupid consternation.
Meantime, as Mr. Eden with a heavy heart was writing himself out--nauseous task--Susan stood before him with a color like a rose. She was in a brown cloak, from under which she took out a basket brimful of little packages, some in blue, some in white paper.
"These are grits," said she, "and these are arrowroot."
"I know--one of the phases of the potato."
"Oh! for shame, Mr. Eden. Well, I never! And I posted your letter, sir."
"What letter? what letter?"
"The long one. I found it on the table."
"You don't mean you posted that letter?"
"Why, it was to go, wasn't it?"
"Yes, it was to go, but it was wonderfully intelligent of you."
"La! Mr. Eden, don't talk so; you make me ashamed. Why, there was 'immediate' written on it in your own hand. Was I to wake you up to ask whether that meant it was to stay here immediate, or go to London immediate?" Then she pondered a moment. "He thinks I am a fool," said she, in quiet explanation, without a shade of surprise or anger.
"Well! Susan, my dear friend, you don't know what a service you have done me!"
Susan glittered with pleasure.
"There!" cried he, "you have spared me this most unpleasant task," and he flung his unfinished papers into a basket. Mr. Eden congratulated himself in his way, i.e., thanked Heaven Susan had come there; the next thing was, he had a twinge of conscience. "I half suspected Fry of taking it in the interest of Hawes, his friend. Poor Fry, who is a brute, but as honest a man as myself, every bit. He shall have his book, at all events. I'll put his name on it that I mayn't forget it again." Mr. Eden took the book from its shelf, wrapped it in paper, and wrote on the cover, "For Mr. Fry from F. Eden." As the incidents of the day are ended, I may as well relate what this book was and how Fry came to ask for it.
The book was "Uncle Tom," a story which discusses the largest human topic that ever can arise; for the human race is bisected into black and white. Nowadays a huge subject greatly treated receives justice from the public, and "Uncle Tom" is written in many places with art, in all with red ink and with the biceps muscle.
Great by theme, and great by skill, and greater by a writer's soul honestly flung into its pages, "Uncle Tom," to the surprise of many that twaddle traditional phrases in reviews and magazines about the art of fiction, and to the surprise of no man who knows anything about the art of fiction, was all the rage. Not to have read it was like not to have read the Times for a week.
Once or twice during the crucifixion of a prisoner Mr. Eden had said bitterly to Fry, "Have you read 'Uncle Tom?'"
"No!" would Fry grunt.
But one day that the question was put to him he asked, with some appearance of interest, "Who is Uncle Tom?"
Then Mr. Eden began to reflect. "Who knows? The cases are in a great measure parallel. Prisoners are a tabooed class in England, as are blacks in some few of the United States. The lady writes better than I can talk. If she once seizes his sympathies by the wonderful power of fiction, she will touch his conscience through his heart. This disciple of Legree is fortified against me; Mrs. Stowe may take him off his guard. He said slyly to Fry, 'Not know Uncle Tom! Why it is a most interesting story--a charming story. There are things in it, too, that meet your case.'"
"It is a book you will like. Shall I lend it you?"
"If you please, sir. Nights are drawing in now."
"I will, then."
And he would; but that frightful malady, jaundice, among its other feats, impairs the patient's memory; and he forgot all about it. So Fry, whose curiosity was at last excited, came for the book. The rest we know.