It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
The meal passed almost in silence; Robinson was too hungry to say a word, and a weight hung upon George and Susan.
As they were about to rise, William observed two men in the farmyard who were strangers to him--the men seemed to be inspecting the hogs. It struck him as rather cool; but apparently the pig is an animal which to be prized needs but to be known, for all connoisseurs of him are also enthusiastic amateurs.
When I say the pig I mean the four-legged one.
William Fielding, partly from curiosity to hear these strangers' remarks, partly hoping to find customers in them, strolled into the farmyard before his companions rose from the table.
The others, looking carelessly out of the window, saw William join the two men and enter into conversation with them; but their attention was almost immediately diverted from that group by the entrance of Meadows. He came in radiant; his face was a remarkable contrast to the rest of the party.
Susan could not help noticing it.
"Why, Mr. Meadows," cried she, "you look as bright as a May morning; it is quite refreshing to see you; we are all rather down here this morning."
Meadows said nothing, and did not seem at his ease under this remark.
George rose from the table; so did Susan; Robinson merely pushed back his chair and gave a comfortable little sigh, but the next moment he cried "Hallo!"
They looked up, and there was William's face close against the window.
William's face was remarkably pale, and first he tried to attract George's attention without speaking, but finding himself observed by the whole party, he spoke out.
"George, will you speak a word?" said he.
George rose and went out; but Susan's curiosity was wakened, and she followed him, accompanied by Meadows.
"None but you, George," said William, with a voice half stern, half quivering.
George looked at his brother.
"Out with it," cried he, "it is some deadly ill-luck; I have felt it coming all day, but out with it; what can't I bear after the words I have borne this morning?"
William hung his head.
"George, there is a distress upon the farm for the rent."
George did not speak at first, he literally staggered under these words; his proud spirit writhed in his countenance, and with a groan, he turned his back abruptly upon them all and hid his face against the corner of his own house, the cold hard bricks.
Meadows, by strong self-command, contrived not to move a muscle of his face.
Up to this day and hour, Susan Merton had always seemed cool, compared with her lover; she used to treat him a little de haut en bas.
But when she saw his shame and despair, she was much distressed.
"George, George!" she cried, "don't do so. Can nothing be done? Where is my father?--they told me he was here. He is rich, he shall help you." She darted from them in search of Merton; ere she could turn the angle of the house he met her.
"You had better go home, my girl," said he gravely.
"Oh, no, no! I have been too unkind to George already," and she turned toward him like a pitying angel with hands extended as if they would bring balm to a hurt soul.
Meadows left chuckling and was red and white by turns.
Merton was one of those friends one may make sure of finding in adversity.
"There," cried he, "George, I told you how it would end."
George wheeled round on him like lightning.
"What, do you come here to insult over me? I must be a long way lower than I am, before I shall be as low as you were when my mother took you up and made a man of you."
"George, George!" cried Susan in dismay; "stop, for pity's sake, before you say words that will separate us forever. Father," cried the peace-making angel, "how can you push poor George so hard and him in trouble! and we have all been too unkind to him to-day."
Ere either could answer, there was happily another interruption. A smart servant in livery walked up to them with a letter. With the instinctive feeling of class they all endeavored to conceal their agitation from the gentleman's servant. He handed George the note, and saying, "I was to wait for an answer, Farmer Fielding," sauntered toward the farm-stables.
"From Mr. Winchester," said George, after a long and careful inspection of the outside.
In the country it is a point of honor to find out the writer of a letter by the direction, not the signature.
"The Honorable Francis Winchester! What does he write to you?" cried Merton, in a tone of great surprise. This, too, was not lost on George.
Human nature is human nature. He was not sorry to be able to read a gentleman's letter in the face of one who had bitterly reproached him, and of others who had seen him mortified and struck down.
"Seems so," said George, dryly, and with a glance of defiance; and he read out the letter.
"George Fielding, my fine fellow, think of it again. I have two berths in the ship that sails from Southampton to-morrow. You will have every comfort on the voyage--a great point. I will do what I said for you" ("he promised me five hundred sheep and a run"). "I must have an honest man, and where can I find as honest a man as George Fielding?" ("Thank you, Mr. Winchester; George Fielding thanks you, sir.") And there was something noble and simple in the way the young farmer drew himself up, and looked fearlessly in all his companions' eyes.
"You saved my life--I can do nothing for you here--and you are doing no good at 'The Grove'--everybody says so ("everybody says so!"--and George Fielding winced at the words).
"And it really pains me, my brave fellow, to go without you where I know I could put you on the way of fortune. My heart is pretty stout; but home is home; and be assured that I wait with some anxiety to know whether my eyes are to look on nothing but water for the next four months, or are to be cheered by the sight of something from home, the face of a thoroughbred English yeoman, and--a friend--and--and--"
Poor George could read no more, the kind words, coming after his affronts and troubles, brought his heart to his mouth.
Susan took the letter from him, and read out--
"And an upright, downright honest man"--"AND SO YOU ARE, GEORGE!" cried she, warmly, drawing to George's side, and darting glances of defiance vaguely around. Then she continued to read--
"If the answer is favorable, a word is enough. Meet me at 'The Crown,' in Newborough, to-night, and we will go up to Town by the mail train."
"The answer is, Yes," said George to the servant, who was at some distance.
Susan, bending over the letter, heard, but could not realize the word, but the servant now came nearer. George said to him, "Tell your master, Yes."
"Yes? George!" cried Susan, "what do you mean by yes? It is about going to Australia."
"The answer is yes," said George.
The servant went away with the answer.
The others remained motionless.
"This nobleman's son respects me if worse folk don't. But it is not the great bloodhounds and greyhounds that bark at misfortune's heels, it is only the village curs, when all is done. This is my path. I'll pack up my things and go." And he did not look at Susan or any of them, but went into the house like a man walking in his sleep.
There was a stupefied pause.
Then Susan gave a cry like a wounded deer.
"Father! what have you done?"
Merton himself had been staggered, but he replied stoutly:
"No more than my duty, girl, and I hope you will do no less than yours."
At this moment Robinson threw up the window and jumped out into the yard.
Meadows, under stronger interests, had forgotten Robinson; but now at sight of him he looked round, and catching the eye of a man who was peering over the farmyard wall, made him a signal.
"What is the matter?" cried Robinson.
"George is going to Australia," replied Merton, coldly.
"Australia!" roared Robinson--"Australia! He's mad. Who ever goes there unless they are forced? He shan't go there! I wouldn't go there if my passage was paid, and a new suit of clothes given me, and the governor's gig to take me ashore to a mansion provided for my reception, fires lighted, beds aired and pipes laid across upon the table."
As Robinson concluded this tirade the policeman and constable, who had crept round the angle of the farm-house, came one on each side, put each a hand on one of his elbows and--took him!
He looked first down at their hands in turn, then up at their faces in turn, and when he saw the metropolitan's face a look of simple disgust diffused itself over his whole countenance.
"Ugh!!! "interjected Robinson.
"Ay!" replied the policeman, while putting handcuffs on him. "To Australia you'll go, for all that, Tom Lyon, alias Scott, alias Robinson, and you'll have a new suit of clothes, mostly one color, and voyage paid, and a large house ashore waiting for you; and the governor's gig will come alongside for you, provided they can't find the convicts' barge," and the official was pleased with himself and his wit and allowed it to appear.
But by this time Robinson was on his balance again. "Gentlemen," answered he with cold dignity, "what am I to understand by this violence from persons to whom I am an utter stranger?" and he might have set for the picture of injured innocence. "I am not acquainted with you, sir," added he; "and by the titles you give me it seems you are not acquainted with me."
The police laughed, and took out of this injured man's pocket the stolen notes which Meadows instantly identified.
Then Mr. Robinson started off into another key equally artistical in its way.
"Miss Merton," snuffled he, "appearances are against me, but mark my words, my innocence will emerge all the brighter for this temporary cloud."
Susan Merton ran indoors, saying, "Oh! I must tell George." She was not sorry of an excuse to be by George's side, and remind him by her presence that if home had its thorns it had its rose tree, too.
News soon spreads; rustic heads were seen peeping over the wall to see the finale of the fine gentleman from "Lunnun." Meantime the constable went to put his horse in a four-wheeled chaise destined to convey Robinson to the county jail.
If the rural population expected to see this worthy discomposed by so sudden a change of fortune, they were soon undeceived.
"Well, Jacobs," said he, with sudden familiarity, "you seem uncommon pleased, and I am content. I would rather have gone to California; but any place is better than England. Laugh those who win. I shall breathe a delicious climate; you will make yourself as happy as a prince, that is to say, miserable, upon fifteen shillings and two colds a week; my sobriety and industry will realize a fortune under a smiling sun. Let chaps that never saw the world, and the beautiful countries there are in it, snivel at leaving this island of fogs and rocks and taxes and nobs, the rich man's paradise, the poor man's--I never swear, it's vulgar."
While he was crushing his captors with his eloquence, George and Susan came together from the house; George's face betrayed wonder and something akin to horror.
"A thief!" cried he. "Have I taken the hand of a thief?"
"It is a business like any other," said Robinson deprecatingly.
"If you have no shame I have; I long to be gone now."
"George!" whined the culprit, who, strange to say, had become attached to the honest young farmer. "Did ever I take tithe of you? You have got a silver candle cup, a heavenly old coffee-pot, no end of spoons double the weight those rogues the silversmiths make them now; they are in a box under your bed in your room," added he, looking down. "Count them, they are all right; and Miss Merton, your bracelet, the gold one with the cameo: I could have had it a hundred times. Miss Merton, ask him to shake hands with me at parting. I am so fond of him, and perhaps I shall never see him again.
"Shake hands with you?" answered George sternly; "if your hands were loose I doubt I should ram my fist down your throat; but there, you are not worth a thought at such a time, and you are a man in trouble, and I am another. I forgive you, and I pray Heaven I may never see your face again."
And Honesty turned his back in Theft's face.
Robinson bit his lip and said nothing, but his eyes glistened; just then a little boy and girl, who had been peering about mighty curious, took courage and approached hand in hand. The girl was the speaker, as a matter of course.
"Farmer Fielding," said she curtsying, a mode of reverence which was instantly copied by the boy, "we are come to see the thief; they say you have caught one. Oh, dear!" (and her bright little countenance was overcast), "I couldn't have told it from a man!"
We don't know all that is in the hearts of the wicked. Robinson was observed to change color at these silly words.
"Mr. Jacobs," said he, addressing the policeman, "have you authority to put me in the pillory before trial?" He said this coldly and sternly; and then added, "Perhaps you are aware that I am a man, and I might say a brother, for you were a thief, you know!" Then changing his tone entirely, "I say, Jacobs," said he, with cheerful briskness, "do you remember cracking the silversmith's shop in Lambeth along with Jem Salisbury and Black George, and--"
"There, the gig is ready," cried Mr. Jacobs; "you come along," and the ex-thief pushed the thief hastily off the premises and drove him away with speed.
George Fielding gave a bitter sigh. This was a fresh mortification. He had for the last two months been defending Robinson against the surmises of the village.
Villages are always concluding there is something wrong about people.
"What does he do?" inquired our village.
"Where does he get his blue coat with brass buttons, his tartan waistcoat and green satin tie with red ends? We admit all this looks like a gentleman. But yet, somehow, a gentleman is a horse of another color than this Robinson."
George had sometimes laughed at all this, sometimes been very angry, and always stood up stoutly for his friend and lodger.
And now the fools were right and he was wrong. His friend and protege was handcuffed before his eyes and carried off to the county jail amid the grins and stares of a score of gaping rustics, who would make a fine story of it this evening in both public-houses; and a hundred voices would echo some such conversational Tristich as this:
1st Rustic. "I tawld un as much, dinn't I now, Jarge?"
2d Rustic. "That ye did, Richard, for I heerd ee."
1st Rustic. "But, la! bless ye, he don't vally advice, he don't."
George Fielding groaned out, "I'm ready to go now--I'm quite ready to go--I am leaving a nest of insults;" and he darted into the house, as much to escape the people's eyes as to finish his slight preparations for so great a journey.
Two men were left alone; sulky William and respectable Meadows. Both these men's eyes followed George into the house, and each had a strong emotion they were bent on concealing, and did conceal from each other; but was it concealed from all the world?
The farm-house had two rooms looking upon the spot where most of our tale has passed.
The smaller one of these was a little state parlor, seldom used by the family. Here on a table was a grand old folio Bible; the names, births, and deaths of a century of Fieldings appeared in rusty ink and various handwritings upon its fly-leaf.
Framed on the walls were the first savage attempts of woman at worsted-work in these islands. There were two moral commonplaces, and there was the forbidden fruit-tree, whose branches diverged, at set distances like the radii of a circle, from its stem, a perpendicular line; exactly at the end of each branch hung one forbidden fruit--pre-Raphaelite worsted-work.
There were also two prints of more modern date, one agricultural, one manufactural.
No. 1 was a great show of farming implements at Doncaster.
No. 2 showed how, one day in the history of man and of mutton, a sheep was sheared, her wool washed, teased, carded, etc., and the cloth *'d and *'d and *'d and *'d, and a coat shaped and sewed and buttoned upon a goose, whose preparations for inebriating the performers and spectators of his feat appeared in a prominent part of the picture.
The window of this sunny little room was open and on the sill was a row of flower-pots from which a sweet fresh smell crept with the passing air into the chamber.
Behind these flower-pots for two hours past had crouched--all eye and ear and mind--a keen old man.
To Isaac Levi age had brought vast experience, and had not yet dimmed any one of his senses. More than forty-five years ago he had been brought to see that men seldom act or speak so as to influence the fortunes of others without some motive of their own; and that these motives are seldom the motives they advance; and that their real motives are not always known to themselves, and yet can nearly always be read and weighed by an intelligent bystander.
So for near half a century Isaac Levi had read that marvelous page of nature written on black, white and red parchments, and called "Man."
One result of his perusal was this, that the heads of human tribes differ far more than their hearts.
The passions and the heart he had found intelligible and much the same from Indus to the Pole.
The people of our tale were like men walking together in a coppice; they had but glimpses of each others' minds. But to Isaac behind his flower-pots they were a little human chart spread out flat before him, and not a region in it he had not traveled and surveyed before to-day: what to others passed for accident to him was design; he penetrated more than one disguise of manner; and above all his intelligence bored like a center-bit into the deep heart of his enemy, Meadows, and at each turn of the center-bit his eye flashed, his ear lived, and he crouched patient as a cat, keen as a lynx.
He was forgotten, but not by all.
Meadows, a cautious man, was the one to ask himself, "Where is that old heathen, and what is he doing?"
To satisfy himself, Meadows had come smoothly to the door of the little apartment, and burst suddenly into it.
There he found the reverend Israelite extended on a little couch, a bandana handkerchief thrown over his face, calmly reposing.
Meadows paused, eyed him keenly, listened to his gentle but audible, equable breathing, relieved his mind by shaking his fist at him, and went out.
Thirty seconds later Isaac awoke! spat in the direction of Meadows, and crouched again behind the innocent flowers, patient as a cat, keen as a lynx.
So then; when George was gone in, William Fielding and Mr. Meadows both felt a sudden need of being alone; each longed to indulge some feeling he did not care the other should see; so they both turned their faces away from each other and strolled apart.
Isaac Levi caught both faces off their guard, and read the men as by a lightning flash to the bottom line of their hearts.
For two hours he had followed the text, word by word, deed by deed, letter by letter, and now a comment on that text was written in these faces.
That comment said that William was rejoiced at George's departure and ashamed of himself for the feeling. That Meadows rejoiced still more and was ashamed anybody should know he had the feeling.
Isaac withdrew from his lair; his task was done.
"Those men both love that woman, and this Meadows loves her with all his soul, and she-aha!" and triumph flashed from under his dark brows. But at his age calm is the natural state of the mind and spirits; he composed himself for the present, and awaited an opportunity to strike his enemy with effect.
The aged man had read Mr. Meadows aright; under that modulated exterior raged as deep a passion as ever shook a strong nature.
For some time he had fought against it. "She is another man's sweetheart," he had said to himself; "no good will come of courting her." But by degrees the flax bonds of prudence snapped one by one as the flame every now and then darted at them. Meadows began to reason the matter coolly.
"They can never marry, those two. I wish they would marry or break off, to put me out of this torture; but they can't marry, and my sweet Susan is wasting her prime for nothing, for a dream. Besides, it is not as if she loved him the way I love her. She is like many a young maid. The first comer gets her promise before she knows her value. They walk together, get spoken of; she settles down into a groove, and so goes on, whether her heart is in it or not; it is habit more than anything."
Then he watched the pair, and observed that Susan's manner to George was cool and off-hand, and that she did not seem to seek opportunities of being alone with him.
Having got so far, he now felt it his duty to think of her interest.
He could not but feel that he was a great match for any farmer's daughter; whereas "poor young Fielding," said he compassionately, "is more likely to break as a bachelor than to support a wife and children upon 'The Grove.'"
He next allowed his mind to dwell with some bitterness upon the poor destiny that stood between him and the woman he loved.
"George Fielding! a dull dog, that could be just as happy with any other girl as with my angel. An oaf, so little alive to his prize that he doesn't even see he has rivals; doesn't see that his brother loves her. Ah! but I see that, though; lovers' eyes are sharp. Doesn't see me, who mean to take her from both these Fieldings--and what harm? It isn't as if their love was like mine. Heaven forbid I should meddle if it was. A few weeks, and a few mugs of ale would wash her from what little mind either of them have; but I never loved a woman before, and never could look at another after her."
And so by degrees Meadows saw that he was quite justified in his resolve to win Susan Merton, PROVIDED IT WAS DONE FAIRLY.
This resolve taken, all this man's words and actions began to be colored more or less by his secret wishes; and it is not too much to say, that this was the hand which was gently but adroitly, with a touch here and a touch there, pushing George Fielding across the Ocean.
You see, a respectable man can do a deal of mischief; more than a rogue could.
A shrug of the shoulders from Meadows had caused the landlord to distrain.
A hint from Meadows had caused Merton to affront George about Susan.
A tone of Meadows had closed the bank cash-box to the Fieldings' bill of exchange, and so on. And now, finding it almost impossible to contain his exultation--for George once in Australia he felt he could soon vanquish Susan's faint preference, the result of habit--he turned off, and went to meet his mare at the gate; the boy had just returned with her.
He put his foot in the stirrup, but ere he mounted it occurred to him to ask one of the farm servants whether the old Jew was gone.
"I sin him in the barn just now," was the reply.
Meadows took his foot out of the stirrup. Never leave an enemy behind you, was one of his rules. "And why does the old heathen stay?" Meadows asked himself; he clinched his teeth and vowed he would not leave the village till George Fielding was on his way to Australia.
He sent his mare to the "Black Horse," and strolled up the village; then he showed the boy a shilling and said, "You be sure and run to the public-house and let me know when George Fielding is going to start--I should like to see the last of him."
This was true!