It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
It was a bright morning. The world awoke. The working Englishman, dead drunk at the public-house overnight, had got rid of two-thirds of his burning poison by the help of man's chief nurse, sleep; and now he must work off the rest, grumbling at this the kind severity of his lot. Warm men, respectable men, among whom justices of the peace and other voluptuous disciplinarians, were tempted out of delicious beds by the fragrant berry, the balmy leaf, snowy damask, fire glowing behind polished bars--in short, by multifarious comfort set in a frame of gold. They came down.
"How did you sleep, dear sir?"
"Pretty well," said one with a doubtful air. "Scarce closed my eyes all night," snarled another.
Another had been awakened by the barking of a dog, and it was full half an hour before he could lose the sense of luxurious ease in unconsciousness again. He made an incident of this, and looked round the table for sympathy, and obtained it, especially from such as were toadies.
Now all these had slept as much as nature required. No. 1, ar hyd y nos--like a top. No. 2, eight hours out of the nine. The ninth his sufferings had been moderate; they had been confined to this--a bitter sense of two things; first, that he was lying floating in a sea of comforts; secondly, that the moment he should really need sleep, sleep was at his service.
In ---- Jail, governor, turnkeys, chaplain, having had something to do the day before, slept among Class 1, and now turned out of their warm beds as they had turned into them, without a shade of anxiety or even recollection of him whom they had left last evening at eight to pass the livelong night in a sponge--upon a stone.
Up rose refreshed with sleep that zealous officer, Hawes. He was in the prison at daybreak, and circulated with inspecting eye all through it. Went into the kitchen--saw the gruel making--docked Josephs and three more of half their allowance; then into the corridors, where on one of the snowy walls he found a speck; swore; had it instantly removed. Thence into the labor-yard, and prepared a crank for an athletic prisoner by secretly introducing a weight, and so making the poor crank a story-teller, and the prologue to punishment. Returning to the body of the prison, he called out, "Prisoners on the list for hard labor to be taken to the yard."
He was not answered with the usual alacrity, and looked up to repeat his summons, when he observed a cell open and two turnkeys standing in earnest conversation at the door. He mounted the stairs in great heat.
"What are you all humbugging there for, and why does not that young rascal turn out to work? I'll physic him, ---- him!"
The turnkeys looked in their chief's face with a strange expression of stupid wonder. Hawes caught this--his wrath rose higher.
"What d'ye stand staring at me like stuck pigs for? Come out, No. 15, ---- you all! why don't you bring him out to the crank?"
Hodges answered gloomily from the cell, "Come and bring him yourself, if you can."
At such an address from a turnkey, Hawes, who had now mounted the last stair, gave a snort of surprise and wrath--then darted into the cell, threatening the most horrible vengeance on the bones and body of poor Josephs, threats which he confirmed with a tremendous oath. But to that oath succeeded a sudden dead stupid staring silence; for running fiercely into the cell with rage in his face, threats and curses on his tongue, he had almost stumbled over a corpse.
It lay in the middle of the cell--stark and cold, but peaceful. Hawes stood over it. If he had not stopped short his foot would have been upon it. His mouth opened but no sound came. He stood paralyzed. A greater than he was in that cell, and he was dumb. He looked up--Hodges and Fry were standing silent, looking down on the body. Fry was grave; Hodges trembled. Part of a handkerchief fluttered from the bar of the window. A knife had severed it. The other fragment lay on the floor near the body, where Hodges had dropped it. Hawes took this in at a glance and comprehended it all. This was not the first or second prisoner that had escaped him by a similar road. For a moment his blood froze in him. He wished to Heaven he had not been so severe upon the poor boy.
It was but for a moment. The next he steeled himself in the tremendous egotism that belongs to and makes the deliberate manslayer.
"The young viper has done this to spite me," said he. And he actually cast a look of petulant anger down.
At this precise point the minds that had borne his company so long began to part from it. Fry looked in his face with an expression bordering on open contempt, and Hodges shoved rudely by him and left the cell.
Hodges leaned over the corridor in silence. One of the inferior turnkeys asked him a question dictated by curiosity about the situation in which he had found the body. "Don't speak to me!" was the fierce, wild answer. And he looked with a stupid wild stare over the railings.
So wild and white and stricken was this man's face that Evans, who was exchanging some words with a gentleman on the basement floor, happening to catch sight of it, interrupted himself and hallooed from below, "What, is there anything the matter, Hodges?" Hodges made no reply. The man seemed to have lost his speech for some time past.
"Let us go and see," said the gentleman; and he ascended the steps somewhat feebly, accompanied by Evans.
"What is it, Hodges?"
"What is it?" answered the man impatiently. "Go in there and you'll see what it is!"
"I don't like this, sir," said Evans. "Oh! I am fearful there is something unfortunate has happened. You mustn't come in, sir. You stay here, and I'll go in and see." He entered the cell.
Meantime a short conference had passed between Hawes and Fry.
"This is a bad business, Fry."
"And no mistake."
"Had you any idea of this?"
"No! can't say I had."
"If the parson ever gets well he will make this a handle to ruin you and me."
"Me, sir! I only obey orders."
"That won't save you. If they get the better of me you will suffer along with me."
"I shouldn't wonder. I told you you were carrying it too far, but you wouldn't listen to me."
"I was wrong, Fry. I ought to have listened to you, for you are the only one that is faithful to me in the jail."
"I know my duty, sir, and I try to do it."
"What are we to do with him, Fry?"
"Well, I don't think he ought to lie on the floor. I'd let him have his bed now, I think."
"You are right. I'll send for it. Ah! here is Evans. Go for No. 15's bed."
Evans, standing at the door, had caught but a glimpse of the object that lay on the floor, but that glimpse was enough. He went out and said to Hodges, "Wasn't it you that took Josephs' bed away last night?" The man cowered under the question. "Well, you are to go and fetch it back, the governor says." Hodges went away for it without a word. Evans returned to the cell. He came and kneeled down by Josephs and laid his hand upon him. "I feared it! I feared it!" said he. "Why he has been dead a long time. Ah! your reverence, why did you come in when I told you not? Poor Josephs is no more, Sir."
Mr. Eden, who had already saluted Mr. Hawes with grave politeness, though without any affectation of good-will, came slowly up, and sinking his voice to a whisper in presence of death said in pitiful accents, "Poor child! he was always sickly. Six weeks ago I feared we should lose him, but he seemed to get better." He was now kneeling beside him. "Was he long ill, sir?" asked he of Hawes. "Probably he was, for he is much wasted. I can feel all his bones." Hardened as they were, Hawes and Fry looked at one another in some confusion. Presently Mr. Eden started back. "Why, what is this? he is wet. He is wet from head to foot. What is the cause of this? Can you tell me, Mr. Hawes?"
Mr. Hawes did not answer, but Evans did.
"I am afraid it is the bucket, your reverence. They soused him in the yard late last night."
"Did they?" said Mr. Eden, looking the men full in the face. "Then they have the more to repent of this morning. But stay. Why then he was not under the doctor's hands, Evans?"
"La! bless you, no. He was harder worked and worse fed than any man in the jail."
"At work last night! Then at what hour did he die? He is stiff and cold. This is a very sudden death. Did any one see this boy die?"
The men gave no answer, but the last words--"Did any one see this boy die?"--seemed to give Evans a new light.
"No!" he cried. "No one saw him die. Look here, sir. See what is dangling from the window--his handkerchief."
"And this mark round his throat, Evans. He has destroyed himself." And Mr. Eden recoiled from the corpse.
"Oh! you may forgive him, sir," said Evans. "We should all have done the same. No human creature could live the life they led him. Who could live upon bread and water and punishment? It is a sorrowful sight, but it is a happy release for him. Eh! poor lad," said Evans, laying his hand upon the body; "I liked thee well, but I am glad thou art gone. Thou hast escaped away from worse trouble."
"Come, it is no use sniveling, Evans," put in Hawes. "I am as sorry for this job as you are. But who would have thought he was so determined? He gave us no warning."
"Don't you believe that, sir," cried Evans to Mr. Eden. "He gave them plenty of warning. I heard him with my own ears tell you you were killing him; not a day for the last fortnight he did not tell you so, Mr. Hawes."
"Well, I didn't believe him, you see."
"You mean you didn't care."
"Hold your tongue, Evans! You are disrespectful. How dare you speak to me, you insolent dog? Hold your tongue!"
"No, sir, I won't hold my tongue over this dead body."
"Be silent, Evans," said Mr. Eden. "This is no place for disputes. Evans, my heart is broken. While there is life there is hope; but here, what hope is there? Many in this place live in crime, but this one has died in crime; he of whom I had such good hopes has died in crime--died by his own hand; he has murdered his own soul; my heart is broken!--my heart is broken!" The good man's anguish was terrible.
Evans consoled him. "Don't go on so, sir! pray don't. Josephs is where none of us but you shall ever get to; he is in heaven as sure as we are upon earth. He was the best lad in the place; there wasn't a drop of gall in him; who ever heard a bad word from him? and he did not kill himself till he found he was to die whether or no; so then he shortened his own death-struggle, and he was right."
"I don't understand you."
"I dare say not, sir; but those two understand me. Oh, it is no use to look black at me now, Mr. Hawes; I shall speak my mind though my head was to be cut off. I have been a coward; I thought too much of my wife and children; but I am a man now. Eh! poor lad, thou shan't be maligned now thou art dead, as well as tormented alive. Sir, he that lies here so pale and calm was not guilty of self-destruction. He was driven to death!--don't speak to me, sir, but look at me, and hear the truth, as it will come out the day all of us in this cell are damned, except you--and him!"
The man fell suddenly on his knees, took the dead boy's hand in his left hand and held his right up, and in this strange attitude, which held all his hearers breathless, he poured out a terrible tale.
His boiling heart and the touch of him, whom now too late he defended like a man, gave him simple but real eloquence, and in few words, that scalded as they fell, he told as powerfully as I have feebly by what road Josephs had been goaded to death.
He brought the dark tale down to where he left the sufferer rolled up in the one comfort left him on earth, his bed; and then turning suddenly and leaving Josephs he said sternly:
"And now, sir, ask the governor where is the bed I wrapped the wet boy up in, for it isn't here."
"You know as much as I do!" was Hawes's sulky reply.
But at this moment Hodges came into the cell with the bed in question in his arms.
"There is his bed," cried he, "and what is the use of it now? If you had left it him last night it would be better for him and for me, too," and he flung the bed on the floor.
"Oh! it was you took it from him, was it?" said Evans.
"Well, I am here to obey orders, Jack Evans; do you do nothing but what you like in this place?"
"Let there be no disputing in presence of death!"
"One thing only is worth knowing or thinking of now; whether there is hope for this our brother in that world to which he has passed all unprepared. Hodges, you saw him last alive!"
Hodges groaned. "I saw him last at night, and first in the morning."
"I entreat you to remember all that passed at night between you!"
"Then cover up his face--it draws my eyes to it."
Mr. Eden covered the dead face gently with his handkerchief.
"Mr. Hawes met me in the corridor and sent me to take away his bed. I found him dozing, and I took--I did what I was ordered."
Mr. Eden sighed.
"Tell me what he said and did."
"Well, sir! when I showed him the order, 'fourteen days without bed and gas,' he bursts out a laughing--"
"And says he, 'I don't say for gas, but you tell Mr. Hawes I shan't be without bed nothing nigh so long as that.'"
Mr. Eden and Evans exchanged a meaning glance; so did Fry and Hawes.
"Then I said, 'No! I shan't tell Mr. Hawes anything to make him punish you any more, because you are punished too much as it is,' says I--"
"I am glad you said that. But tell me what he said. Did he complain? did he use angry or bitter words?--you make me drag it out of you."
"No! he didn't! He wasn't one of that sort! The next thing was, he asked me to give him my hand. Well, I was surprised like at his asking for my hand, and I doing him such an ill-turn. So then he said, 'Mr. Hodges,' says he, 'why not? I never took away your bed from under you, so you can give me your hand, if I can give you mine.'"
"Oh! what a beautiful nature! Ah! these are golden words. I hope for the credit of human nature you gave him your hand?"
"Why, of course I did, sir. I had no malice; it was ignorance, and owing to being so used to obey the governor."
Here Mr. Hawes, who had remained quiet all this time, now absorbed in his own reflections, now listening sullenly to these strange scenes in which the dead boy seemed for a time to have eclipsed his importance, burst angrily in.
"I have listened patiently to you, Mr. Eden, to see how far you would go; but I see if I wait till you leave off undermining me with my servants, I may wait a long while."
Mr. Eden turned round impatiently.
"You! who thinks of you or such as you in presence of such a question as lies here. I am trying to learn the fate of this immortal soul, and I did not see you--or think of you--or notice you were here."
"That is polite! Well, sir, the governor is somebody in most jails, but it seems he is to be nobody here so long as you are in it, and that won't be long. Come, Fry, we have other duties to attend to." So saying he and his lieutenant went out of the cell.
Hodges went, too, but not with them.
The moment they were gone--" Well, sir," burst out Evans, "don't you see that the real murderer is not that stupid, ignorant owl, Hodges?"
"Hush! Evans! this is no time or place for unkindly thoughts; thank Heaven that you are free from their guilt, and leave me alone with him."
He was left alone with the dead.
Evans looked through the peep-hole of the cell an hour later. He was still on his knees fearing, hoping, vowing, and, above all, praying--beside the dead.