It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
Mr. Eden, when he reappeared in the prison, was sallow and his limbs feeble, but his fatal disease was baffled, and a few words are due to explain how this happened. The Malvern doctor came back with Susan within twenty hours of her departure. She ushered him into Mr. Eden's room with blushing joy and pride.
The friends shook hands. Mr. Eden thanked him for coming, and the doctor cut him short by demanding an accurate history of his disorder, and the remedies that had been applied. Mr. Eden related the rise and progress of his complaint, and meantime the doctor solved the other query by smelling a battalion of empty phials.
"The old story," said he with a cheerful grin. "You were weak--therefore they gave you things to weaken you. You could not put so much nourishment as usual into your body--therefore they have been taking strength out. Lastly, the coats of your stomach were irritated by your disorder--so they have raked it like blazes. This is the mill-round of the old medicine; from irritation to inflammation, from inflammation to mortification, and decease of the patient. Now, instead of irritating the irritated spot, suppose we try a little counter-irritation."
"With all my heart."
The doctor then wetted a towel with cold water, wrung it half dry, and applied it to Mr. Eden's stomach.
This experiment he repeated four times with a fresh towel at intervals of twenty minutes. He had his bed made in Mr. Eden's room. "Tell me if you feel feverish."
Toward morning Mr. Eden tossed and turned, and the doctor rising found him dry and hot and feverish. Then he wetted two towels, took the sheets off his own bed, and placed one wet towel on a blanket; then he made his patient strip naked, and lie down on this towel, which reached from the nape of his neck to his loins.
"Ah!" cried Mr. Eden, "horrible!"
Then he put the other towel over him in front.
"Ugh! That is worse; you are a bold man with your remedies. I shiver to the bone."
"You won't shiver long."
He laid hold of one edge of the blanket and pulled it over him with a strong, quick pull, and tucked it under him. The same with the other side; and now Mr. Eden was in a blanket prison--a regular strait-waistcoat--his arms pinned to his sides. Two more blankets were placed loosely over him.
"Mighty fine, doctor; but suppose a fly or a gnat should settle on my face?"
"Call me and I'll take him off."
In about three quarters of an hour Dr. Gulson came to his bedside again.
"How are you now?"
"Are you shivering?"
"Nothing of the kind."
"Are you hot?"
"Nothing of the sort. I am Elysian. Please retreat. Let no mere mortals approach. Come not near our fairy king," murmured the sick man. "I am Oberon, slumbering on tepid roses in the garden whence I take my name," purred our divine, mixing a creed or two.
"Well, you must come out of this paradise for the present."
"You wouldn't be such a monster as to propose it."
Spite of his remonstances, he was unpacked, rubbed dry, and returned to his own bed, where he slept placidly till nine o'clock. The next day fresh applications of wet cloths to the stomach, and in the evening one of the doctor's myrmidons arrived from Malvern. The doctor gave him full and particular instructions.
The next morning Mr. Eden was packed again. He delighted in the operation, but remonstrated against the term.
"Packed!" said he to them; "is that the way to speak of a Paradisiacal process under which fever and sorrow fly and calm complacency steals over mind and body?"
A slight diminution of all the unfavorable symptoms, and a great increase of appetite relieved the doctor's anxiety so far that he left him under White's charge. So was the myrmidon called.
"Do not alter your diet--it is simple and mucilaginous--but increase the quantity by degrees."
He postponed his departure till midnight. Up to the present time he had made rather light of the case, and as for danger he had pooh-poohed it with good-humored contempt. Just before he went he said:
"Well, Frank, I don't mind telling you now that I am very glad you sent for me, and I'll tell you why. Forty-eight hours more of irritating medicines, and no human skill could have saved your life."
"Ah! my dear friend, you are my good angel--you can have no conception how valuable my life is."
"Oh, yes, I can!"
"And you have saved that life. Yes! I am weak still, but I feel I shall live. You have cured me."
"In popular language, I have. But between ourselves nobody ever cures anybody. Nature cures all that are cured. But I patted Nature on the back; the others hit her over the head with bludgeons and brick-bats."
"And now you are going. I must not keep you or I shall compromise other lives. Well, go and fulfill your mission. But first think--is there anything I can do in part return for such a thing as this, old friend?"
"Only one that I can think of. Outlive me, old friend."
A warm and tender grasp of the hand on this, and the Malvern doctor jumped into a fly, and the railway soon whirled him into Worcestershire.
His myrmidon remained behind and carried out his chief's orders with inflexible severity, unsoftened by blandishments, unshaken by threats.
In concert with Susan he closed the door upon all harassing communications.
One day Evans came to tell the invalid how the prisoners were maltreated. Susan received him, wormed from him his errand, and told him Mr. Eden was too ill to see him, which was what my French brethren call une sainte mensonge--I a fib.
A slow but steady cure was effected by these means: applications of water in various ways to the skin, simple diet, and quiet. A great appetite soon came; he ate twice as much as he had before the new treatment, and would have eaten twice as much as he did, but the myrmidon would not let him. Whenever he was feverish the myrmidon packed him, and in half an hour the fever was gone. His cheeks began to fill, his eyes to clear and brighten, only his limbs could not immediately recover their strength.
As he recovered, his anxiety to be back among his prisoners increased daily, but neither Susan nor the myrmidon would hear of it. They acted in concert, and stuck at nothing to cure their patient. They assured him all was going on well in the prison. They meant well; but for all that, every lie, great or small, is the brink of a precipice the depth of which nothing but Omniscience can fathom.
He believed them, yet he was uneasy; and this uneasiness increased with his returning strength. At last one morning, happening to awake earlier than usual, he stole a march on his nurses, and taking his stick walked out and tottered into the jail.
He found Josephs dead under the fangs of Hawes, and the whole prison groaning.
Now the very day his symptoms became more favorable it so happened that he had received a few lines from the Home Office that had perhaps aided his recovery by the hopes they inspired.
"The matter of your last communication is forwarded to the 'Inspector of Prisons.' He is instructed to inquire strictly into your statements and report to this office."
The short note concluded with an intimation that the tone in which Mr. Eden had conveyed his remonstrances was intemperate, out of place, and WITHOUT PRECEDENT.
Mr. Eden was rejoiced.
The "Inspector of Prisons" was a salaried officer of the crown, enlightened by a large comparison of many prisons, and, residing at a distance, was not open to the corrupting influences of association and personal sympathy with the governor, as were the county magistrates.
Day after day Mr. Eden rose in hope that day would not pass without the promised visit from the "Inspector of Prisons." Day after day no inspector. At last Mr. Eden wrote to him to inquire when he was coming.
The letter traveled about after him, and after a considerable delay came his answer. It was to this effect. That he was instructed to examine into charges made against the governor of ---- Jail; but that he had no instructions to make an irregular visit for that purpose. His progress would bring him this year to ---- Jail in six weeks' time, when he should act on his instructions, but these did not justify him in varying from the routine of his circuit.
Six weeks is not long to wait for help in a matter of life and death, thought the eighty pounders, the clerks who execute England.
Three days of this six weeks had scarce elapsed when two prisoners were driven a step each farther than their wretched fellow sufferers who were to follow them in a week or two. Of these, one, "a mild, quiet, docile boy," was driven to self-slaughter; and another, one of the best-natured rogues in the place, was driven to manslaughter.
This latter incident Mr. Eden prevented. I will presently relate how; it was not by postponing his interference for six weeks.
When Mr. Eden rose from his knees beside the slaughtered boy he went home at once and wrote to the Home Secretary. On the envelope he wrote "private," and inside to this effect:
"Two months ago I informed you officially that prisoners are daily assaulted, starved, and maltreated to the danger of their lives by the governor of ---- Jail. I demanded of you an inquiry on the spot. In reply you evaded my demand, and proposed to refer me to the visiting justices.
"In answer I declined these men for referees on two grounds, viz., that I had lodged an appeal with a higher jurisdiction than theirs, and that they were confederates of the criminal; and to enforce the latter objection I included your proposed referees in my charges, and once more demanded of you in the queen's name an examination of her unworthy servants on the instant and on the spot.
"On this occasion I warned you in these words:
"'Here are 180 souls, to whose correction, care and protection the State is pledged. No one of these lives is safe a single day; and for every head that falls from this hour I hold you responsible to God and the State.'
"Surely these were no light words, yet they fell light on you.
"In answer you promised us the 'Inspector of Prisons,' but you gave him no instructions to come to us. You fooled away time when time was human life. Read once more my words of warning, and then read these:
"This morning a boy of fifteen was done to death by Mr. Hawes. Of his death you are not guiltless. You were implored to prevent it, you could have prevented it, and you did not prevent it. The victim of jail cruelty and of the maladministration in government offices lies dead in his cell.
"In three days I shall commit his body to the dust; but his memory never--until he is avenged and those who are in process of being murdered like him receive the protection of the State.
"If in the three days between this boy's murder and his burial your direct representative and agent does not come here and examine this jail and sift the acts of those who govern it, on the fourth day I lay the whole case before her majesty the queen and the British nation, by publishing it in all the journals. Then I shall tell her majesty that, having thrice appealed in vain to her representatives, I am driven to appeal to herself; with this I shall print the evidence I have thrice offered you of this jailer's felonies and their sanguinary results. That lady has a character; one of its strong, unmistakable features is a real, tender, active humanity.
"I read characters; it is a part of my business; and, believe me, this lady once informed of the crimes done in her name will repudiate and abhor alike her hireling's cruelty and her clerks' and secretaries' indifference to suffering and slaughter. Nor will the public hear unmoved the awful tale. Shame will be showered on all connected with these black deeds, even on those who can but be charged with conniving at them.
"To be exposed to national horror on the same column with the greatest felon in England would be a cruel position, a severe punishment for a man of honor, whose only fault perhaps is that he has mistaken an itch for eminence for a capacity for business, and so serves the State without comprehending it. But what else can I do? I, too, serve the State, and I comprehend what I owe it, and the dignity with which it intrusts me, and the deep responsibility it lays on me. I therefore cannot assent to future felonies any more than I have to past and present, but must stop them, and will stop them--how I can.
"So, sir, I offer you the post of honor or a place of shame. Choose! for three whole days you have the choice. Choose! and may God enlighten you and forgive me for waiting these three days.
"I have the honor to be, etc., etc.,
To this letter, whose tone was more eccentric, more flesh and blood, and WITHOUT PRECEDENT, than the last, came an answer in a different hand from the others.
"--acknowledged receipt of the chaplain's letter.
"Since a human life has succumbed under the discipline of ---- Jail, an inquiry follows immediately as a matter of course. The other inducements you have held out are comparatively weak and something more than superfluous. How far they are in good taste will be left to your own cooler consideration. A person connected with the Home Department will visit your jail with large powers soon after you receive this.
"He is instructed to avail himself of your zeal and knowledge.
"Be pleased to follow this course. Select for him the plainer facts of your case. If on the face of the business he sees ground for deeper inquiry, a commission will sit upon the jail, and meanwhile all suspected officers will be suspended. You will consider yourself still in direct correspondence with this office, but it is requested, on account of the mass of matter daily submitted to us, that your communications may be confined to facts, and those stated as concisely as possible."
On reading this Mr. Eden colored with shame as well as pleasure. "How gentleman-like all this is!" thought he. "How calm and superior to me, who, since I had the jaundice, am always lowering my office by getting into a heat! And I to threaten this noble, dignified creature with the Times. I am thoroughly ashamed of myself. Yet what could I do? I had tried everything short of bullying and failed. But I now suspect ---- never saw my two first letters. Doubtless the rotten system of our public offices is more to blame than this noble fellow."
Thus accusing himself Mr. Eden returned with somewhat feeble steps to the jail. One of the first prisoners he visited was Thomas Robinson. He found that prisoner in the attitude of which he thought he had cured him, coiled up like a snake, moody and wretched. The man turned round with a very bad expression on his face, which soon gave way to a look of joy. He uttered a loud exclamation, and springing unguardedly up, dropped a brickbat which rolled toward Mr. Eden and nearly hit him.
Robinson looked confused, and his eyes rose and fell from Mr. Eden's face to the brickbat.
"How do you do?"
"Not so well as before you fell ill, sir. It has been hard times with us poor fellows since we lost you."
"I fear it has."
"You have just come back in time to save a life or two. There is a boy called Josephs. I hope the day won't go over without your visiting him, for they are killing him by inches."
"How do you know that?"
"I heard him say so."
Mr. Eden groaned.
"You look pale, my poor fellow."
"I shall be better now," replied the thief, looking at him affectionately.
"What is this?"
"This, sir--what, sir?"
"Well! why--it is a brick, sir!
"Where did you get it?"
"I found it in the yard."
"What were you going to do with it?"
"Oh! I wasn't going to do any ill with it."
"Then why that guilty look when you dropped it. Come, now--I am in no humor to be hard upon you. Were you going to make some more cards?"
"Now, sir, didn't I promise you I never would do that again;" and Robinson wore an aggrieved look. "Would I break a promise I made to you?"
"What was it for then?"
"Am I bound to criminate myself, your reverence?"
"Certainly not to your enemy! but to your friend, and to him who has the care of your soul--yes!"
"Let me ask you a question first, sir. Which is worth most, one life or twenty?"
"Then if by taking one life you can save twenty, it is a good action to put that one out of the way?"
"That does not follow."
"Oh! doesn't it? I thought it did. There's a man in this prison that murders men wholesale. I thought if I could any way put it out of his power to kill any more what a good action it would be!"
"A good action! so then this brick--"
"Was for Hawes's skull, your reverence."
"This, then, is the fruit of all my teaching. You will break my heart among you.
"Don't say so, sir! pray don't say so! I won't touch a hair of his head now you are alive; but I thought you were dead or dying, so what did it matter then what I did? Besides, I was driven into a corner; I could only kill that scoundrel or let him kill me. But you are alive, and you will find some way of saving my life as well as his."
"I will try. But first abandon all thoughts of lawless revenge. 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.' Come, promise me."
"Now, sir, is it likely I would offend you for the pleasure of dirtying my fingers with that rascal's blood? Don't let such a lump of dirt as him make mischief between you and me, sir."
"I understand! with you any unchristian sentiment is easily driven out--by another. Hatred is to give way to contempt."
"No, sir, but you are alive, and I don't think of Hawes now one way or other--with such scum as that out of sight is out of mind. When did you begin to get better, sir? and are you better? and shall I see your blessed face in my cell every day as I used?" And the water stood in the thief's eyes.
Mr. Eden smiled and sighed. "Your mind is like an eel--Heaven help the man that tries to get hold of it to do it any lasting good. You and I must have a good pray together some day."
"Ah! your reverence, that would do me good soul and body," said Mr. Supple.
"Let me now feel your pulse; it is very low. What is the matter?"
"Starvation, overwork, and solitude. I feel myself sinking."
"If I could amuse your mind."
"Even you could hardly do that, sir."
"Hum! I have brought you a quire of paper and one of Mr. Gillott's swan-quill pens and a penny ink-bottle."
"You are to write a story."
"But I never wrote one in my life."
"Then this will be the first."
"Oh, I'll try, sir. I've tried a hundred things in my life and they none of them proved so hard as they looked. What kind of story?"
"The only kind of story that is worth a button--a true story--the story of Thomas Robinson, alias Scott, alias Lyon, alias etc."
"Then you should have brought a ream instead of a quire."
"No! I want to read it when it is written. Now write the truth--do not dress or cook your facts. I shall devour them raw with twice the relish, and they will do you ten times the good. And intersperse no humbug, no sham penitence. When your own life lies thus spread out before you like a map, you will find you regret many things you have done, and view others with calmer and wiser eyes; for self-review is a healthy process. Write down these honest reflections, but don't overdo it--don't write a word you don't feel. It will amuse you while you are at it."
"That it will."
"It will interest me more than the romance of a carpet writer who never saw life, and it may do good to other prisoners."
"I want to begin."
"I know you do, creature of impulse! Let me feel your pulse again. Ah! it has gained about ten."
"Ten, your reverence? Fifty, you mean. It is you for putting life into a poor fellow and keeping him from despair. It is not the first time you have saved me. The devil hates you more than all the other parsons, for you are as ingenious in good as he is in mischief."
In the midst of this original eulogy Mr. Eden left the cell suddenly with an aching heart, for the man's words reminded him that for all his skill and zeal a boy of fifteen years lay dead of despair hard by. He went, but he left two good things behind him--occupation and hope.