It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
And now passed over "The Grove" the heaviest hours it had ever known; hours as weary as they were bitter to George Fielding. "The Grove" was nothing to him now--in mind he was already separated from it; his clothes were ready, he had nothing more to do, and he wished he could fling himself this moment into the ship and hide his head, and sleep and forget his grief, until he reached the land whose fat and endless pastures were to make him rich and send him home a fitter match for Susan.
As the moment for parting drew nearer there came to him that tardy consolation which often comes to the honest man then when it can but add to his pangs of regret.
Perhaps no man is good, manly, tender, generous, honest and unlucky quite in vain; at last, when such a man is leaving all who have been unjust or cold to him, scales fall from their eyes, a sense of his value flashes like lightning across their half-empty skulls and tepid hearts, they feel and express some respect and regret, and make him sadder to leave them; so did the neighbors of "The Grove" to young Fielding. Some hands gave him now their first warm pressure, and one or two voices even faltered as they said "God bless thee, lad!"
And now the carter's lad ran in with a message from a farmer at the top of the hill.
"Oh! Master George, Farmer Dodd says, if you please, he couldn't think to let you walk. You are to go in his gig to Newbury, if you'll walk up as fur as his farm; he's afeared to come down our hill, a says, because if he did, his mare 'ud kick his gig into toothpicks, he says. Oh! Master George, I be sorry you be going," and the boy, who had begun quite cheerfully, ended in a whimper.
"I thank him! Take my bag, boy, and I'll follow in half an hour."
Sarah brought out the bag and opened it, and, weeping bitterly, put into it a bottle with her name on a bit of paper tied round the neck, to remind poor George he was not forgotten at "The Grove," and then she gave George the key and went sadly in, her apron to her eyes.
And now George fixed his eye on his brother William, and said to him, "Wilham, will you come with me, if you please?"
"Ay, George, sure."
They went through the farmyard side by side; neither spoke, and George took a last look at the ricks, and he paused, and seemed minded to speak, but he did not, he only muttered "not here." Then George led the way out into the paddock, and so into the lane, and very soon they saw the village church. William wondered George did not speak. They passed under the yewtree into the churchyard. William's heart fluttered. They found the vicar's cow browsing on the graves. William took up a stone. George put out his hand not to let him hurt her, and George turned her gently into the lane; then he stepped carefully among the graves. William followed him, his heart fluttering more and more with vague fears. William knew now where they were going, but what was George going to say to him there? his heart beat faint-like. By-and-by the brothers came to this--
[Drawing of Grave]
The grave was between the two men--and silence--both looked down.
George whispered, "Good-by, mother! She never thought we should be parted this way." Then he turned to William and opened his mouth to say something more to him; doubtless that which he had come to say, but apparently it was too much for him. I think he feared his own resolution. He gasped and with a heavy sigh led the way home. William walked with him, not knowing what to think or do or say; at last he muttered, "I wouldn't go, if my heart was here!"
"I shall go, Will," replied George, rather sternly as it seemed.
When they came back to the house they found several persons collected.
Old Fielding, the young men's grandfather, was there; he had made them wheel him in his great chair out into the sun.
Grandfather Fielding had reached the last stage of human existence. He was ninety-two years of age. The lines in his face were cordage, his aspect was stony and impassible, and he was all but impervious to passing events; his thin blood had almost ceased to circulate in his extremities; for every drop he had was needed to keep his old heart a-beating at all, instead of stopping like a clock that has run down.
Meadows had returned to see George off, and old Merton was also there, and he was one of those whose hearts gave them a bit of a twinge.
"George," said he, "I'm vexed for speaking unkind to you to-day of all days in the year; I didn't think we were to part so soon, lad."
"No more about it, uncle," faltered George; "what does it matter now?"
Susan Merton came out of the house; she had caught her father's conciliatory words; she seemed composed, but pale; she threw her arms round her father's neck.
"Oh! father," said she imploringly, "I thought it was a dream, but he is going, he is really going. Oh! don't let him go from us; speak him fair, father, his spirit is so high!"
"Susan!" replied the old farmer, "mayhap the lad thinks me his enemy, but I'm not. My daughter shall not marry a bankrupt farmer, but you bring home a thousand pounds--just one thousand pounds--to show me you are not a fool, and you shall have my daughter and she shall have my blessing."
"Your hand on that, uncle," cried George, with ardor; "your hand on that before Heaven and all present."
The old farmer gave George his hand upon it.
"But, father," cried Susan, "your words are sending him away from me."
"Susan!" said George sorrowfully but firmly, "I am to go, but don't forget it is for your sake I leave you, my darling Susan--to be a better man for your sake. Uncle, since your last words there is no ill-will; but (bluntly) I can't speak my heart before you."
"I'll go, George, I'll go; shan't be said my sister's son hadn't leave to speak his mind to letbe who atool,* at such a time."
*Let be who it will. Cui libet.
Merton turned to leave them, but ere he had taken two steps a most unlooked-for interruption chained him to the spot. An old man, with a long beard and a glittering eye, was among them before they were aware of him; he fixed his eye upon Meadows, and spoke a single word--but that word fell like a sledge-hammer.
"No!!" said Isaac Levi in the midst. "No!!" repeated he to John Meadows.
Meadows understood perfectly what "No" meant; a veto upon all his plans, hopes and wishes.
"Young man," said Isaac to George, "you shall not wander forth from the home of your fathers. These old eyes see deeper than yours (and he sent an eye-stab at Meadows); you are honest--all men say so--I will lend you the money for your rent, and one who loves you (and he gave another eye-stab at Meadows) will bless me."
"Oh! yes, I bless you," cried Susan innocently.
The late exulting Meadows was benumbed at this.
"Surely Heaven sends you to me," cried Susan. "It is Mr. Levi, of Farnborough."
Here was a diversion. Meadows cursed the intruder, and his own evil star that had raised him up so malignant an enemy.
"All my web undone in a moment," thought he, and despair began to take possession of him.
Susan, on the other hand, was all joy and hope; William more or less despondent.
The old Jew glanced from one to another, read them all, and enjoyed his triumph.
But when his eye returned to George Fielding he met with something he had not reckoned upon.
The young man showed no joy, no emotion. He stood immovable, like a statue of a man, and when he opened his lips it was like a statue speaking with its marble mouth.
"No! Susan. No! old man. I am honest, though I'm poor--and proud, though you have seen me put to shame near my own homestead more than once to-day. To borrow without a chance of paying is next door to stealing; and I should never pay you. My eyes are opened in spite of my heart. I can't farm 'The Grove' with no grass, and wheat at forty shillings. I've tried all I know, and I can't do it. Will there is dying to try, and he shall try, and may Heaven speed his plow better than it has poor George's."
"I am not thinking of the farm now, George," said William. "I'm thinking of when we were boys, and used to play marbles--together--upon the tombstones." And he faltered a little.
"Mr. Levi! seems you have a kindness for me. Show it to my brother when I'm away, if you will be so good."
"Hum?" said Isaac doubtfully. "I care not to see your stout young heart give way, as it will. Ah, me! I can pity the wanderer from home. I will speak a word with you, and then I will go home."
He drew George aside, and made him a secret communication.
Merton called Susan to him, and made her promise to be prudent, then he shook hands with George and went away.
Now Meadows, from the direction of Isaac's glance, and a certain half-surprised half-contemptuous look that stole over George's face, suspected that his enemy, whose sagacity he could no longer doubt, was warning George against him.
This made him feel very uneasy where he was, and this respectable man dreaded some exposure of his secret. So he said hastily, "I'll go along with you, farmer," and in a moment was by Merton's side, as that worthy stopped to open the gate that led out of George's premises. His feelings were anything but pleasant when George called to him:
"No, sir! stop. You are as good a witness as I could choose of what I have to say. Step this way, if you please, sir."
Meadows returned, clinched his teeth, and prepared for the worst, but inwardly he cursed his uneasy folly in staying here, instead of riding home the moment George had said "Yes!" to Australia.
George now looked upon the ground a moment; and there was something in his manner that arrested the attention of all.
Meadows turned hot and cold.
"I am going--to speak--to my brother, Mr. Meadows!" said he, syllable by syllable to Meadows in a way brimful of meaning.
"To me, George?" said William, a little uneasy.
"To you!--Fall back a bit." (Some rustics were encroaching upon the circle.)
"Fall back, if you please; this is a family matter."
Isaac Levi, instead of going quite away, seated himself on a bench outside the palings.
It was now William's turn to flutter; he said, however, to himself, "It is about the farm; it must be about the farm."
George resumed. "I've often had it on my mind to speak to you, but I was ashamed, now that's the truth; but now I am going away from her I must speak out, and I will--William!"
"You've taken--a fancy--to my Susan, William!"
At these words, which, though they had cost him so much to say, George spoke gravely and calmly like common words, William gave one startled look all round, then buried his face directly in his hands in a paroxysm of shame.
Susan, who was looking at George, remonstrated loudly, "How can you be so silly, George! I am sure that is the last idea poor William--"
George drew her attention to William by a wave of the hand.
She held her tongue in a moment, and turned very red, and lowered her eyes to the ground. It was a very painful situation--to none more than to Meadows, who was waiting his turn.
George continued: "Oh, it is not to reproach you, my poor lad. Who could be near her, and not warm to her? But she is my lass, Will, and no other man's. It is three years since she said the word. And though it was my hard luck there should be some coolness between us this bitter day, she will think of me when the ocean rolls between us if no villain undermines me--"
"Villain! George!" groaned William. "That is a word I never thought to hear from you."
"That's why I speak in time," said George. "I do suppose I am safe against villainy here." And his eye swept lightly over both the men. "Anyway, it shan't be a mistake or a misunderstanding; it shall be villainy if 'tis done. Speak, Susanna Merton, and speak your real mind once for all."
"Oh! George," cried Susan, fluttering with love; "you shall not go in doubt of me. We are betrothed this three years, and I never regretted my choice a single moment. I never saw, I never shall see, the man I could bear to look on beside you, my beautiful George. Take my ring and my promise, George." And she put her ring on his little finger and kissed his hand. "While you are true to me, nothing but death shall part us twain. There never was any coolness between us, dear; you only thought so. You don't know what fools women are; how they delight to tease the man they love, and so torment themselves ten times more. I always loved you, but never as I do to-day; so honest, so proud, so unfortunate; I love you, I honor you, I adore you, oh! my love!--my love!--my love!!"
She saw but George--she thought but of George--and how to soften his sorrow, and remove his doubts, if he had any. And she poured out these words of love with her whole soul--with blushes and tears and all the fire of a chaste and passionate woman's heart. And she clung to her love; and her tender bosom heaved against his; and she strained him, with tears and sighs, to her bosom; and he kissed her beautiful head; and his suffering heart drew warmth from this heavenly contact.
The late exulting Meadows turned as pale as ashes, and trembled from head to foot.
"Do you hear, William?" said George.
"I hear, George," replied William in an iron whisper, with his sullen head sunk upon his breast.
George left Susan, and came between her and William.
"Then, Susan," said he, rather loud, "here is your brother."
"William! here is my life!" And he pointed to Susan. "Let no man rob me of it if one mother really bore us."
It went through William's heart like a burning arrow. And this was why George had taken him to their mother's grave. That flashed across him, too.
The poor sulky fellow's head was seen to rise inch by inch till he held it as erect as a king's.
"Never!" he cried, half shouting, half weeping. "Never, s'help me God! She's my sister from this hour--no more, no less. And may the red blight fall on my arm and my heart, if I or any man takes her from you--any man!" he cried, his temples flushing and his eye glittering; "sooner than a hundred men should take her from you while I am here I'd die at their feet a hundred times."
Well done, sullen and rugged but honest man; the capital temptation of your life is wrestled with and thrown. That is always to every man a close, a deadly, a bitter struggle; and we must all wade through this deep water at one hour or another of our lives. It is as surely our fate as it is one day to die.
It is a noble sight to see an honest man "cleave his own heart in twain, and fling away the baser part of it." These words, that burst from William's better heart, knocked at his brother's you may be sure. He came to William, "I believe you," said he; "I trust you, I thank you." Then he held out his hand; but nature would have more than that, in a moment his arm was round his brother's neck, where it had not been, this many a year. He withdrew it as quickly, half ashamed; and Anne Fielding's two sons grasped one another's hands, and holding hands turned away their heads and tried to hide their eyes.
They are stronger than bond, deed or indenture, these fleshly compacts written by moist eyes, stamped by the grip of eloquent hands, in those moments full of soul when men's hearts beat from their bosoms to their fingers' ends.
Isaac Levi came to the brothers, and said to William, "Yes, I will now," and then he went slowly and thoughtfully away to his own house.
"And now," faltered George, "I feel strong enough to go, and I'll go."
He looked round at all the familiar objects he was leaving, as if to bid them farewell; and last, while every eye watched his movements, he walked slowly up to his grandfather's chair.
"Grandfather," said he, "I am going a long journey, and mayhap shall never see you again; speak a word to me before I go."
The impassive old man took no notice, so Susan came to him. "Grandfather, speak to George; poor George is going into a far country."
When she had repeated this in his ear their grandfather looked up for a moment. "George, fetch me some snuff from where you're going."
A spasm crossed George's face; he was not to have a word of good omen from the aged man.
"Friends," said he, looking appealingly to all the rest, Meadows included, "I wanted him to say God bless you, but snuff is all his thought now. Well, old man, George won't forget your last word, such as 'tis."
In a hutch near a corner of the house was William's pointer, Carlo. Carlo, observing by the general movement that there was something on foot, had the curiosity to come out to the end of his chain, and as he stood there, giving every now and then a little uncertain wag of his tail, George took notice of him and came to him and patted his head.
"Good-by, Carlo," faltered George, "poor Carlo--you and I shall never go after the partridges again, Carlo. The dog shows more understanding than the Christian. By, Carlo." Then he looked wistfully at William's dog, but he said nothing more.
William watched every look of George, but he said nothing at the time.
"Good-by, little village church, where I went to church man and boy; good-by, churchyard, where my mother lies; there will be no church bells, Susan, where I am going; no Sunday bells to remind me of my soul and home."
These words, which he spoke with great difficulty, were hardly out of young Fielding's mouth when a very painful circumstance occurred; one of those things that seem the contrivance of some malignant spirit. The church bells in a moment struck up their merriest peal!
George Fielding started, he turned pale and his lips trembled. "Are they mocking me?" he cried. "Do they take a thought what I am going through this moment, the hard-hearted--"
"No, no, no!" cried William; "don't think it, George; I know what 'tis--I'll tell ye."
"Well, it is--well, George, it is Tom Clarke and Esther Borgherst married to-day. Only they couldn't have the ringers till the afternoon."
"Why, Will, they have only kept company a year, and Susan and I have kept company three years; and Tom and Esther are married to-day; and what are George and Susan doing to-day? God help me! Oh, God help me! What shall I do? what shall I do?" And the stout heart gave way, and George Fielding covered his face with his hands and burst out sobbing and crying.
Susan flung her arms round his neck. "Oh! George, my pride is all gone; don't go, don't think to go; have pity on us both, and don't go." And she clung to him--her bonnet fallen off, her hair disheveled--and they sobbed and wept in one another's arms.
Meadows writhed with the jealous anguish this sad sight gave him, and at that moment he could have cursed the whole creation. He tried to fly, but he was rooted to the spot. He leaned sick as death against the palings.
George and Susan cried together, and then they wiped one another's eyes like simple country folk with one pocket-handkerchief; and then they kissed one another in turn, and made each other's tears flow fast again; and again wiped one another's eyes with one handkerchief.
Meadows griped the palings convulsively--hell was in his heart.
"Poor souls, God help them!" said William to himself in his purified heart.
The silence their sorrow caused all around was suddenly invaded by a voice that seemed to come from another world--it was Grandfather Fielding. "The autumn sun is not so warm as she used to be!"
Yes, there was the whole map of humanity on that little spot in the county of Berks. The middle-aged man, a schemer, watching the success of his able scheme, and stunned and wounded by its recoil. And old age, callous to noble pain, all alive to discomfort, yet man to the last--blaming any one but Number One, cackling against heavenly bodies, accusing the sun and the kitchen fire of frigidity--not his own empty veins! And the two poor young things sobbing as if their hearts would break over their first great earthly sorrow.
George was the first to recover himself.
"Shame upon me!" he cried; he drew Susan to his bosom, and pressed a long, burning kiss upon her brow.
And now all felt the wrench was coming. George, with a wild, half-terrified look, signaled William to come to him.
"Help me, Will! you see I have no more manhood than a girl."
Susan instinctively trembled. George once more pressed his lips to her, as if they would grow there. William took her hand. She trembled more and more.
"Take my hand; take your brother's hand, my poor lass," said he.
She trembled violently; and then George gave a cry that seemed to tear his heart, and darted from them in a moment.
Poor Susan uttered more than one despairing scream, and stretched out both her hands for George. He did not see her, for he dared not look back.
"Bob, loose the dog," muttered William hastily, in a broken voice.
The dog was loosed, and ran after George, who, he thought, was only going for a walk. Susan was sinking pale and helpless upon her brother's bosom.
"Pray, sister," said gentle William; "pray, sister, as I must."
A faint shiver was all the answer; her senses had almost left her.
When George was a little way up the hill, something ran suddenly against his legs----he started--it was Carlo. He turned and lifted up his hands to Heaven; and William could see that George was blessing him for this. Carlo was more than a dog to poor George at that cruel moment. Soon after that, George and Carlo reached the crown of the hill. George's figure stood alone a moment between them and the sky. He was seen to take his hat off, and raise his hands once more to Heaven, while he looked down upon all he loved and left; and then he turned his sorrowful face again toward that distant land--and they saw him no more!