It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
One day Mr. Meadows walked into the post-office of Farnborough and said to Jefferies, the postmaster, "A word with you in private, Mr. Jefferies."
"Certainly, Mr. Meadows--come to my back parlor, sir; a fine day, Mr. Meadows, but I think we shall have a shower or two."
"Shouldn't wonder. Do you know this five-pound note?"
"Can't say I do."
"Why it has passed through your hands?"
"Has it? well a good many of them pass through my hands in the course of the year. I wish a few of 'em would stop on the road."
"This one did. It stuck to your fingers, as the phrase goes."
"I don't know what you mean, sir," said Jefferies haughtily.
"You stole it," explained Meadows quietly.
"Take care," cried Jefferies in a loud quaver--" Take care what you say! I'll have my action of defamation against you double quick if you dare to say such a thing of me."
"So be it. You will want witnesses. Defamation is no defamation you know till the scandal is published. Call in your lodger."
"And call your wife!" cried Meadows, raising his voice in turn.
"Heaven forbid! Don't speak so loud, for goodness' sake!"
"Hold your tongue then and don't waste my time with your gammon," said Meadows sternly. Then resuming his former manner he went on in the tone of calm explanation. "One or two in this neighborhood lost money coming through the post. I said to myself, 'Jefferies is a man that often talks of his conscience--he will be the thief--so I baited six traps for you, and you took five. This note came over from Ireland; you remember it now?"
"I am ruined! I am ruined!"
"You changed it at Evans' the grocer's; you had four sovereigns and silver for it. The other baits were a note and two sovereigns and two half sovereigns. You spared one sovereign, the rest you nailed. They were all marked by Lawyer Crawley. They have been traced from your hand, and lie locked up ready for next assizes. Good-morning, Mr. Jefferies."
Jefferies turned a cold jelly where he sat--and Meadows walked out, primed Crawley, and sent him to stroll in sight of the post-office.
Soon a quavering voice called Crawley into the post-office. "Come into my back parlor, sir. Oh! Mr. Crawley, can nothing be done? No one knows my misfortune but you and Mr. Meadows. It is not for my own sake, sir, but my wife's. If she knew I had been tempted so far astray, she would never hold up her head again. Sir, if you and Mr. Meadows will let me off this once, I will take an oath on my bended knees never to offend again."
"What good will that do me?" asked Crawley contemptuously.
"Ah!" cried Jefferies, a light breaking in, "will money make it right? I'll sell the coat off my back."
"Humph! If it was only me--but Mr. Meadows has such a sense of public duty, and yet--hum!--I know a way to influence him just now."
"Oh, sir! do pray use your influence with him."
"What will you do for me if I succeed?"
"Do for you?--cut myself in pieces to serve you."
"Well, Jefferies, I'm undertaking a difficult task--to turn such a man as Meadows, but I will try it and I think I shall succeed; but I must have terms. Every letter that comes here from Australia you must bring to me with your own hands directly."
"I will, sir, I will."
"I shall keep it an hour or two perhaps, not more; and I shall take no money out of it."
"I will do it, sir, and with pleasure. It is the least I can do for you."
"And you must find me 10 pounds." The little rogue must do a bit on his own account.
"I must pinch to get it," said Jefferies ruefully.
"Pinch then," replied Crawley coolly; "and let me have it directly."
"You shall--you shall--before the day is out."
"And you must never let Meadows know I took this money of you."
"No, sir, I won't! is that all?"
"That is all."
"Then I am very grateful, sir, and I won't fail, you may depend."
Thus the two battledores played with this poor little undetected one, whom his respectability no less than his roguery placed at their mercy.