It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
"Will Fielding is in the town; I'm to arrest him as agreed last night?"
"Why I have got the judgment in my pocket and the constable at the public hard by."
"Never mind! he was saucy to me in the market yesterday--I was angry and--but anger is a snare. What shall I gain by locking him up just now? let him go."
"Well, sir, your will is law," said Crawley obsequiously but sadly.
"Now to business of more importance."
"At your service, sir."
But the business of more importance was interrupted by a sudden knock at the outside door of Mr. Meadows' study.
A young lady to see you.
"A young lady?" inquired Meadows with no very amiable air, "I am engaged--do you know who it is?"
"It is Farmer Merton's daughter, David says."
"Miss Merton!" cried Meadows, with a marvelous change of manner. "Show her up directly. Crawley, run into the passage, quick, man--and wait for signals." He bundled Crawley out, shut the secret door, threw open both the others, and welcomed Susan warmly at the threshold. "Well, this is good of you, Miss Merton, to come and shine in upon me in my own house."
"I have brought your book back!" replied Susan, coloring a little; "that was my errand, that is," said she, "that was partly my errand." She hesitated a moment--"I am going to Mr. Levi." Meadows' countenance fell. "And I wouldn't go to him without coming to you; because what I have to say to him I must say to you as well. Mr. Meadows, do let me persuade you out of this bitter feeling against the poor old man. Oh! I know you will say he is worse than you are; so he is, a little; but then consider he has more excuse than you; he has never been taught how wicked it is not to forgive. You know it--but don't practice it."
Meadows looked at the simple-minded enthusiast, and his cold eye deepened in color as it dwelt on her, and his voice dropped into the low and modulated tone which no other human creature but this ever heard from him. "Human nature is very revengeful. Few of us are like you. It is my misfortune that I have not oftener a lesson from you; perhaps you might charm away this unchristian spirit that makes me unworthy to be your--your friend."
"Oh no! no!" cried Susan, "if I thought so should I be here?"
"Your voice and your face do make me at peace with all the world, Susan--I beg your pardon--Miss Merton."
"And why not Susan?" said the young lady kindly.
"Well! Susan is a very inviting name."
"La! Mr. Meadows," cried Susan, arching her brows, "why, it is a frightful name--it is so old-fashioned; nobody is christened Susan nowadays."
"It is a name for everything that is good and gentle and lovely--"A moment more and passion would have melted all the icy barriers prudence and craft had reared round this deep heart. His voice was trembling, his cheek flushing; but he was saved by--an enemy. "Susan!" cried a threatening voice at the door, and there stood William Fielding with a look to match.
Rage burned in Meadows' heart. He said bruskly, "Come in," and seizing a slip of paper he wrote five words on it, and taking out a book flung it into the passage to Crawley. He then turned toward W. Fielding, who by this time had walked up to Susan. Was on the other side of the screen.
"Was told you had gone in here," said William quietly, "so I came after you."
"Now that was very attentive of you," replied Susan ironically. "It is so nice to have a sensible young man like you following forever at one's heels--like a dog."
A world of quiet scorn embellished this little remark.
William's reply was happier than usual. "The sheep find the dog often in their way, but they are all the safer for him."
"Well, I'm sure," cried Susan, her scorn giving way to anger.
Mr. Meadows put in: "I must trouble you to treat Miss Merton with proper respect when you speak to her in my house."
"Who respects her more than I?" retorted William; "but you see, Mr. Meadows, sheep are no match for wolves when the dog is away--so the dog is here."
"I see the dog is here and by his own invitation; all I say is that if the dog is to stay here he must behave like a man."
William gasped at this hit; he didn't trust himself to answer Meadows; in fact, a blow of his fist seemed to him the only sufficient answer--he turned to Susan. "Susan, do you remember poor George's last words to me? with a tear in his eye and his hand in mine. Well, I keep my promise to him--I keep my eye upon such as I think capable of undermining my brother. This man is a schemer, Susan, and you are too simple to fathom him."
The look of surprise crafty Meadows put on here, and William Fielding's implied compliment to his own superior sagacity struck Susan as infinitely ludicrous, and she looked at Meadows and laughed like a peal of bells. Of course he looked at her and laughed with her. At this all young Fielding's self-restraint went to the winds, and he went on--"But sooner than that, I'll twist as good a man's neck as ever schemed in Jack Meadows' shoes!"
At this defiance Meadows wheeled round on William Fielding and confronted him with his stalwart person and eyes glowing with gloomy wrath. Susan screamed with terror at William's insulting words and at the attitude of the two men, and she made a step to throw herself between them if necessary; but before words could end in blows a tap at the study door caused a diversion, and a cringing sort of voice said "May I come in?"
"Of course you may," shouted Meadows; "the place is public. Anybody walks into my room to-day, friend or foe. Don't ask my leave--come in, man, whoever you are--Mr. Crawley; well, I didn't expect a call from you any more than from this one."
"Now don't you be angry, sir. I had a good reason for intruding on you this once. Jackson!" Jackson stepped forward and touched William Fielding on the shoulder.
"You must come along with me," said he.
"What for?" inquired Fielding.
"You are arrested on this judgment," explained Crawley, letting the document peep a moment from his waistcoat pocket. William threw himself into an attitude of defense. His first impulse was to knock the officer down and run into another county, but the next moment he saw the folly and injustice of this and another sentiment overpowered the honest simple fellow--shame. He covered his face with both his hands and groaned aloud with the sense of humiliation.
"Oh! my poor William!" cried Susan. "Oh! Mr. Meadows, can nothing be done?"
"Why, Miss Merton," said Meadows, looking down, "you can't expect me to do anything for him. If it was his brother now, Lawyer Crawley shouldn't ever take him out of my house."
Susan flushed all over. "That I am sure you would, Mr. Meadows," cried she (for feeling obscured grammar). "Now see, dear William, how your temper and unworthy suspicions alienate our friends; but father shan't let you lie in prison. Mr. Meadows, will you lend me a sheet of paper?"
She sat down, pen in hand, in generous excitement. While she wrote Mr. Meadows addressed Crawley. "And now a word with you, Mr. Crawley. You and I meet on business now and then, but we are not on visiting terms that I know of. How come you to walk into my house with a constable at your back?"
"Well, sir, I did it for the best," said Crawley apologetically. "Our man came in here, and the street door was open, and I said, 'He is a friend of Mr. Meadows, perhaps it would be more delicate to all parties to take him indoors than in the open street.'"
"Oh, yes!" cried William, "it is bitter enough as it is, but that would have been worse--thank you for arresting me here--and now take me away and let me hide from all the world."
"Fools!" said a firm voice behind the screen.
"Fools!" At this word and a new voice Susan started up from the table and William turned his face from the wall. Meadows did more. "Another!" cried he in utter amazement; "why my house is an inn. Ah!"
While speaking he had run round the screen and come plump upon Isaac Levi seated in a chair and looking up in his face with stern composure. His exclamation brought the others round after him and a group of excited faces encircled this old man seated sternly composed.
"Fools!" repeated he, "these tricks were stale before England was a nation. Which of you two has the judgment?"
"I, sir," said Crawley, at a look from Meadows.
"A hundred and six thirteen four."
"Here is the money. Give me the document."
"Here, sir." Levi read it. "This action was taken on a bill of exchange. I must have that too."
"Here it is, sir. Would you like an acknowledgment, Mr. Levi," said Crawley obsequiously.
"No! foolish man. Are not these sufficient vouchers? You are free, sir," said Crawley to William with an air of cheerful congratulation.
"Am I? Then I advise you to get out of my way, for my fingers do itch to fling you headforemost down the stairs."
On this hint out wriggled Mr. Crawley with a semicircle of bows to the company. Constable touched his frontlock and went straight away as if he was going through the opposite wall of the house. Meadows pointed after him with his finger and said to Levi, "You see the road--get out of my house."
The old man never moved from his chair, to which he had returned after paying William's debts. "It is not your house," said he coolly.
The other stared. "No matter," replied Meadows sharply, "it is mine till my mortgage is paid off."
"I am here to pay it."
"Principal and interest calculated up to twelve o'clock this eleventh day of March. It wants five minutes to twelve. I offer you principal and interest--eight hundred and twenty-two pounds fourteen shillings and fivepence three farthings before these witnesses--and demand the title deeds."
Meadows hung his head, but he was not a man to waste words in mere scolding. He took the blow with forced calmness as who should say, "This is your turn--the next is mine."
"Miss Merton," said he, almost in a whisper, "I never had the honor to receive you here before and I never shall again. How long do you give me to move my things?"
"Can you not guess?" inquired the other with a shade of curiosity.
"Why, of course you will put me to all the inconvenience you can. Come, now, am I to move all my furniture and effects out of this great house in twenty-four hours?"
"I give you more than that."
"How kind! What, you give me a week perhaps?" asked Meadows incredulously.
"More than that, you fool! Don't you see that it is on next Lady-day you will be turned into the street. Aha! woman-worshiper, on Lady-day! A tooth for a tooth!" And the old man ground his teeth, which were white as ivory, and his fist clinched itself, while his eye glittered, and he swelled out from the chair, and literally bristled with hate-- "A tooth for a tooth!"
"Oh, Mr. Levi," said Susan sorrowfully, "how soon you have forgotten my last lesson!"
Meadows for a moment felt a chill of fear at the punctiliousness of revenge in this Oriental whom he had made his enemy. To this succeeded the old hate multiplied by ten; but he made a monstrous effort and drove it from his face down into the recesses of his heart. "Well," said he, "may you enjoy this house as I have done this last twelvemonth!"
"That does you credit, good Mr. Meadows," cried simple Susan, missing his meaning. Meadows continued in the same tone, "And I must make shift with the one you vacate on Lady-day."
"Solomon teach me to outwit this dog."
"Come, Mr. Levi, I have visited Mr. Meadows and now I am going to your house."
"You shall be welcome, kindly welcome," said the old man with large and flowing courtesy.
"And will you show me," said Susan very tenderly, "where Leah used to sit?"
"And where Rachel and Sarah loved to play?"
"Ah me! Ah me! Ah me! Yes! I could not show another these holy places, but I will show you."
"And will you forget awhile this unhappy quarrel and listen to my words?"
"Surely I shall listen to you; for even now your voice is to my ear like the wind sighing among the cedars of Lebanon, and the wave that plays at night upon the sands of Galilee."
"'Tis but the frail voice of a foolish woman, who loves and respects you, and yet," said Susan, her color mantling with enthusiasm, "with it I can speak you words more beautiful than Lebanon's cedars or Galilee's shore. Ay, old man, words that make the stars brighter and the sons of the morning rejoice. I will not tell you whence I had them, but you shall say surely they never came from earth, selfish, cruel, revengeful earth, these words that drop on our hot passions like the dew, and speak of trespasses forgiven, and peace and goodwill among men."
Oh! magic of a lovely voice speaking the truths of Heaven! How still the room was as these goodly words rang in it from a pure heart. Three men there had all been raging with anger and hate; now a calming music fell like oil upon these human waves, and stilled them.
The men drooped their heads, and held their breath to make sure the balmy sounds had ceased. Then Levi answered in a tone gentle, firm, and low (very different from his last), "Susanna, bitterness fades from my heart as you speak; but experience remains." He turned to Meadows, "When I wander forth at Lady-day she shall still be watched over though I be far away. My eye shall be here, and my hand shall still be so over you all," and raising his thin hand, he held it high up, the nails pointing downward. It looked just like a hawk hovering over its prey. "I will say no bitterer word than that to-day;" and in fact he delivered this without apparent heat or malice.
"Come, then, with me, Susanna--a goodly name, it comes to you from the despised people. Come like peace to my dwelling, Susanna--you know not this world's wiles as I do, but you can teach me the higher wisdom that controls the folly of passion and purifies the soul."
The pair were gone, and William and Meadows were left alone. The latter looked sadly and gloomily at the door by which Susan had gone out. He was in a sort of torpor. He was not conscious of William's presence.
Now the said William had a misgiving; in the country a man's roof is sacred; he had affronted Meadows under his own roof, and then Mr. Levi had come and affronted him there, too. William began to doubt whether this was not a little hard, moreover he thought he had seen Meadows brush his eye hastily with the back of his hand as Susan retired. He came toward Meadows with his old sulky, honest, hang-the-head manner, and said, "Mr. Meadows, seems to me we have been a little hard upon you in your own house, and I am not quite easy about my share on't." Meadows shrugged his shoulders imperceptibly.
"Well, sir--I am not the Almighty to read folk's hearts--least of all such a one as yours--but if I have done you wrong I ask your pardon. Come, sir, if you don't mean to undermine my brother with the girl you can give me your hand, and I can give you mine--and there 'tis."
Meadows wished this young man away, and seeing that the best way to get rid of him was to give him his hand, he turned round, and, scarcely looking toward him, gave him his hand. William shook it and went away with something that sounded like a sigh. Meadows saw him out, and locked the door impatiently; then he flung himself into a chair and laid his beating temples on the cold table; then he started up and walked wildly to and fro the room. The man was torn this way and that with rage, love and remorse.
"What shall I do?" thus ran his thoughts. "That angel is my only refuge, and yet to win her I shall have to walk through dirt and shame and every sin that is. I see crimes ahead; such a heap of crimes, my flesh creeps at the number of them. Why not be like her, why not be the greatest saint that ever lived, instead of one more villain added to so many? Let me tear this terrible love out of my heart and die. Oh! if some one would but take me by the scurf of the neck and drag me to some other country a million miles away, where I might never see my tempter again till this madness is out of me. Susan, you are an angel, but you will plunge me to hell."
Now it happened while he was thus raving and suffering the preliminary pangs of wrong-doing that his old servant knocked at the outside of the door and thrust a letter through the trap; the letter was from a country gentleman, one Mr. Chester, for whom be had done business. Mr. Chester wrote from Lancashire. He informed Meadows he had succeeded to a very large property in that county--it had been shockingly mismanaged by his predecessor; he wanted a capable man's advice, and moreover all the estates thereabouts were compelled to be surveyed and valued this year, which he deplored, but since so it was he would be surveyed and valued by none but John Meadows.
"Come by return of post," added this hasty squire, "and I'll introduce you to half the landed proprietors in this county."
Meadows read this and seizing a pen wrote thus:
"DEAR SIR--Yours received this day at 1 p.m., and will start for your house at 6 P.M."
He threw himself on his horse and rode to his mother's house. "Mother, I am turned out of my house."
"Why, John, you don't say so?"
"I must go into the new house I have built outside the town."
"What, the one you thought to let to Mr. James?"
"The same. I have got only a fortnight to move all my things. Will you do me a kindness now, will you see them put into the new house?"
"Me, John! why I should be afraid something would go wrong."
"Well, it isn't fair of me to put this trouble on you at your age; but read this letter--there is fifteen hundred pounds waiting for me in the North."
The old woman put on her spectacles and read the letter slowly. "Go, John! go by all means! I will see all your things moved into the new house--don't let them be a hindrance; you go. Your old mother will take care your things are not hurt moving, nor you wronged in the way of expense."
"Thank you, mother! thank you! they say there is no friend like a mother, and I dare say they are not far wrong."
"No such friend but God--none such but God!" said the old woman with great emphasis and looking Meadows in the face with a searching eye.
"Well, then, here are the keys of the new house, and here are my keys. I am off tonight, so good-by, mother. God bless you!"
He had just turned to go, when by an unusual impulse he turned, took the old woman in his hands, almost lifted her off the ground, for she weighed light, and gave her a hasty kiss on the cheek; then he set her down and strode out of the house about his business.
When curious Hannah ran in the next moment she found the old lady in silent agitation. "Oh, dear! What is the matter, Dame Meadows?"
"Nothing at all, silly girl."
"Nothing! And look at you all of a tremble."
"He took me up all in a moment and kissed me. I dare say it is five-and-twenty years since he kissed me last. He was a curly-headed lad then."
So this had set the poor old thing trembling. She soon recovered her firmness and that very evening Hannah and she slept in John's house, and the next day set to and began to move his furniture and prepare his new house for him.