It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
We left Thomas Robinson writing his life. He has written it. It has been printed by prisoners and circulated among prisoners. One copy lay in Robinson's cell till he left the prison, and to this copy were appended Mr. Eden's remarks in MS.
This autobiography is a self-drawn portrait of a true Bohemian and his mind from boyhood up to the date when he fell into my hands.
Unfortunately we cannot afford so late in our story to make any retrograde step. The "Autobiography of a Thief" must therefore be thrust into my Appendix or printed elsewhere.
The reader has seen Robinson turned into a fiend by cruelty and turned back to a man by humanity.
On this followed many sacred, softening, improving lessons, and as he loved Mr. Eden his heart was open to them.
Most prisoners are very sensible of genuine kindness, and docile as wax in the hands of those who show it. They are the easiest class in the world to impress. The difficulty is to make the impression permanent. But the people who pretend to you that kindness does not greatly affect, persuade and help convince them HAVE NEVER TRIED ANYTHING BUT BRUTALITY, and never will; for nothing greater, wiser or better is in them.
I will now indicate the other phases through which his mind passed in ---- Jail.
Being shown that his crimes were virtually the cause of Mary's hapless life and untimely death, and hard pressed by his father confessor, he fell into religious despondency; believed his case desperate, and his sins too many for Heaven's mercy.
Of all states of mind this was the one Mr. Eden most dreaded. He had observed that the notion that they cannot be reconciled to God and man is the cause of prisoners' recklessness, and one great means by which jail officers and society, England A.D. 185--, confirm them in ill.
He soothed and cheered the poor fellow with many a hopeful message from the gospel of mercy and soon drew him out of the Slough of Despond; but he drew him out with so eager an arm that up went this impressionable personage from despond to the fifth heaven. He was penitent, forgiven, justified, sanctified, all in three weeks. Moreover, he now fell into a certain foul habit. Of course Scripture formed a portion of his daily reading and discourse with the chaplain. Robinson had a memory that seized and kept everything like a vise, so now a text occurred to him for every occasion, and he interwove them with all his talk. Your shallow observers would have said, "What a hypocrite!"
Not a hypocrite, oh Criticaster, but a chameleon! who had been months out of the atmosphere of vice and in an atmosphere of religion.
His reverence broke him of this nasty habit of chattering Bible, and generally cooled him down. Finally he became sober, penitent for his past life, and firmly resolved to lead a better. With this began to mingle ambition to rise very high in the world, and a violent impatience to begin.
Through all these phases ran one excellent and saving thing, a genuine attachment to his good friend the chaplain. The attachment was reciprocal, and there was something touching in the friendship of two men so different in mind and worldly station. But they had suffered together. And indeed a much more depraved prisoner than Robinson would have loved such a benefactor and brother as Eden; and many a scoundrel in this place did love him as well as he could love anything; and as to the other, the clew to him is simple. While the vulgar self-deceiving moralist loathes the detected criminal, and never (whatever he may think) really rises to abhorrence of crime, the saint makes two steps upward toward the mind of Heaven itself, abhors crime, and loves, pities, and will not despair of the criminal.
But besides this Robinson was an engaging fellow, full of thought and full of facts, and the Rev. Francis Tender-Conscience often spent an extra five minutes in his cell and then reproached himself for letting the more interesting personage rob other depressed and thirsty souls of those drops of dew.
One day Mr. Eden, who had just entered the cell, said to Robinson, "Give me your hand. It is as I feared, your nerves are going."
"Are they?" said Robinson ruefully.
"Do you not observe that you are becoming tremulous?"
"I notice that when my door is opened suddenly it makes me shake a little and twitches come in my thigh."
"I feared as much. It is not every man that can bear separate confinement for twelve months. You cannot."
"I shall have to, whether I can or not."
Three days after this Mr. Eden came into his cell and said with a sad smile, "I have good news for you; you are going to leave me.
"Oh, your reverence! is that good news?"
"Those who have the disposal of you are beginning to see that all punishment (except hanging) is for the welfare of the culprit, and must never be allowed to injure him. Strutt left the prison for my house a fortnight ago, and you are to cross the water next week."
"Oh, your reverence! Heaven forgive me for feeling glad."
"For being human, eh, my poor fellow?"
In the course of this conversation Mr. Eden frankly regretted that Robinson was going so soon. "Four months more prison would have made you safer, and I would have kept you here till the last minute of your sentence for the good of your soul," said he grimly; "but your body and nerves might have suffered," added he tenderly; "we must do all for the best."
A light burst on Robinson. "Why, your reverence," cried he, "is it for fear? Why you don't ever think that I shall turn rogue again after I get out of prison?"
"You are going among a thousand temptations."
"What! do you really think all your kindness has been wasted on me? Why, sir, if a thousand pounds lay there I would not stretch out my hand to take one that did not belong to me. How ungrateful you must think me, and what a fool into the bargain after all my experience!"
"Ungrateful you are not, but you are naturally a fool--a weak, flexible fool. A man with a tenth of your gifts would lead you by the nose into temptation. But I warn you if you fall now conscience will prick you as it never yet has; you will be miserable, and yet though miserable perhaps will never rise again, for remorse is not penitence."
Robinson was so hurt at this want of confidence that he said nothing in reply, and then Mr. Eden felt sorry he had said so much, "for, after all," thought he, "these are mere misgivings; by uttering them I only pain him. I can't make him share them. Let me think what I can do."
That very day he wrote to Susan Merton. The letter contained the following: "Thomas Robinson goes to Australia next week. He will get a ticket-of-leave almost immediately on landing. I am in great anxiety; he is full of good resolves, but his nature is unstable, yet I should not fear to trust him anywhere if I could but choose his associates. In this difficulty I have thought of George Fielding. You know I can read characters, and though you never summed George up to me, his sayings and doings reveal him to me. He is a man in whom honesty is engrained. Poor Robinson with such a companion would be as honest as the day, and a useful friend, for he is full of resources. Then, dear friend, will you do a Christian act and come to our aid. I want you to write a note to Mr. Fielding and let this poor fellow take it to him. Armed with this my convert will not be shy of approaching the honest man, and the exile will not hate me for this trick--will he? I send you inclosed the poor clever fool's life written by himself and printed by my girls. Read it and tell me are we wrong in making every effort to save such a man?" etc.
By return of post came a reply from Susan Merton, full of pity for Robinson and affectionate zeal to co-operate in any way with her friend. Inclosed was a letter addressed to George Fielding, the envelope not closed. Mr. Eden slipped in a banknote and a very small envelope and closed it, placed it in a larger envelope, sealed that and copied the first address on its cover.
He now gave Robinson more of his time than ever and seemed to cling to him with almost a motherly apprehension. Robinson noticed it and felt it very, very much, and his joy at getting out of prison oozed away more and more as the day drew near.
That day came at last. Robinson was taken by Evans to the chaplain's room to bid him farewell. He found him walking about the room in deep thought. "Robinson, when you are thousands of miles from me bear this in mind, that if you fall again you will break my heart."
"I know it, sir; I know it; for you would say, 'If I could not save him who can I hope to?'"
"You would not like to break my heart--to discourage your friend and brother in the good work, the difficult work?"
"I would rather die; if it is to be so I pray Heaven to strike me dead in this room while I am fit to die!"
"Don't say that; live to repair your crimes and to make me prouder of you than a mother of her first-born." He paused and walked the room in silence. Presently he stopped in front of Robinson. "You have often said you owed me something."
"My life and my soul's salvation," was the instant reply.
"I ask a return; square the account with me."
"That I can never do."
"You can! I will take two favors in return for all you say I have done for you. No idle words--but yes or no upon your honor. Will you grant them or won't you?"
"I will, upon my honor."
"One is that you will pray very often, not only morning and evening, but at sunset, at that dangerous hour to you when evil association begins; at that hour honest men retire out of sight and rogues come abroad like vermin and wild beasts; but most of all at any hour of the day or night a temptation comes near you, at that moment pray! Don't wait to see how strong the temptation is, and whether you can't conquer it without help from above. At the sight of an enemy put on heavenly armor--pray! No need to kneel or to go apart. Two words secretly cast heavenward, 'Lord, help me,' are prayer. Will you so pray?"
"Then give me your hand; here is a plain gold ring to recall this sacred promise; put it on, wear it, and look at it, and never lose it or forget your promise."
"Them that take it must cut my hand off with it."
"Enough, it is a promise. My second request is that the moment you are free you will go and stay with an honest man."
"I ask no better, sir, if he will have me."
"George Fielding; he has a farm near Bathurst."
"George Fielding, sir? He affronted me when I was in trouble. It was no more than I deserved. I forgive him; but you don't know the lad, sir. He would not speak to me; he would not look at me. He would turn his back on me if we ran against one another in a wilderness."
"Here is a talisman that will insure you a welcome from him--a letter from the woman he loves. Come, yes or no?"
"I will, sir, for your sake, not for theirs. Sir, do pray give me something harder to do for you than these two things!"
"No, I won't overweight you--nor encumber your memory with pledges-- these two and no more. And here we part. See what it is to sin against society. I, whom your conversation has so interested, to whom your company is so agreeable--in one word, I, who love you, can find no kinder word to say to you to-day than this--let me never see your face again--let me never hear your name in this world!"
His voice trembled as he said these words--and he wrung Robinson's hand, and Robinson groaned and turned away.
"So now I can do no more for you--I must leave the rest to God." And with these words, for the second time in their acquaintance, the good soul kneeled down and prayed aloud for this man. And this time he prayed at length with ardor and tenderness unspeakable. He prayed as for a brother on the brink of a precipice. He wrestled with Heaven; and ere he concluded he heard a subdued sound near him, and it was poor Robinson, who, touched and penetrated by such angelic love, and awestruck to hear a good man pour out his very soul at the mercy-seat of Heaven, had crept timidly to his side and knelt there, bearing his mute part in this fervent supplication.
As Mr. Eden rose from his knees Evans knocked gently at the door. He had been waiting some minutes, but had heard the voice of prayer and reverently forbore to interrupt it. At his knock the priest and the thief started. The priest suddenly held out both his hands; the thief bowed his head and kissed them many times, and on this they parted hastily with swelling hearts and not another word--except the thousands that their moist eyes exchanged in one single look--the last.