It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
The ship was to sail in a week, and meantime Robinson was in the hulks at Portsmouth. Now the hulks are a disgrace to Europe, and a most incongruous appendage to a system that professes to cure by separate confinement. One or two of the worst convicts made the usual overtures of evil companionship to Robinson. These were coldly declined; and it was a good sign that Robinson, being permitted by the regulations to write one letter, did not write to any of his old pals in London or elsewhere, but to Mr. Eden. He told him that he regretted his quiet cell where his ears were never invaded with blasphemy and indecency, things he never took pleasure in even at his worst--and missed his reverence's talk sadly. He concluded by asking for some good books by way of antidote.
He received no answer while at Portsmouth, but the vessel having sailed and lying two days off Plymouth, his name was called just before she weighed again and a thick letter handed to him. He opened it eagerly and two things fell on deck--a sovereign and a tract. The sovereign rolled off and made for the sea. Robinson darted after it and saved it from the deep and the surrounding rogues. Then he read a letter which was also in the inclosure. It was short. In it Mr. Eden told him he had sent him the last tract printed in the prison. "It is called 'The Wages of Sin are Death.' It is not the same one you made into cards; that being out of print and the author dead I have been tempted by that good, true title to write another. I think you will value it none the less for being written by me and printed by our brothers and sisters in this place. I inclose one pound that you may not be tempted for want of a shilling."
Robinson looked round for the tract; it was not to be seen; nobody had seen it. N. B. It had been through a dozen light-fingered hands already and was now being laughed at and blasphemed over by two filthy ruffians behind a barrel on the lower deck. Robinson was first in a fury and then, when he found it was really stolen from him, he was very much cut up. "I wish I had lifted it and let the money roll." However, thought he, "if I keep quiet I shall hear of it."
He did hear of it, but he never saw it; for one of these hardened creatures that had got hold of it had a spite against Robinson for refusing his proffered amity, and the malicious dog, after keeping it several hours, hearing Robinson threaten to inform against whoever had taken it, made himself safe and gratified his spite by flinging it into the Channel.
This, too, came in due course to Robinson's ears. He moralized on it. "I made the first into the devil's books," said he, "and now a child of the devil has robbed me of the second. I shan't get a third chance. I would give my sovereign and more to see what his reverence says about 'The wages of sin are death.' The very title is a sermon. I pray Heaven the dirty hand that robbed me of it may rot off at the--no! I forgot. Bless and curse not!"
And now Robinson was confined for five months in a wooden prison with the scum of our jails. No cell to take refuge in from evil society. And in that wretched five months this perpetual contact with criminals, many of them all but incurable, took the gloss off him. His good resolutions were unshaken, but his repugnance to evil associates became gradually worn away.
At last they landed at Sydney. They were employed for about a fortnight in some government works, a mile from the town; and at the end of that time he was picked out by a gentleman who wanted a servant.
Robinson's work was to call him not too early, to clean his boots, go on errands into the town, and be always in the way till five o'clock. From that hour until about two in the morning Mr. Miles devoted to amusement, returning with his latch key, and often rousing the night owl and his servant with a bacchanalian or Anacreontic melody. In short, Mr. Miles was a loose fish; a bachelor who had recently inherited the fortune of an old screw his uncle, and was spending thrift in all the traditional modes. Horses, dogs, women, cards, etc.
He was a good-natured creature, and one morning as he brought him up his hot water and his soda-water Robinson ventured on a friendly remonstrance.
Mr. Miles flung canting rogue and half a dozen oaths and one boot at his head, and was preparing to add a tumbler, when his mentor whipped into the lobby. Robinson could not have fallen to a worse master than this, whose irregularities were so regular that his servant had always seven hours to spend in the town as he pleased. There he was often solicited to join in depredations on property. For he found half his old acquaintances were collected by the magic of the law on this spot of earth.
Robinson took a particular pride in telling these gentlemen that he had no objection to taking a friendly glass with them and talking over old times, but that as for taking what did not belong to him all that was over forever. In short, he improved on Mr. Eden's instructions. Instead of flying from temptation, like a coward conscious of weakness, he nobly faced it and walked cool, collected and safe on the edge of danger.
One good result of this was that he spent his wages every month faster than he got them, and spent the clothes his master gave him, and these were worth more than his wages, for Mr. Miles was going the pace--wore nothing after the gloss was off it. But Robinson had never lived out of prison at less than five hundred per annum, and the evening is a good time in the day for spending money in a town, and his evenings were all his own.
One evening a young tradeswoman with whom he was flirting in the character of a merchant's clerk, tremendously busy, who could only get out in the evening; this young woman, whom he had often solicited to go to the theater, consented.
"I could go with you to-morrow, my sister and I," said she.
Robinson expressed his delight, but consulting his pockets found he had not the means of paying for their seats, and he could not pawn any clothes, for he had but two sets. One (yellowish) that government compelled him to wear by daylight, and one a present from his master (black). That, together with a mustache, admitted him into the bosom of society at night. What was to be done? Propose to the ladies to pay, that was quite without precedent. Ask his master for an advance, impossible. His master was gone kangaroo hunting for three days. Borrow some of his master's clothes and pawn them, that was too like theft. He would pawn his ring, it would only be for a day or two, and he would not spend a farthing more till he had got it back.
He pawned Mr. Eden's ring; it just paid for their places at the theater, where they saw the living puppets of the colony mop and mow and rant under the title of acting. This was so interesting that Robinson was thinking of his ring the whole time, and how to get it back. The girls agreed between themselves they had never enjoyed so dull a cavalier.
The next day a line from Mr. Miles to say that he should not be back for a week. No hope of funds from him. So Robinson pawned his black coat and got back his ring; and as the trousers and waistcoat were no use now, he pawned them for pocket-money, which soon dissolved.
Mr. Robinson now was out of spirits.
"Service is not the thing for me. I am of an active turn--I want to go into business that will occupy me all day long--business that requires some head. Even his reverence, the first man in the country, acknowledged my talents--and what is the vent for them here? The blacking-bottle."