It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
On a certain evening some days later, the two men whose faces were definitions sat on a bench outside that little public in the suburbs--one at the end of a clay-pipe, the other behind a pewter mug. It was dusk.
"He ought to be here soon," said the one into whose forehead holes seemed dug and little bits of some vitreous substance left at the bottom. "Well, mate," cried he harshly, "what do you want that you stick to us so tight?" This was addressed to a peddler who had been standing opposite showing the contents of his box with a silent eloquence. Now this very asperity made the portable shopman say to himself, "wants me out of the way--perhaps buy me out." So he stuck where he was, and exhibited his wares.
"We don't want your gim-cracks," said mephistopheles quietly.
The man eyed his customers and did not despair. "But, gents," said he, "I have got other things besides gim-cracks; something that will suit you if you can read."
"Of course we can read," replied sunken-eyes haughtily; and in fact they had been too often in jail to escape this accomplishment.
The peddler looked furtively in every direction; and after this precaution pressed a spring and brought a small drawer out from the bottom of his pack. The two rogues winked at one another. Out of the drawer the peddler whipped a sealed packet.
"What is it?" asked mephistopheles, beginning to take an interest.
"Just imported from England," said the peddler, a certain pomp mingling with his furtive and mysterious manner.
"---- England," was the other's patriotic reply.
"And translated from the French."
"That is better! but what is it?"
"Them that buy it--they will see!"
"Rather, I should say."
"Is there plenty about the women in it?"
The trader answered obliquely.
"What are we obliged to keep it dark for?"--the other put in, "Why of course there is."
"Well!" said sunken-eyes affecting carelessness. "What do you want for it? Got sixpence, Bill?"
"I sold the last to a gentleman for three-and-sixpence. But as this is the last I've got--say half a crown."
Sunken-eyes swore at the peddler.
"What! half a crown for a book no thicker than a quire of paper?"
"Only half a crown for a thing I could be put in prison for selling. Is not my risk to be paid as well as my leaves?"
This logic went home, and after a little higgling two shillings was offered and accepted, but in the very act of commerce the trader seemed to have a misgiving.
"I daren't do it unless you promise faithfully never to tell you had it of me. I have got a character to lose, and I would not have it known--not for the world, that James Walker had sold such loose--licentious--"
"Oh! what it is very spicy, is it? Come, hand it over. There's the two bob."
"My poverty and not my will consents," sighed the trader.
"There, you be off, or we shall have all the brats coming round us."
The peddler complied and moved off, and so willing was he to oblige his customers that on turning the corner he shouldered his pack and ran with great agility down the street, till he gained a network of small alleys in which he wriggled and left no trace.
Meantime sunken-eyes had put his tongue to the envelope and drawn out the contents. "I'll go into the light and see what it is all about."
mephistopheles left alone had hardly given his pipe two sucks ere brutus returned black with rage and spouting oaths like a whale.
"Why, what is the matter?"
"Matter! Didn't he sell this to me for a flash story?"
"Why he didn't say so. But certainly he dropped a word about loose books."
"Of course he did."
"Well! and ain't they?"
"Ain't they!" cried the other with fury. "Here, you young shaver, bring the candle out here. Ain't they? No they ain't----and----and----the ---- ----. Look here!"
mephisto. "'Mend your Ways,' a tract."
brutus. "I'll break his head instead."
mephisto. "'Narrative of Mr. James the Missionary.'"
brutus. "The cheating, undermining rip."
mephisto. "And here is another to the same tune."
brutus. "Didn't I tell you so. The hypocritical, humbugging rascal--"
mephisto. "Stop a bit. Here is a little one: 'Memoirs of a Gentleman's Housekeeper.'"
brutus. "Oh! is there? I did not see that."
mephisto. "You are so hasty. The case mayn't be so black as it looks. The others might be thrown in to make up the parcel. Hold the candle nearer.
brutus. "Ay! let us see about the housekeeper."
The two men read "The Housekeeper" eagerly, but as they read the momentary excitement of hope died out of their faces. Not a sparkle of the ore they sought; all was dross. "The Housekeeper" was one of those who make pickles, not eat them--and in a linen apron a yard wide save their master's money from the fangs of cook and footman, not help him scatter it in a satin gown.
There was not even a stray hint or an indelicate expression for the poor fellow's two shillings. The fraud, was complete. It was not like the ground coffee, pepper and mustard in a London shop--in which there is as often as not a pinch of real coffee, mustard and pepper to a pound of chicory and bullock's blood, of red lead, dirt, flour and turmeric. Here the do was pure.
Then brutus relieved his swelling heart by a string of observations partly rhetorical, partly zoological. He devoted to horrible plagues every square inch of the peddler, enumerating more particularly those interior organs that subserve vitality, and concluded by vowing solemnly to put a knife into him the first fair opportunity. "I'll teach the rogue to--" Sell you medicine for poison, eh?
mephistopheles, either because he was a more philosophic spirit or was not the one out of pocket, took the blow more coolly. "It is a bite and no mistake. But what of it? Our money," said he, with a touch of sadness, "goes as it comes. This is only two bob flung in the dirt. We should not have invested them in the Three per Cents; and to-night's swag will make it up."
He then got a fresh wafer and sealed the pamphlets up again. "There," said he, you keep dark and sell the first flat you come across the same way the varmint sold you.
brutus, sickened at heart by the peddler's iniquity, revived at the prospect of selling some fellow-creature as he had been sold. He put the paper-trap in his pocket; and, cheated of obscenity, consoled himself with brandy such as Bacchus would not own, but Beelzebub would brew for man if permitted to keep an earthly distillery.
Presently they were joined by the third man, and for two hours the three heads might all have been covered by one bushel-basket, and peddler Walker's heartless fraud was forgotten in business of a higher order.
At last mephistopheles gave brutus a signal, and they rose to interrupt the potations of the newcomer, who was pouring down fire and hot water in rather a reckless way.
"We won't all go together," said mephistopheles. "You two meet me at Jonathan's ken in an hour."
As brutus and the newcomer walked along an idea came to brutus. "Here is a fellow that passes for a sharp. What if I sell him my pamphlets and get a laugh at his expense. Mate," said he, "here is a flash book all sealed up. What will you give me for it?"
"Well! I don't much care for that sort of reading, old fellow."
"But this is cheap. I got it a bargain. Come--a shilling won't hurt you for it. See there is more than one under the cover."
Now the other had been drinking till he was in that state in which a good-natured fellow's mind if decomposed would be found to be all "Yes," and "Dine with me to-morrow," so he fell into the trap.
"I'll give it you, my boy," said he. "Let us see it? There are more than one inside it. You're an honest fellow. Owe you a shilling." And the sealed parcel went into his pocket. Then, seeing brutus look rather rueful at this way of doing business, he hiccoughed out, "Stop your bob out of the swag"--and chuckled.