It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
While the two burglars were near the scullery-window watching the light in the upper story a third man stood sentinel on the opposite side of the house; he was but a few yards from the public road, yet hundreds would have passed and no man seen him; for he had placed himself in a thick shadow flat against the garden-wall. His office was to signal danger from his side should any come. Now the light that kept his comrades inactive was not on his side of the house; he waited therefore expecting every moment their signal that the job was done. On this the cue was to slip quietly off and all make by different paths for the low public-house described above and there divide the swag.
The man waited and waited and waited for this signal; it never came; we know why. Then he became impatient--miserable; he was out of his element--wanted to be doing something. At last all this was an intolerable bore. Not feeling warm toward the job, he had given the active business to his comrades, which he now regretted for two reasons. First, he was kept here stagnant and bored; and second, they must be a pair of bunglers; he'd have robbed a parish in less time. He would light a cigar. Tobacco blunts all ills, even ennui. Putting his hand in his pocket for a cigar, it ran against a hard, square substance. What is this?--oh! the book mephisto had sold him. No, he would not smoke, he would see what the book was all about; he knelt down and took off his hat, and put his dark-lantern inside it before he ventured to move the slide; then undid the paper, and putting it into the hat, threw the concentrated rays on the contents and peered in to examine them. Now the various little pamphlets had been displaced by mephisto, and the first words that met the thief's eye in large letters on the back of a tract were these, "THE WAGES OF SIN ARE DEATH."
Thomas Robinson looked at these words with a stupid gaze. At first he did not realize all that lay in them. He did not open the tract; he gazed benumbed at the words, and they glared at him like the eyes of green fire when we come in the dark on some tiger-cat crouching in his lair.
Oh that I were a painter and could make you see what cannot be described--the features of this strange incident that sounds so small and was so great! The black night, the hat, the renegade peering under it in the wall's deep shadows to read something trashy, and the half-open lantern shooting its little strip of intense fire, and the grim words springing out in a moment from the dark face of night and dazzling the renegade's eyes and chilling his heart:
"THE WAGES OF SIN ARE DEATH."
To his stupor now succeeded surprise and awe. "How comes this?" he whispered aloud, "was this a trick of ----'s? No! he doesn't know-- This is the devil's own doing--no! it is not--more likely it is--The third time!--I'll read it. My hands shake so I can hardly hold it. It is by him--yes--signed F. E. Heaven, have mercy on me!--This is more than natural."
He read it, shaking all over as he read.
The tract was simply written. It began with a story of instances, some of them drawn from the histories of prisoners, and it ended with an earnest exhortation and a terrible warning. When the renegade came to this part, his heart beat violently; for along with the earnest, straightforward, unmincing words of sacred fire there seemed to rise from the paper the eloquent voice, the eye rich with love, the face of inexhaustible intelligence and sympathy that had so often shone on Robinson, while just words such as these issued from those golden lips.
He read on, but not to the end; for as he read he came to one paragraph that made him fancy that Mr. Eden was by his very side. "You, into whose hands these words of truth shall fall, and find you intending to do some foolish or wicked thing to-morrow, or the next day, or to-day, or this very hour--stop!--do not that sin! on your soul do it not!--fall on your knees and repent the sin you have meditated; better repent the base design than suffer for the sin, as suffer you shall so surely as the sky is pure, so surely as God is holy and sin's wages are death."
At these words, as if the priest's hand had been stretched across the earth and sea and laid on the thief's head, he fell down upon his knees with his back toward the scene of burglary and his face toward England, crying out, "I will, your reverence. I am!--Lord, help me!" cried he, then first remembering how he had been told to pray in temptation's hour. The next moment he started to his feet, he dashed his lantern to the ground, and leaped over a gate that stood in his way, and fled down the road to Sydney.
He ran full half a mile before he stopped; his mind was in a whirl. Another reflection stopped him. He was a sentinel, and had betrayed his post; suppose his pals were to get into trouble through reckoning on him; was it fair to desert them without warning? What if he were to go back and give the whistle of alarm, pretend he had seen some one watching, and so prevent the meditated crime, as well as be guiltless of it himself; but then, thought he, "and suppose I do go back what will become of me?"
While he hesitated, the question was decided for him. As he looked back irresolute, his keen eye noticed a shadow moving along the hedge-side to his left.
"Why, they are coming away," was his first thought. But looking keenly down the other edge which was darker still he saw another noiseless moving shadow. "Why are they on different sides of the road and both keeping in the shadow?" thought this shrewd spirit, and he liked it so ill that he turned at once and ran off toward Sydney.
At this out came the two figures with a bound into the middle of the road, and, with a loud view-halloo, raced after him like the wind.
Robinson, as he started and before he knew the speed of his pursuers, ventured to run sidewise a moment to see who or what they were. He caught a glimpse of white waistcoats and glittering studs, and guessed the rest.
He had a start of not more than twenty yards, but he was a good runner, and it was in his favor that his pursuers had come up at a certain speed, while he started fresh after a rest. He squared his shoulders, opened his mouth wide for a long race, and ran as men run for their lives.
In the silent night Robinson's highlows might have been heard half a mile off clattering along the hard road. Pit pit pit pat! came two pair of dress-boots after him. Robinson heard the sound with a thrill of fear: "They in their pumps and I in boots," thought he, and his pursuers heard the hunted one groan, and redoubled their efforts as dogs when the stag begins to sob.
He had scarce run a hundred yards with his ears laid back like a hare's, when he could not help thinking the horrible pit pit pit got nearer; he listened with agonized keenness as he ran, and so fine did his danger make his ear that he could tell the exact position of his pursuers. A cold sweat crept over him as he felt they had both gained ten yards out of the twenty on him; then he distinctly felt one pursuer gain upon the other, and this one's pit pit pit crept nearer and nearer, an inch every three or four yards; the other held his own--no more--no less.
At last so near crept No. 1 that Robinson felt his hot breath at his ear. He clinched his teeth and gave a desperate spurt, and put four or five yards between them; he could have measured the ground gained by the pit pit pat. But the pursuer put on a spurt, and reduced the distance by half.
"I may as well give in," thought the hunted one--but at that moment came a gleam of hope; this pursuer began suddenly to pant very loud. He had clinched his teeth to gain the twenty yards; he had gained them but had lost his wind. Robinson heard this, and feared him no longer, and in fact after one or two more puffs came one despairing snort, and No. 1 pulled up dead short, thoroughly blown.
As No. 2 passed him, he just panted out
"Won't catch him."
"Won't I!" ejaculated No 2, expelling the words rather than uttering them.
Klopetee klop, klopetee klop, klopetee, klopetee, klopetee klop.
Pit pat, pit pat, pit pat pat, pit pit pat. Ten yards apart, no more no less.
Nor nearer might the dog attain, Nor farther might the quarry strain.
"They have done me between them, thought poor Robinson. "I could have run from either singly, but one blows me, and then the other runs me down. I can get out of it by fighting perhaps, but then there will be another crime."
Robinson now began to pant audibly, and finding he could not shake the hunter off, he with some reluctance prepared another game.
He began to exaggerate his symptoms of distress, and imperceptibly to relax his pace. On this the pursuer came up hand over head. He was scarce four yards behind when Robinson suddenly turned and threw himself on one knee, with both hands out like a cat's claws. The man ran on full tilt; in fact, he could not have stopped. Robinson caught his nearest ankle with both hands and rose with him and lifted him, aided by his own impulse, high into the air and sent his heels up perpendicular. The man described a parabola in the air, and came down on the very top of his head with frightful force; and as he lay, his head buried in his hat and his heels kicking, Robinson without a moment lost jumped over his body, and klopetee klop rang fainter and fainter down the road alone.
The plucky pursuer wrenched his head with infinite difficulty out of his hat, which sat on his shoulders with his nose pointing through a chasm from crown to brim, shook himself, and ran wildly a few yards in pursuit--but finding he had in his confusion run away from Robinson as well as Robinson from him, and hopeless of recovering the ground now lost, he gave a rueful sort of laugh, made the best of it, put his hands in his pockets and strolled back to meet No. 1.
Meantime, Robinson, fearful of being pursued on horseback, relaxed his speed but little and ran the three miles out into Sydney. He came home with his flank heating and a glutinous moisture on his lip, and a hunted look in his eye. He crept into bed, but spent the night thinking, ay, and praying, too, not sleeping.