It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
The moment George Fielding was out of sight, Mr. Meadows went to the public-house, flung himself on his powerful black mare, and rode homeward without a word.
One strong passion after another swept across his troubled mind. He burned with love, he was sick with jealousy, cold with despondency, and for the first time smarted with remorse. George Fielding was gone, gone of his own accord; but like the flying Parthian he had shot his keenest arrow in the moment of defeat.
"What the better am I?" thus ran this man's thoughts. "I have opened my own eyes, and Susan seems farther from me than ever now--my heart is like a lump of lead here--I wish I had never been born!--so much for scheming--I would have given a thousand pounds for this, and now I'd give double to be as I was before; I had honest hopes then; now where are they? How lucky it seemed all to go, too. Ah! that is it--'May all your good luck turn to wormwood!' that was his word--his very word--and my good luck is wormwood; so much for lifting a hand against gray hairs, Jew or Gentile. Why did the old heathen provoke me, then? I'd as soon die as live this day. That's right, start at a handful of straw; lie down in it one minute and tremble at the sight of it the next, ye idiot. Oh, Susan! Susan! Why do I think of her? why do I think of her? She loves that man with every fiber of her body. How she clung to him! how she grew to him! And I stood there and looked on it, and did not kill them both. Seen it! I see it now, it is burned into my eyes and my heart forever; I am in hell!--I am in hell!--Hold up, you blundering fool; has the devil got into you, too?--Perdition seize him! May he die and rot before the year's out, ten thousand miles from home! may his ship sink to the bottom of the ----. What right have I to curse the man, as well as drive him across the sea? Curse yourself, John Meadows. They are true lovers, and I have parted them, and looked on and seen their tears. Heaven pity them and forgive me. So he knew of his brother's love for her, after all. Why didn't he speak to me, I wonder, as well as to Will Fielding? The old Jew warned him against me, I'll swear. Why? why because you are a respectable man, John Meadows, and he thought a hint was enough to a man of character. 'I do suppose I am safe from villainy here,' says he. That lad spared me; he could have given me a red face before them all. Now if there are angels that float in the air and see what passes among us sinners, how must John Meadows have looked beside George Fielding that moment? This love will sink my soul! I can't breathe between these hedges; my temples are bursting!--Oh! you want to gallop, do you? gallop, then, and faster than you ever did since you were foaled--confound ye!" With this he spurred his mare furiously up the bank, and went crushing through the dead hedge that surmounted it. He struck his hat, at the same moment, fiercely from his head (it was fast by a black ribbon to his button-hole), and as they lighted by a descent of some two feet on the edge of a grass-field he again drove his spurs into his great fiery mare, all vein and bone. Black Rachel snorted with amazement at the spur, and with warlike delight at finding grass beneath her feet and free air whistling round her ears, she gave one gigantic bound like a buck with arching back and all four legs in the air at once (it would have unseated many a rider but never moved the iron Meadows), and with dilating nostril and ears laid back she hurled herself across country like a stone from a sling.
Meadows' house was about four miles and a half distant as the crow flies, and he went home to-day as the crow flies, only faster. None would have known the staid, respectable Meadows, in this figure that came flying over hedge and ditch and brook, his hat dangling and leaping like mad behind him, his hand now and then clutching his breast, his heart tossed like a boat among the breakers, his lips white, his teeth clinched and his eyes blazing! The mare took everything in her stride, but at last they came somewhat suddenly on an enormous high, stiff fence. To clear it was impossible. By this time man and beast were equally reckless; they went straight into it and through it as a bullet goes through a pane of glass; and on again over brook and fence, plowed field and meadow, till Meadows found himself, he scarce knew how, at his own door. His old deaf servant came out from the stable-yard and gazed in astonishment at the mare, whose flank panted, whose tail quivered, whose back looked as if she had been in the river, while her belly was stained with half a dozen different kinds of soil, and her rider's face streamed with blood from a dozen scratches he had never felt.
Meadows flung himself from the saddle and ran up to his own room. He dashed his face and his burning hands into water; this seemed to do him a little good. He came downstairs; he lighted a pipe (we are the children of habit); he sat with his eyebrows painfully bent. People called on him; he fiercely refused to see them.
For the first time in his life he turned his back on business. He sat for hours by the fireplace. A fierce mental struggle wrenched him to and fro.
Evening came, still he sat collapsed by the fireplace. From his window, among other objects, two dwellings were visible; one, distant four miles, was a whitewashed cottage, tiled instead of thatched, adorned with creepers and roses and very clean, but in other respects little superior to laborers' cottages.
The other, distant six long miles, was the Grassmere farmhouse, where the Mertons lived; the windows seemed burnished gold this evening.
In the small cottage lived a plain old woman--a Methodist. She was Meadows' mother.
She did not admire worldly people, still less envied them.
He was too good a churchman and man of business to permit conventicles or psalm-singing at odd hours in his house. So she preferred living in her own, which moreover was her own--her very own.
The old woman never spoke of her son, and checked all complaints of him, and snubbed all experimental eulogies of him.
Meadows never spoke of his mother, paid her a small allowance with the regularity and affectionate grace of clock-work; never asked her if she didn't want any more--would not have refused her if she had asked for double.
This evening, while the sun was shining with all his evening glory on Susan Merton's house, Meadows went slowly to his window and pulled down the blind, and drawing his breath hard shut the loved prospect out.
He then laid his hand upon the table, and he said: "I swear by the holy bread and wine I took last month that I will not put myself in the way of this strong temptation. I swear I will go no more to Grassmere Farm, never so long as I love Susan." He added faintly, "Unless they send for me, and they won't do that, and I won't go of my own accord, I swear it. I have sworn it, however, and I swear it again--unless they send for me!"
Then he sat by the fire with his head in his hands--a posture he never was seen in before. Next he wrote a note and sent it hastily with a horse and cart to that small whitewashed cottage.
Old Mrs. Meadows sat in her doorway reading a theological work called "Believers' Buttons." She took the note, looked at it. "Why, this is from John, I think; what can he have to say to me?" She put on her spectacles again, which she had taken off on the messenger first accosting her, and deliberately opened, smoothed and read the note. It ran thus:
"Mother, I am lonely. Come over and stay awhile with me, if you please.
"Your dutiful son, JOHN MEADOWS"
"Here, Hannah," cried the old woman to a neighbor's daughter that was nearly always with her.
Hannah, a comely girl of fourteen, came running in.
"Here's John wants me to go over to his house. Get me the pen and ink, girl, out of the cupboard, and I'll write him a word or two any way.--Is there anything amiss?" said she quickly to the man.
"He came in with the black mare all in a lather, just after dinner, and he hasn't spoke to a soul since. That's all I know, missus. I think something has put him out, and he isn't soon put out, you know, he isn't."
Hannah left the room, after placing the paper as she was bid.
"You will all be put out that trust to an arm of flesh, all of ye, master or man, Dick Messenger," said the disciple of John Wesley somewhat grimly. "Ay, and be put out of the kingdom of heaven, too, if ye don't take heed."
"Is that the news I'm to take back to Farnborough, missus?" said Messenger with quiet, rustic irony.
"No; I'll write to him."
The old woman wrote a few lines reminding Meadows that the pursuit of earthly objects could never bring any steady comfort, and telling him that she should be lost in his great house--that it would seem quite strange to her to go into the town after so many years' quiet--but that if he was minded to come out and see her she would be glad to see him and glad of the opportunity to give him her advice, if he was in a better frame for listening to it than last time she offered it to him, and that was two years come Martinmas.
Then the old woman paused, next she reflected, and afterward dried her unfinished letter. And as she began slowly to fold it up and put it in her pocket--"Hannah," cried she thoughtfully.
Hannah appeared in the doorway.
"I dare say--you may fetch--my cloak and bonnet. Why, if the wench hasn't got them on her arm. What, you made up your mind that I should go, then?"
"That I did," replied Hannah. "Your warm shawl is in the cart, Mrs. Meadows."
"Oh! you did, did you. Young folks are apt to be sure and certain. I was in two minds about it, so I don't see how the child could be sure," said she, dividing her remark between vacancy and the person addressed--a grammatical privilege of old age.
"Oh! but I was sure, for that matter," replied Hannah firmly.
"And what made the little wench so sure, I wonder?" said the old woman, now in her black bonnet and scarlet cloak.
"Why, la!" says Hannah, "because it's your son, ma'am--and you're his mother, Dame Meadows!"