It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
Robinson started for Bathurst. Just before he got clear of the town he passed the poor man's cottage who had lent him the board. "Bless me, how came I to forget him?" said he. At that moment the man came out to go to work. "Here I am," said Robinson, meeting him full, "and here is your board;" showing it to him painted in squares. "Can't afford to give it you back--it is my advertisement. But here is half-a-crown for it and for your trusting me."
"Well, to be sure," cried the man. "Now who'd have thought this? Why, if the world is not turning honest. But half-a-crown is too much; 'tain't worth the half of it."
"It was worth five pounds to me. I got employment through it. Look here," and he showed him several pounds in silver; "all this came from your board; so take your half-crown and my thanks on the head of it."
The half-crown lay in the man's palm; he looked in Robinson's face. "Well," cried he with astonishment, "you are the honestest man ever I fell in with."
"I am the honestest man! You will go to heaven for saying those words to me," cried Robinson warmly and with agitation. "Good-by, my good, charitable soul; you deserve ten times what you have got," and Robinson made off.
The other, as soon as he recovered the shock, shouted after him, "Good-by, honest man, and good luck wherever you go."
And Robinson heard him scuttle about and hastily convene small boys and dispatch them down the road to look at an honest man. But the young wood did not kindle at his enthusiasm. Had the rarity been a bear with a monkey on him, well and good.
"I'm pretty well paid for a little honesty," thought Robinson. He stepped gallantly out in high spirits, and thought of Jenny, and fell in love with her, and saw in her affection yet another inducement to be honest and industrious. Nothing of note happened on his way to Bathurst, except that one day as he was tramping along very hot and thirsty a luscious prickly pear hung over a wall, and many a respectable man would have taken it without scruple; but Tom was so afraid of beginning again he turned his back on it and ran on instead of walking to make sure.
When he reached Bathurst his purse was very low, and he had a good many more miles to go, and not feeling quite sure of his welcome he did not care to be penniless, so he went round the town with his advertising-board and very soon was painting doors in Bathurst. He found the natives stingier here than in Sydney, and they had a notion a traveler like him ought to work much cheaper than an established man; but still he put by something every day.
He had been three days in the town when a man stepped up to him as he finished a job and asked him to go home with him. The man took him to a small but rather neat shop, plumber's, glazier's and painter's.
"Why, you don't want me," said Robinson; "we are in the same line of business."
"Step in," said the man. In a few words he let Robinson know that he had a great bargain to offer him. "I am going to sell the shop," said he. "It is a business I never much fancied, and I had rather sell it to a stranger than to a Bathurst man, for the trade have offended me. There is not a man in the colony can work like you, and you may make a little fortune here."
Robinson's eyes sparkled a moment, then he replied, "I am too poor to buy a business. What do you want for it?"
"Only sixty pounds for the articles in the shop and the good will and all."
"Well, I dare say it is moderate, but how am I to find sixty pounds?"
"I'll make it as light as a feather. Five pounds down. Five pounds in a month; after that--ten pounds a month till we are clear. Take possession and sell the goods and work the good-will on payment of the first five."
"That is very liberal," said Robinson. "Well, give me till next Thursday and I'll bring you the first five."
"Oh, I can't do that; I give you the first offer, but into the market it goes this evening, and no later."
"I'll call this evening and see if I can do it." Robinson tried to make up the money, but it was not to be done. Then fell a terrible temptation upon him. Handling George Fielding's letter with his delicate fingers, he had satisfied himself there was a bank-note in it. Why not borrow this bank-note? The shop would soon repay it. The idea rushed over him like a flood. At the same moment he took fright at it. "Lord, help me!" he ejaculated.
He rushed to a shop, bought two or three sheets of brown paper and a lot of wafers. With nimble fingers he put the letter in one parcel, that parcel in another, that in another, and so on till there were a dozen envelopes between him and the irregular loan. This done he confided the grand parcel to his landlord.
"Give it me when I start."
He went no more near the little shop till he had made seven pounds; then he went. The shop and business had been sold just twenty-four hours. Robinson groaned. "If I had not been so very honest! Never mind. I must take the bitter with the sweet."
For all that the town became distasteful to him. He bought a cheap revolver--for there was a talk of bushrangers in the neighborhood--and started to walk to George Fielding's farm. He reached it in the evening.
"There is no George Fielding here," was the news. "He left this more than six months ago."
"Do you know where he is?"
Robinson had to ask everybody he met where George Fielding was gone to. At last, by good luck, he fell in with George's friend, McLaughlan, who told him it was twenty-five miles off.
"Twenty-five miles? that must be for to-morrow, then."
McLaughlan told him he knew George Fielding very well. "He is a fine lad." Then he asked Robinson what was his business. Robinson took down a very thin light board with ornamented words painted on it.
"That is my business," said he.
At the sight of a real business the worthy Scot offered to take care of him for the night, and put him on the road to Fielding's next morning. Next morning Robinson painted his front door as a return for bed and breakfast. McLaughlan gave him somewhat intricate instructions for to-morrow's route. Robinson followed them and soon lost his way. He was set right again, but lost it again; and after a tremendous day's walk made up his mind he should have to camp in the open air and without his supper--when he heard a dog baying in the distance. "There is a house of some kind anyway," thought Robinson, "but where?--I see none--better make for the dog."
He made straight for the sound, but still he could not see any house. At last, however, coming over a hill he found a house beneath him, and on the other side of this house the dog was howling incessantly. Robinson came down the hill, walked round the house, and there sat the dog on the steps.
"Well, it is you for howling anyway," said Robinson.
"Anybody at home?" he shouted. No one answered, and the dog howled on.
"Why, the place is deserted, I think. Haven't I seen that dog before? Why, it is Carlo! Here, Carlo, poor fellow, Carlo, what is the matter?"
The dog gave a little whimper as Robinson stooped and patted him, but no sign of positive recognition, but he pattered into the house. Robinson followed him, and there he found the man he had come to see--stretched on his bed--pale and hollow-eyed and grisly--and looking like a corpse in the fading light.
Robinson was awestruck. "Oh! what is this?" said he. "Have I come all this way to bury him?"
He leaned over and felt his heart; it beat feebly but equably, and he muttered something unintelligible when Robinson touched him. Then Robinson struck a light, and right glad he was to find a cauldron full of gelatinized beef soup. He warmed some and ate a great supper, and Carlo sat and whimpered, and then wagged his tail and plucked up more and more spirit, and finally recognized Tom all in a moment somehow and announced the fact by one great disconnected bark and a saltatory motion. This done he turned to and also ate a voracious supper. Robinson rolled himself up in George's great-coat and slept like a top on the floor. Next morning he was waked by a tapping, and there was Carlo seated bolt upright with his tail beating the floor because George was sitting up in the bed looking about him in a puzzled way.
"Jacky," said he, "is that you?"
Robinson got up, rubbed his eyes, and came toward the bed. George stared in his face and rubbed his eyes, too, for he thought he must be under an ocular delusion. "Who are you?"
"Well! I didn't think to see you under a roof of mine again."
"Just the welcome I expected," thought Robinson bitterly. He answered coldly: "Well, as soon as you are well you can turn me out of your house, but I should say you are not strong enough to do it just now."
"No, I am weak enough, but I am better--I could eat something."
"Oh, you could do that! what! even if I cooked it? Here goes, then."
Tom lit the fire and warmed some beef soup. George ate some, but very little; however he drank a great jugful of water--then dozed and fell into a fine perspiration. It was a favorable crisis, and from that moment youth and a sound constitution began to pull him through; moreover no assassin had been there with his lancet.
Behold the thief turned nurse! The next day as he pottered about clearing the room, opening or shutting the windows, cooking and serving, he noticed George's eye following him everywhere with a placid wonder which at last broke into words:
"You take a deal of trouble about me."
"I do," was the dry answer.
"It is very good of you, but--"
"You would as lieve it was anybody else; but your other friends have left you to die like a dog," said Robinson sarcastically. "Well, they left you when you were sick--I'll leave you when you are well."
"What for? Seems to me that you have earned a right to stay as long as you are minded. The man that stands by me in trouble I won't bid him go when the sun shines again."
And at this precise point in his sentence, without the least warning, Mr. Fielding ignited himself--and inquired with fury whether it came within Robinson's individual experience that George Fielding was of an ungrateful turn, or whether such was the general voice of fame. "Now, don't you get in a rage and burst your boiler," said Robinson. "Well, George--without joking, though--I have been kind to you. Not for nursing you--what Christian would not do that for his countryman and his old landlord sick in a desert?--but what would you think of me if I told you I had come a hundred and sixty miles to bring you a letter? I wouldn't show it you before, for they say exciting them is bad for fever, but I think I may venture now; here it is." And Robinson tore off one by one the twelve envelopes, to George's astonishment and curiosity. "There."
"I don't know the hand," said George. But opening the inclosure he caught a glance of a hand he did know, and let everything else drop on the bed, while he held this and gazed at it, and the color flushed into his white cheek. "Oh!" cried he, and worshipped it in silence again; then opened it and devoured it. First came some precious words of affection and encouragement. He kissed the letter. "You are a good fellow to bring me such a treasure; and I'll never forget it as long as I live!"
Then he went back to the letter. "There is something about you, Tom!"
"She tells me you never had a father, not to say a father--"
"She says true."
"Susan says that is a great disadvantage to any man, and so it is--and--poor fellow--"
"She says they came between your sweetheart and you--Oh! poor Tom!"
"You lost your sweetheart; no wonder you went astray after that. What would become of me if I lost my Susan? And--ay, you were always better than me, Susan. She says she and I have never been sore tempted like you."
"Bless her little heart for making excuses for a poor fellow; but she was always a charitable, kind-hearted young lady."
"Wasn't she, Tom?"
"And what sweet eyes!"
"Ain't they, Tom? brimful of heaven I call them."
"And when she used to smile on you, Master George, oh! the ivories."
"Now you take my hand this minute. How foolish I am. I can't see--now you shall read it on to me because you brought it."
"'And you, George, that are as honest a man as ever lived, do keep him by you a while, and keep him in the right way. He is well-disposed but weak--do it to oblige me.'"
"Will you stay with me, Tom?" inquired George, cheerful and business-like. "I am not a lucky man, but while I have a shilling there's sixpence for the man that brought me this--dew in the desert I call it. And to think you have seen her since I have; how was she looking; had she her beautiful color; what did she say to you with her own mouth?"
Then Robinson had to recall every word Susan had said to him; this done, George took the inclosure. "Stop, here is something for you: 'George Fielding is requested to give this to Robinson for the use of Thomas Sinclair.' There you are, Tom--well!--what is the matter?"
"Nothing. It is a name I have not heard a while. I did not know any creature but me knew it; is it glamour, or what?"
"Why, Tom! what is the matter? don't look like that. Open it, and let us see what there is inside."
Robinson opened it, and there was the five-pound note for him, with this line: "If you have regained the name of Sinclair, keep it."
Robinson ran out of the house, and walked to and fro in a state of exaltation. "I'm well paid for my journey; I'm well paid for not fingering that note! Who would not be honest if they knew the sweets? How could he know my name? is he really more than man? Keep it? Will I not!"