It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
Meadows found Mr. Clinton at Peel's. "Mr. Clinton, I want a man of intelligence to be at my service for twenty-four hours. I give you the first offer."
Mr. Clinton replied that really he had so many irons in the fire that twenty-four hours--
Meadows put a fifty-pound note on the table.
"Will all your irons iron you out fifty pounds as flat as that?"
"No, nor five. Come, sir, sharp is the word. Can you be my servant for twenty-four hours for fifty pounds? yes or no!"
"Why, this is dramatic--yes!"
"It is half-past two. Between this and four o'clock I must buy a few hundred acres in Australia, a fair bargain."
"Humph! Well, that can be done. I know an old fellow that has land in every part of the globe."
"Take me to him."
In ten minutes they were in one of those dingy, narrow alleys in the city of London, that look the abode of decent poverty, and they could afford to buy Grosvenor Square for their stables; and Mr. Clinton introduced his friend to a blear-eyed merchant in a large room papered with maps; the windows were incrusted; mustard and cress might have been grown from them. Beauty in clean linen collar and wristbands would have shown here with intolerable luster; but the blear-eyed merchant did not come out bright by contrast; he had taken the local color. You could see him and that was all. He was like a partridge in a furrow. A snuff-colored man; coat rusty all but the collar, and that greasy; poor as its color was, his linen had thought it worth emulating; blackish nails, cotton wipe, little bald place on head, but didn't shine for the same reason the windows didn't. Mr. Clinton approached this "dhirrrty money," this rusty coin, in the spirit of flunkyish.
"Sir," said he, in a low reverential tone, "this party is disposed to purchase a few hundred acres in the colonies."
Mr. Rich looked up from his desk and pointed with a sweep of his pen to the walls.
"There are the maps; the red crosses are my land. They are numbered. Refer to the margin of map, and you will find the acres and the latitude and longitude calculated to a fraction. When you have settled in what part of the world you buy, come to me again; time is gold."
And the blear-eyed merchant wrote and sealed and filed and took no notice of his customers. They found red crosses in several of the United States, in Canada, in Borneo, in nearly all the colonies, and as luck would have it they found one small cross within thirty miles of Bathurst, and the margin described it as five hundred acres. Mr. Meadows stepped toward the desk.
"I have found a small property near Bathurst."
"Bathurst? where is that?"
"If the price suits. What is the price, sir?"
"The books must tell us that."
Mr. Rich stretched out his arm and seized a ledger, and gave it Meadows.
"I have but one price for land, and that is five per cent profit on my outlay. Book will tell you what it stands me in, you can add five per cent to that, and take the land away or leave it."
With this curt explanation, Mr. Rich resumed his work.
"It seems you gave five shillings an acre, sir," said Mr. Clinton. "Five times five hundred shillings, one hundred and twenty-five pounds. Interest at five per cent, six pounds five."
"When did I buy it?" asked Mr. Rich.
"Oh, when did you buy it, sir?"
Mr. Rich snatched the book a little pettishly, and gave it to Meadows.
"You make the calculation," said he; "the figures are all there. Come to me when you have made it."
The land had been bought twenty-seven years and some months ago. Mr. Meadows made the calculation in a turn of the hand and announced it. Rich rang a hand bell. Another snuffy figure with a stoop and a bald head and a pen came through a curtain.
"Jones, verify that calculation."
"Penny, halfpenny, twopence, penny, halfpenny, twopence. Mum, mum! Halfpenny wrong, sir."
"There is a halfpenny wrong!" cried Mr. Rich to Meadows, with a most injured air.
"There is, sir," said Meadows, "but it is on the right side for you. I thought I would make it even money against myself."
"There are only two ways, wrong and right," was the reply. "Jones, make it right. There, that is the price for the next half hour; after business hours to-day add a day's interest; and, Jones--if he does not buy, write your calculation into the book with date--save time, next customer comes for it."
"You need not trouble, Mr. Jones," said Meadows. "I take the land. Here is two hundred and fifty pounds--that is rather more than half the purchase-money.
"When can I have the deeds?"
"Receipt for two hundred and fifty pounds," said Meadows, falling into the other's key.
"Jones, write receipt--two five naught."
"Write me an agreement to sell," proposed Meadows.
"No, you write it; I'll sign it. Jones, enter transaction in the books. Have you anything to do, young gentleman?" addressing Clinton.
"Then draw this pen through the two crosses on the map and margin. Good morning, gentlemen."
And the money-making machine rose and dismissed them, as he had received them, with a short, sharp business conge'.
Ye fair, who turn a shop head over heels, maul sixty yards of ribbon and buy six, which being sent home insatiable becomes your desire to change it for other six which you had fairly, closely, and with all the powers of your mind compared with it during the seventy minutes the purchase occupied, let me respectfully inform you that the above business took just eight minutes, and that "when it was done, 'twas done." (Shakespeare.)
"You have given too much, my friend," said Mr. Clinton.
"Come to my inn," was all the reply. "This is the easy part, the game is behind."
After dinner. "Now," said Meadows, "business. Do you know any respectable firm disposed toward speculation in mines?"
"Any that are looking toward gold?"
"Why, no. Gold is a metal that ranks very low in speculation. Stop! yes, I know one tip-top house that has gone a little way in it, but they have burned their fingers, so they will go no farther."
"You are wrong; they will be eager to go on--first to recover the loss on that article of account, and next to show their enemies, and in particular such of them as are their friends, that they didn't blunder. You will go to them to-morrow and ask if they can allow you a commission for bringing them an Australian settler on whose land gold has been found."
"Now, my good sir," began Mr. Clinton, a little superciliously, "that is not the way to gain the ear of such a firm as that. The better way will be for you to show me your whole design and leave me to devise the best means for carrying it into effect."
Up to this moment Meadows had treated Mr. Clinton with a marked deference, as from yeoman to gentleman. The latter, therefore, was not a little surprised when the other turned sharp on him thus:
"This won't do; we must understand one another. You think you are the man of talent and I am the clodhopper. Think so to-morrow night; but for the next twenty-four hours you must keep that notion out of your head or you will bitch my schemes and lose your fifty pounds. Look here, sir. You began life with ten thousand pounds; you have been all your life trying all you know to double it--and where is it? The pounds are pence and the pence on the road to farthings. I started with a whip and a smock-frock, and this," touching his head, "and I have fifty thousand pounds in government securities. Which is the able man of these two--the bankrupt that talks like an angel and loses the game, or the wise man that quietly wins it and pockets what all the earth are grappling with him for? So much for that. And now which is master, the one who pays or the one who is paid? I am not a liberal man, sir; I am a man that looks at every penny. I don't give fifty pounds. I sell it. That fifty pounds is the price of your vanity for twenty-four hours. I take a day's loan of it. You are paid fifty pounds per diem to see that there is more brains in my little finger than in all your carcass. See it for twenty-four hours or I won't fork out, or don't see it but obey me as if you did see it. You shan't utter a syllable or move an inch that I have not set down for you. Is this too hard? then accept ten pounds for to-day's work, and let us part before you bungle your master's game as you have done your own."
Mr. Clinton was red with mortified vanity, but forty pounds! He threw himself back in his chair.
"This is amusing," said he. "Well, sir, I will act as if you were Solomon and I nobody. Of course under these circumstances no responsibility rests with me."
"You are wasting my time with your silly prattle," said Meadows, very sternly. "Man alive! you never made fifty pounds cash since you were calved. It comes to your hand to-day, and even then you must chatter and jaw instead of saying yes and closing your fingers on it like a vise."
"Yes!" shouted Clinton; "there."
"Take that quire," said Meadows, sharply. "Now I'll dictate the very words you are to say; learn them off by heart and don't add a syllable or subtract one or--no fifty pounds."
Meadows being a general by nature (not Horse-Guards) gave Clinton instructions down to the minutest matters of detail, and he whose life had been spent in proving he would succeed--and failing--began to suspect the man who had always succeeded might perhaps have had something to do with his success.
Next morning, well primed by Meadows, Mr. Clinton presented himself to Messrs. Brathwaite & Stevens and requested a private audience. He inquired whether they were disposed to allow him a commission if he would introduce them to an Australian settler on whose land gold had been discovered.
The two members of the firm looked at one another. After a pause one of them said:
"Commission really must depend on how such a thing turned out. They had little confidence in such statements, but would see the settler and put some questions to him."
Clinton went out and introduced Meadows. This happened just as Meadows had told him it would. Outside the door Mr. Meadows suddenly put on a rustic carriage and so came in and imitated natural shyness with great skill; he had to be twice asked to sit down.
The firm cross-examined him. He told them gold had been discovered within a stone's throw of his land, thirty miles from Bathurst; that his friends out there had said go home to England and they will give you a heavy price for your land now; that he did hope to get a heavy price, and so be able to live at home--didn't want to go out there again; that the land was worth money--for there was no more to be sold in that part; government land all round and they wouldn't sell, for he had tried them (his sharp eye had seen this fact marked on Mr. Rich's map).
"Well," said the senior partner, "we have information that gold has been discovered in that district; the report came here two days ago by the Anne Amelia. But the account is not distinct as yet. We do not hear on whose land it is found if at all. I presume you have not seen gold found."
"Could I afford to leave my business out there and come home--on a speculation?"
The eyes of the firm began to glitter.
"Have you got any gold to show us?"
"Nothing to speak of, sir; only what they chucked me for giving them a good dinner. But they are shoveling it about like grains of wheat, I assure you."
The firm became impatient.
"Show us what they gave you as the price of a dinner?"
Meadows dug into a deep pocket, and chased into a corner, and caught, and produced a little nugget of quartz and gold worth about four pounds, also another of somewhat less value.
"They don't look handsome, gents," said he, "but you may see the stuff glitter here and there; and here is some of the dust. I had to buy this; gave them fifty shillings an ounce for it. I wish I had bought a hundred-weight, for they tell me it is worth three pound ten here."
"May we inspect these specimens?"
"Why not, sir? I'll trust it with you. I wouldn't with everybody, though."
The partners retired with the gold, tested it with muriatic acid, weighed it, and after a short, excited interview one of them brought it back and asked with great nonchalance the price of the land.
Meadows hung his head.
"Twenty thousand pounds."
"Twenty thousand pounds!" and the partner laughed in his face.
"I don't wonder you are surprised, sir. I wonder at myself asking so much. Why, before this, if you had offered me five thousand, I would have jumped into your arms, as the saying is; but they all say I ought to have twenty thousand, and they have talked to me till they make me greedy."
The partner retired and consulted, and the firm ended by offering ten thousand.
"I am right down ashamed to say no," was the answer, "but I suppose I must not take it."
The firm undertook to prove it was a magnificent offer. Meadows offered no resistance, he thought so too; but he must not take it, everybody told him it was worth more. At last, when his hand was on the door, they offered him twelve thousand five hundred.
He begged to consider it.
No! they were peremptory. If he was off, they were off.
He looked this way and that way with a frightened air.
"What shall I do, sir?" said he, helplessly, to Clinton, and nudged him secretly.
"Take it, and think yourself very lucky," said that gentleman, exchanging a glance with the firm.
"Well, then, if you say so, I will. You shall have it, gentlemen, five hundred acres in two lots--400 and 100."
Clinton, acting on his secret instructions, now sought a private interview with the firm.
"I am to have a commission, gentlemen?"
"Yes! fifty pounds; but, really, we can hardly afford it."
"Well, then, as you give me an interest in it, I say--pin him."
"Don't you see he is one of those soft fellows who listen to everybody. If he goes away, and they laugh at him for not getting more for it, I really could hardly answer for his ever coming back here."
The firm came in cheerfully.
"Well, Mr. ---- Mr."
"Not Mr., sir. Crawley--plain John Crawley."
"We will terminate this affair with you. We will have a contract of sale drawn up and make you an advance. When can you give us the title deeds?"
"In a couple of hours, if the lawyer is at home."
"By the by, you will not object to draw upon us at three months for one half of the money?"
"No, sir. I should say by the look of you you were as good as the bank."
"The other half by check in two hours." The parties signed the contract respectively.
Then Meadows and Clinton went off to the Five-per-Center, completed with him, got the title deeds, brought them, received check and accepted draft. Clinton, by Meadows' advice, went in and dunned for his commission then and there, and got it, and the confederates went off and took a hasty dinner together. After dinner they settled.
"As you showed me how to get this commission out of them, it belongs to you," said Clinton, sorrowfully.
"It does, sir. Give it to me. I return it to you, sir; do me the favor to accept it."
"You are very generous, Mr. Meadows."
"And here is the other fifty you have earned."
"Thank you, my good sir. Are you satisfied with the day's work?"
"Amply, sir. Your skill and ingenuity brought us through triumphant," said Meadows, resuming the deferential, since he risked nothing by it now.
"Well, I think I managed it pretty well. By the by, that gold you showed them, was it really gold?"
"Oh! because I thought--"
"No, sir, you did not. A man of your ability knows I would not risk ten thousand pounds for want of a purchase I could not lose ten. shillings by. Ore is not a fancy article."
"Oh! ah! yes, very true; no, of course not. One question more. Where did the gold come from?"
"But, I mean, how did you get it?"
"I bought it out of a shop window those two knowing ones pass twice every day of their lives."
"Ha! ha! ha!"
"You pass it oftener than that, sir. Excuse me, sir; I must catch the train. But one word before I go. My name must never be mentioned in this business."
"Very well; it never shall transpire, upon my honor."
Meadows felt pretty safe. As he put on his greatcoat he thought to himself: "When the story is blown and laughed over, this man's vanity will keep my name out of it. He won't miss a chance of telling the world how clever he is. My game is to pass for honest, not for clever, no, thank you."
"Good-by, sir," was his last word. "It is you for hoodwinking them."
"Ha! ha! ha! Good-by, farmer"(in a patronizing tone).
Soon after this, Meadows was in a corner of a railway-carriage, twelve thousand four hundred and fifty pounds in his pocket, and the second part of his great complex scheme boiling and bubbling in his massive head. There he sat silent as the grave, his hat drawn over his powerful brows that were knitted all the journey by one who never knitted them in vain.
He reached home at eight and sat down to his desk and wrote for more than half an hour. Then he sealed up the paper, and when Crawley came he found him walking up and down the room. At a silent gesture Crawley took a chair and sat quivering with curiosity. Meadows walked in deep thought.
"You demanded my confidence. It is a dangerous secret, for once you know it you must serve me with red-hot zeal, or be my enemy and be crushed out of life like a blind-worm, or an adder, Peter Crawley."
"I know that, dear sir," assented Peter, ruefully.
"First, how far have you guessed?"
"I guess Mr. Levi is somehow against us."
"He is," replied Meadows, carelessly.
"Then that is a bad job. He will beat us. He is as cunning as a fox."
Meadows looked up contemptuously; but as he could not afford to let such a sneak as Crawley think him anything short of invincible, he said coolly, "He is, and I have measured cunning with a fox."
"You have? That must have been a tight match."
"A fox used to take my chickens one hard winter; an old fox cautious and sly as the Jew you rate so high. The men sat up with guns for him--no; a keeper set traps in a triangle for him--no. He had the eye of a hawk, the ear of a hare, and his own nose. He would have the chickens, and he would not get himself into trouble. The women complained to me of the fox. I turned a ferret loose into the rabbit-hutch, and in half a minute there was as nice a young rabbit dead as ever you saw."
"Lookee there now," cried Crawley.
"I choked the ferret off, but never touched the rabbit. I took the rabbit with a pair of tongs; the others had handled their baits and pug crept round 'em and nosed the trick. I poured twenty drops of croton oil into the little hole ferret had made in bunny's head, and I dropped him in the grass near pug's track. Next morning rabbit had been drawn about twenty yards and the hole in his head was three times as big. Pug went the nearest way to blood; went in at ferret's hole. I knew he would."
"Yes, sir! yes! yes! yes! and there lay the fox."
"No signs of him. Then I said: 'Go to the nearest water. Croton oil makes 'em dry.' They went along the brook--and on the very bank there lay an old dog-fox blown up like bladder, as big as a wolf and as dead as a herring. Now for the Jew. Look at that;" and he threw him a paper.
"Why, this is the judgment on which I arrested Will Fielding, and here is the acceptance."
"Levi bought them to take the man out of my power. He left them with old Cohen. I have got them again, you see, and got young Fielding in my power spite of his foxy friend."
"Capital, sir, capital!" cried the admiring Crawley. He then looked at the reconquered documents. "Ah!" said he, spitefully, "how I wish I could alter one of these names, only one!"
"What d'ye mean?"
"I mean that I'd give fifty pound (if I had it) if it was but that brute George Fielding that was in our power instead of this fool William."
Meadows opened his eyes: "Why?"
"Because he put an affront upon me," was the somewhat sulky reply.
"What was that?"
"Oh, no matter, sir!"
"But it is matter. Tell me. I am that man's enemy."
"Then I am in luck. You are just the enemy I wish him."
"What was the affront?"
"He called me a pettifogger."
"Oh, is that all?"
"No. He discharged me from visiting his premises."
"That was not very polite."
"And threatened to horsewhip me next time I came there."
"Oh, is that where the shoe pinches?"
"No, it is not!" cried Crawley, almost in a shriek; "but he altered his mind, and did horsewhip me then and there. Curse him!"
Meadows smiled grimly. He saw his advantage. "Crawley," said he, quickly, "he shall rue the day he lifted his hand over you. You want to see to the bottom of me."
"Oh, Mr. Meadows, that is too far for the naked eye to see," was the despondent reply.
"Not when it suits my book. I am going to keep my promise and show you my heart."
"Listen and hear the secret of my life. Are you listening?"
"What do you think, sir?" was the tremulous answer.
"I--love--Miss--Merton;" and for once his eyes sank before Crawley's.
"Not as libertines love, nor as boys flirt and pass on. Heaven have mercy on me, I love her with all my heart and soul and brain! I love her with more force than such as you can hate!"
"The deuce you do!"
"I love the sweetheart--of the man--who lashed you--like a dog."
Crawley winced and rubbed his hands.
"And your fortune is made if you help me to win her."
Crawley rubbed his hands.
"Old Merton has promised the woman I love to this George Fielding if he comes back with a thousand pounds."
"Don't you be frightened, sir; that he will never do."
"Will he not? Read this letter."
"Ah! the letter that put you out so. Let me see--Mum! mum! Found gold. Pheugh! Pheugh! Pheeeugh!!"
"Crawley, most men reading that letter would have given in then and there, and not fought against such luck as this. I only said to myself, 'Then it will cost me ten thousand pounds to win the day.' Well, between yesterday eleven forenoon and this hour I made the ten thousand pounds."
He told him briefly how.
"Beautiful, sir! What, did you make the ten thousand out of your own rival's letter?"
"Yes, I taxed the enemy for the expenses of the war."
"Oh, Mr. Meadows, what a fool, what a villain I was to think Mr. Levi was as great a man as you! I must have been under a hallucination."
"Crawley, the day that John and Susan Meadows walk out of church man and wife I put a thousand pounds into your hand and set you up in any business you like; in any honest business, for from that day our underhand dealings must end. The husband of that angel must never grind the poor or wrong a living creature. If Heaven consents to my being happy in this way, the least I can do is to walk straight and straightforward the rest of my days, and I will, s'help me God."
"That is fair. I knew you were a great man, but I had no idea you were such a good one."
"Crawley," said the other, with a sudden gloomy misgiving, "I am trying to cheat the devil. I fear no man can do that;" and he hung his head.
"No ordinary man, sir," replied the parasite, "but your skill has no bounds. Your plan, sir, at once, that I may co-operate and not thwart your great skill through ignorance."
"My plan has two hands; one must work here, the other a great many miles from here. If I could but cut myself in two, all would be well; but I can't; I must be one hand, you the other. I work thus: Post-office here is under my thumb. I stop all letters from him to her. Presently comes a letter from Australia telling among pork, grains, etc., how George Fielding has made his fortune and married a girl out there."
"But who is to write the letter?"
Can't you guess?"
"Haven't an idea. She won't believe it."
"Not at first, perhaps, but when she gets no more letters from him she will."
"So she will. So then you will run him down to her."
"Not such a fool, she would hate me. I shall never mention his name. I make one of my tools hang jail over old Merton. Susan thinks George married. I strike upon her pique and her father's distress. I ask him for his daughter. Offer to pay my father-in-law's debts and start him afresh."
"Susan likes me already. I tell her all I suffered silent while she was on with George. I press her to be mine. She will say no perhaps three or four times, but the fifth she will say yes!"
"She will; you are a great man."
"And she will be happy."
"Can't see it."
"A man that marries a virtuous woman and loves her is no man at all if he can't make her love him; they can't resist our stronger wills except by flight or by leaning upon another man. I'll be back directly."
Mr. Meadows returned with a bottle of wine and two glasses. Crawley was surprised. This was a beverage he had never seen his friend drink or offer him. Another thing puzzled him. When Mr. Meadows came back with the wine he had not so much color as usual in his face--not near so much.
"Crawley," said Meadows, in a low voice, "suppose, while I am working, this George Fielding were to come home with money in both pockets?"
"He would kick it all down in a moment."
"I am glad you see that. Then you see one hand is not enough; another must be working far away."
"Yes, but I don't see--"
"You will see. Drink a glass of wine with me, my good friend; your health."
"Same to you, sir."
"Is it to your mind?"
"Elixir! This is the stuff that sharpens a chap's wit and puts courage in his heart."
"I brought it for that. You and I have no chicken's play on hand. Another glass."
"Success to your scheme, sir."
"Crawley, George Fielding must not come back this year with one thousand pounds."
"No, he must not--thank you, sir, your health. Mustn't, he shan't; but how on earth can you prevent him?"
"That paper will prevent him; it is a paper of instructions. My very brains lie in that paper--put it in your pocket."
"In my pocket, sir? Highly honored--shall be executed to the letter. What, wine!"
"And this is a check-book."
"No! is it though?"
"You will draw on me for one hundred pounds per month."
"No! shall I, though? Sir, you are a king!"
"Of which you will account for fifty pounds only."
"Liberal, sir; as I said before, liberal as running water."
"You are going a journey."
"Am I? well! Don't you turn pale for that--I'll come back to you--nothing but death shall part us. Have a drop of this, sir; it will put blood into your cheek, and fire into your heart. That is right. Where am I going, sir?"
"What, don't you know?"
"No! nor I don't care, so long as it is in your service I go."
"Still it is a long journey."
"Oh, is it? Your health then, and my happy return."
"You are not afraid of the sea or the wind?"
"I am afraid of nothing but your wrath, and--and--the law. The sea be hanged, and the wind be blowed! When I see your talent and energy, and hold your checkbook in my hand and your instructions in my pocket, I feel to play at football with the world. When shall I start?"
"To-night, if you like. Where am I to go to?"
That single word suspended the glass going to Crawley's lips, and the chuckle coming from them. A dead silence on both sides followed it. And now two colorless faces looked into one another's eyes across the table.