It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
"Tom, I invite you to a walk."
"Ay! ay! I'd give twenty pounds for one; but the swag?"
"Leave it this one day with Mr. Levi; he has got two young men always armed in his tent, and a little peevish dog, and gutta-percha pipes running into all the Jews' tents that are at his back like chicks after the old hen."
"Oh, he is a deep one."
"And he has got mouth-pieces to them, and so he could bring thirty men upon a thief in less than half a minute."
"Well, then, George! a walk is a great temptation, this beautiful day."
In short, by eight o'clock the gold was deposited, and the three friends, for Policeman C must count for one, stepped lustily out in the morning air.
It was the month of January; a blazing hot day was beginning to glow through the freshness of morning; the sky was one cope of pure blue, and the southern air crept slowly up, its wings clogged with fragrance, and just tuned the trembling leaves--no more.
"Is not this pleasant, Tom--isn't it sweet?"
"I believe you, George! and what a shame to run down such a country as this. There they come home, and tell you the flowers have no smell, but they keep dark about the trees and bushes being haystacks of flowers. Snuff the air as we go, it is a thousand English gardens in one. Look at all those tea-scrubs each with a thousand blossoms on it as sweet as honey, and the golden wattles on the other side, and all smelling like seven o'clock; after which flowers be hanged!"
"Ay, lad! it is very refreshing; and it is Sunday, and we have got away from the wicked for an hour or two; but in England there would be a little white church out yonder, and a spire like an angel's forefinger pointing from the grass to heaven, and the lads in their clean smock-frocks like snow, and the wenches in their white stockings and new shawls, and the old women in their scarlet cloaks and black bonnets, all going one road, and a tinkle-tinkle from the belfry, that would turn all these other sounds and colors and sweet smells holy, as well as fair, on the Sabbath morn. Ah! England. Ah!"
"You will see her again--no need to sigh."
"Oh, I was not thinking of her in particular just then."
"Prejudice be hanged, this is a lovely land."
"So 'tis, Tom, so 'tis. But I'll tell you what puts me out a little bit; nothing is what it sets up for here. If you see a ripe pear and go to eat it,--it is a lump of hard wood. Next comes a thing the very sight of which turns your stomach--and that is delicious, a loquot, for instance. There now, look at that magpie! well, it is Australia--so that magpie is a crow and not a magpie at all. Everything pretends to be some old friend or other of mine, and turns out a stranger. Here is nothing but surprises and deceptions. The flowers make a point of not smelling, and the bushes that nobody expects to smell, or wants to smell, they smell lovely.
"What does it matter where the smell comes from, so that you get it?"
"Why, Tom," replied George, opening his eyes, "it makes all the difference. I like to smell a flower--flower is not complete without smell--but I don't care if I never smell a bush till I die. Then the birds they laugh and talk like Christians; they make me split my sides, God bless their little hearts; but they won't chirrup. Oh, dear, no, bless you, they leave the Christians to chirrup--they hold conversations and giggle and laugh and play a thing like a fiddle--it is Australia! where everything is inside-out and topsy-turvy. The animals have four legs, so they jump on two. Ten-foot square of rock lets for a pound a month; ten acres of grass for a shilling a year. Roasted at Christmas, shiver o' cold on midsummer-day. The lakes are grass, and the rivers turn their backs on the sea and run into the heart of the land; and the men would stand on their heads, but I have taken a thought, and I've found out why they don't."
"Because if they did their heads would point the same way a man's head points in England."
Robinson laughed, and told George he admired the country for these very traits. "Novelty for me against the world. Who'd come twelve thousand miles to see nothing we couldn't see at home? Hang the same old story always; where are we going, George?"
"Oh, not much farther, only about twelve miles from the camp?"
"To a farmer I know. I am going to show you a lark, Tom," said George. His eyes beamed benevolence on his comrade.
Robinson stopped dead short. "George," said he, "no! don't let us. I would rather stay at home and read my book. You can go into temptation and come out pure; I can't. I am one of those that, if I go into a puddle up to my shoe, I must splash up to my middle."
"What has that to do with it?"
"Your proposing to me to go in for a lark on the Sabbath day.
"Why, Tom, am I the man to tempt you to do evil?" asked George, hurt.
"Why, no! but, for all that, you proposed a lark."
"Ay, but an innocent one, one more likely to lift your heart on high than to give you ill thoughts."
"Well, this is a riddle;" and Robinson was intensely puzzled.
"Carlo," cried George, suddenly, "come here. I will not have you hunting and tormenting those kangaroo rats to-day. Let us all be at peace, if you please. Come to heel."
The friends strode briskly on, and a little after eleven o'clock they came upon a small squatter's house and premises. "Here we are," cried George, and his eyes glittered with innocent delight.
The house was thatched and whitewashed, and English was written on it and on every foot of ground round it. A furzebush had been planted by the door. Vertical oak palings were the fence, with a five-barred gate in the middle of them. From the little plantation all the magnificent trees and shrubs of Australia had been excluded with amazing resolution and consistency, and oak and ash reigned safe from overtowering rivals. They passed to the back of the house, and there George's countenance fell a little, for on the oval grass-plot and gravel walk he found from thirty to forty rough fellows, most of them diggers.
"Ah, well," said he, on reflection, "we could not expect to have it all to ourselves, and indeed it would be a sin to wish it, you know. Now, Tom, come this way; here it is, here it is--there." Tom looked up, and in a gigantic cage was a light brown bird.
He was utterly confounded. "What, is it this we came twelve miles to see?"
"Ay! and twice twelve wouldn't have been much to me."
"Well, but what is the lark you talked of?"
"This is it."
"This? This is a bird."
"Well, and isn't a lark a bird?"
"Oh, ay! I see! ha! ha! ha! ha!"
Robinson's merriment was interrupted by a harsh remonstrance from several of the diggers, who were all from the other end of the camp.
"Hold your ---- cackle," cried one, "he is going to sing;" and the whole party had their eyes turned with expectation toward the bird.
Like most singers, he kept them waiting a bit. But at last, just at noon, when the mistress of the house had warranted him to sing, the little feathered exile began as it were to tune his pipes. The savage men gathered round the cage that moment, and amid a dead stillness the bird uttered some very uncertain chirps, but after a while he seemed to revive his memories, and call his ancient cadences back him to one by one, and string them sotto voce.
And then the same sun that had warmed his little heart at home came glowing down on him here, and he gave music back for it more and more, till at last--amid breathless silence and glistening eyes of the rough diggers hanging on his voice--out burst in that distant land his English song.
It swelled his little throat and gushed from him with thrilling force and plenty, and every time he checked his song to think of its theme, the green meadows, the quiet stealing streams, the clover he first soared from, and the spring he sang so well, a loud sigh from many a rough bosom, many a wild and wicked heart, told how tight the listeners had held their breath to hear him; and when he swelled with song again, and poured with all his soul the green meadows, the quiet brooks, the honey clover and the English spring, the rugged mouths opened and so stayed, and the shaggy lips trembled, and more than one drop trickled from fierce unbridled hearts down bronzed and rugged cheeks.
And these shaggy men, full of oaths and strife and cupidity, had once been white-headed boys, and had strolled about the English fields with little sisters and little brothers, and seen the lark rise, and heard him sing this very song. The little playmates lay in the churchyard, and they were full of oaths and drink and lusts and remorses--but no note was changed in this immortal song. And so for a moment or two years of vice rolled away like a dark cloud from the memory, and the past shone out in the song-shine. They came back, bright as the immortal notes that lighted them, those faded pictures and those fleeted days; the cottage, the old mother's tears when he left her without one grain of sorrow; the village-church and its simple chimes; the clover-field hard by in which he lay and gamboled, while the lark praised God overhead; the chubby playmates that never grew to be wicked, the sweet hours of youth--and innocence--and home.