It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
All this time two persons in the gold mine were upon thorns of expectation and doubt--brutus and Peter Crawley. George and Robinson did not return, but no more did Black Will. What had happened? Had the parties come into collision? and, if so, with what result? If the friends had escaped, why had they never been heard of since? If, on the other hand, Will had come off conqueror, why had he never reappeared? At last brutus arrived at a positive conviction that Black Will had robbed and probably murdered the men, and was skulking somewhere with their gold, thereby defrauding him, his pal; however, he kept this to himself, and told Crawley that he feared Will had come to grief, so he would go well armed, and see what was the matter, and whether he could help him. So he started for the bush, well armed. Now his real object, I blush to say, was to murder Black Will, and rob him of the spoils of George and Robinson.
Wicked as these men of violence had been six months ago, gold and Crawley had made them worse, ay, much worse. Crawley, indeed, had never openly urged any of them to so deep a crime as murder, and it is worthy of note, as a psychological fact, that this reptile contrived to deceive itself into thinking that it had stopped short of crime's utmost limits; to be sure it had tempted and bribed and urged men to robbery under circumstances that were almost sure to lead to murder, but still murder might not occur; meantime it had openly discountenanced that crime, and checked the natural proclivity of brutus and Black Will toward deeds of blood.
Self-deception will probably cease at the first blast of the archangel's trumpet. But what human heart will part with it till then? The circumstances under which a human being could not excuse or delude or justify himself have never yet occurred in the huge annals of crime. Prejudice apart, Crawley's moral position behind brutus and Black Will seems to bear a strong family likeness to that which Holy Writ assigns to the great enemy of man. That personage knocks out nobody's brains, cuts nobody's throat, never was guilty of such brutality since the world was, but he finds some thorough egotist, and whispers how the egotism of his passions or his interest may be gratified by the death of a fellow-creature. The egotist listens, and blood flows.
brutus and Black Will had both suffered for their crimes. brutus had been nailed by Carlo, twice gibbeted, and the bridge of his nose broken once. Black Will had been mutilated, and Walker nearly drowned, but "the close contriver of all harms" had kept out of harm's way. Violence had never recoiled on him who set it moving. For all that, Crawley, I must inform the reader, was not entirely prosperous. He had his little troubles, too, whether warnings that he was on the wrong path, or punishments of his vices, or both, I can't say.
Thus it was. Mr. Crawley had a natural love of spirits, without a stomach strong enough to deal with them. When he got away from Mr. Meadows he indulged more and more, and for some months past he had been subject to an unpleasant phenomenon that arises now and then out of the fumes of liquor. At the festive board, even as he raised the glass to his lips, the face of Crawley would often be seen to writhe with a sort of horror, and his eyes to become fixed on unseen objects, and perspiration to gather on his brow. Then such as were not in the secret would jump up and say, "What on earth is the matter?" and look fearfully round, expecting to see some horrid sight to justify that look of horror and anguish; but Crawley, his glassy eyes still fixed, would whimper out, his teeth chattering, and clipping the words: "Oh, ne-ne-never mind, it's o-o-only a trifling ap-parition!" He had got to try and make light of it, because at first he used to cry out and point, and then the miners ran out and left him alone with his phantoms, and this was terrible. He dreaded solitude; he schemed against it, and provided against it, and paid fellows to bear him company night and day, and at the festive board it was one thing to drink his phantoms neat and another to dilute them with figures of flesh and blood. He much preferred the latter.
At first, his supernatural visitors were of a unfavorable but not a ghastly character.
No. 1 was a judge who used to rise through the floor, and sit half in and half out of the wall, with a tremendous flow of horse-hair, a furrowed face, a vertical chasm between the temples, and a strike-me-off-the-rolls eye gleaming with diabolical fire from under a gray, shaggy eyebrow.
No. 2 was a policeman, who came in through the window, and stood imperturbable, all in blue, with a pair of handcuffs, and a calm eye, and a disagreeable absence of effort or emotion--an inevitable-looking policeman.
But as Crawley went deeper in crime and brandy, blood-boltered figures, erect corpses, with the sickening signs of violence in every conceivable form, used to come and blast his sight and arrest the glass on its way to his lips, and make his songs and the boisterous attempts at mirth of his withered heart die in a quaver and a shiver of fear and despair. And at this period of our tale these horrors had made room for a phantom more horrible still to such a creature as Crawley. The air would seem to thicken into sulfurous smoke, and then to clear, and then would come out clearer and clearer, more and more awful, a black figure with hoof and horns and tail, eyes like red-hot carbuncles, teeth a chevaux-de-frise of white-hot iron, and an appalling grin.*
* The god Pan colored black by the early Christians.