It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
"Don't keep staring at it so, farmer, it is an ugly sight. You will see him in your sleep if you do that. Here is something better to look at--a letter. And there I carried it and never once thought of it till the sight of his hand made me feel in my pocket, and then my hand ran against it. 'Tis from Mr. Levi."
"Thank you, Jem. Tom, will you be so kind as read it me while I work?"
"Yes, give it me. Work? Why, what are we going to work at in the bush?"
"I should think you might guess," replied George quietly, while putting down his pickax and taking off his coat. "Well, I am astonished at both of you. You ought to know what I am going to do. Humph! Under this tree will be as good a place as any."
"Jem, as I am a sinner, he is going to bury him."
"Bury what? The nugget?"
"No, Jem, the Christian."*
* In Berkshire, among a certain class, this word means "a human being."
"A pretty Christian," sneered Robinson.
"You know what I mean, Tom?"
"I know it is very kind of you to take all this trouble to bury my enemy," said Robinson, hurt.
"Don't ye say that," replied George, hurt in his turn. "He was as much my enemy as yours."
"No such thing. He was here after me, and has been tormenting me this twelve months. You have no enemy, a great soft spoon like you."
"Keep your temper, Tom," answered George, in a mollifying tone. "Let each man act according to his lights. I couldn't leave a corpse to the fowls of the air.
"Gibbet a murderer, I say--don't bury him; especially when he has just been hunting our very lives."
"Tom," replied George doggedly," death settles all accounts. I liked the man as little as you could; and it is not to say I am in love with a man because I sprinkle a little earth over his dead bones. Ugh! This is the unkindest soil to work. It is full of roots, enough to break a fellow's heart."
While George was picking and grubbing out roots, and fighting with the difficult soil, Robinson opened Levi's letter viciously and read out:
"George Fielding, you have an enemy in the mine--a secret, cowardly, unscrupulous enemy, who lies in wait for your return. I have seen his face, and tremble for you. Therefore listen to my words. The old Jew, whom twice you have saved from harm and insult, is rich, his children are dead, the wife of his bosom is dead. He loves no creature now but you and Susannah; therefore run no more risks for gold, since much gold awaits you without risk. Come home. Respect the words of age and experience--come home. Delay not an hour. Oh, say not, 'I will sleep yet one more night in my tent, and then I will depart,' but ride speedily after me on the very instant. Two horses have I purchased for you and the young man your friend--two swift horses with their saddles. The voucher is inclosed. Ride speedily after me this very hour, lest evil befall you and yet more sorrow fall upon Susannah and upon--Isaac Levi."
The reading of this letter was followed by a thoughtful silence broken only by the sound of George's pickax and the bursting roots.
"This is a very extraordinary letter. Mr. Levi knows more than he tells you, George."
"I am of your opinion."
"Why, captain," said Jem, "to go by that letter, Fielding is the marked man, and not you after all. So it is his own enemy he is digging that grave for."
"Do you think you will stop him by saying that?" asked Robinson, with a shrug.
"He was my enemy, Tom, and yours too; but now he is nobody's enemy; he is dead. Will you help me lay him in the earth, or shall I do it by myself?"
"We will help," said the others, a little sullenly.
They brought the body to its grave under the tall gum-tree.
"Not quite so rough, Tom, if you please."
"I didn't mean to be rough that I know of--there."
They laid the dead villain gently and reverently in his grave. George took a handful of soil and scattered it over him.
"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust," said he, solemnly.
The other two looked down and sprinkled soil, too, and their anger and bitterness began to soften by the side of George and over the grave.
Then Jem felt in his pocket and produced something wrapped in silver paper.
"This belongs!" said he, with a horrible simplicity. "The farmer is too good for this world, but it is a good fault. There, farmer," said he, looking to George for approbation as he dropped the little parcel into the grave. "After all," continued Jem, good-naturedly, "it would have been very hard upon a poor fellow to wake up in the next world and not have what does belong to him to make an honest living with."
The grave was filled in, and a little mound made at the foot of the tree. Then George took out his knife and began to cut the smooth bark.
"What now? Oh, I see. That is a good idea, George. Read them a lesson. Say in a few words how he came here to do a deed of violence and died himself--by the hand of Heaven."
"Tom," replied George, cutting away at the bark, "he is gone where he is sure to be judged; so we have no call to judge him. God Almighty can do that, I do suppose, without us putting in our word."
"Well, have it your own way. I never saw the toad so obstinate before, Jem. What is he cutting, I wonder?"
The inscription, when finished, ran thus:
"PLEASE DON'T CUT DOWN THIS TREE.
"Now, Tom, for England!"
They set out again with alacrity, and battled with the bush about two hours more. George and Robinson carried the great nugget on a handkerchief stretched double across two sticks, Jem carried the picks. They were all in high spirits, and made light of scratches and difficulties. At last, somewhat suddenly, they burst out of the thick part into the mere outskirts frequented by the miners, and there they came plump upon brutus, with a gun in his hand and pistols peeping out of his pockets, come to murder Black Will and rob him of his spoils.
They were startled, and brutus astounded, for he was fully persuaded George and Robinson had ceased to exist. He was so dumfounded that Robinson walked up to him and took the gun out of his hands without any resistance on his part. The others came round him, and Robinson demanded his pistols.
"What for?" said he.
Now at this very moment his eye fell upon that fabulous mass of gold they carried, and both his eyes opened, and a sort of shiver passed over him. With ready cunning he looked another way, but it was too late. Robinson had caught that furtive glance, and a chill came over him that this villain should have seen the prize, a thing to excite cupidity to frenzy. Nothing now would have induced Robinson to leave him armed.
He replied, sternly: "Because we are four to one, and we will hang you on the nearest tree if you don't give them up. And, now, what are you doing here?"
"I was only looking for my pal," said brutus.
"Well, you won't want a gun and pistols to look for your pal. Which way are you going?"
"Into the bush."
"Then mizzle! That is the road."
brutus moved gloomily away into the bush.
"There," said Robinson, "he has turned bushranger. I've disarmed him, and saved some poor fellow's life and property. Cover up the nugget, George."
They went on, but presently Robinson had a thought.
"Jacky," said he, "you saw that man; should you know him again?"
"Jacky, that man is our enemy. Could you track him by his footsteps without ever letting him see you?"
Jacky smiled superior.
"Then follow him and see where he goes, and whom he joins--and come to the mine directly and tell me."
Jacky's eyes gleamed at this intelligence. He sat down, and in a few turns of the hand painted his face war, and glided like a serpent on brutus's trail.
The rest cleared the wood, and brought the nugget, safe hidden in their pocket-handkerchief, to camp. They begged Jem to accept the fifty pounds, if he did not mind handling the price of blood.
Jem assured them he had no such scruples, and took it with a burst of thanks.
Then they made him promise faithfully not to mention to a soul about the monster nugget. No more he did while he was sober, but, alas! some hours later, having a drop in his head, he betrayed the secret to one or two--say forty.
Robinson pitched their tent and mounted guard over the nugget. George was observed to be in a strange flutter. He ran hither and thither. Ran to the post-office--ran to the stationer--got paper--drew up a paper--found McLaughlan--made him sign it--went to Mr. Moore--showed him Isaac's voucher; on which Moore produced the horses, a large black horse with both bone and blood, and a good cob.
George was very much pleased with them, and asked what Levi had given for them.
"Two hundred and fifty pounds for the pair."
"Good Heavens," cried George, "what a price! Mr. Levi was in earnest." Then he ran out and went to the tent and gave Robinson his letters. "But there were none for me, Tom," sighed George. "Never mind, I shall soon--"
Now these letters brought joy and triumph to Robinson; one contained a free pardon, the other was a polite missive from the Colonial Government, in answer to the miners' petition he had sent up.
"Secretary had the honor to inform Mr. Robinson that police were on the road to the mine, and that soldiers would arrive by to-morrow to form an escort, so that the miners' gold might travel in safety down to Sydney."
"Hurrah! this is good news," cried Robinson, "and what a compliment to me. Do you hear, George? an escort of soldiers coming to the camp to-morrow; they will take the nugget safe to Sydney."
"Not if we are robbed of it to-night," replied George.
At this moment in came Jacky with news of brutus. That wily man had gone but a little way in the bush when he had made a circuit, and had slipped back into another part of the mine, and Jacky had followed him first by trail, afterward by sight, and had marked him down into a certain tent, on which he had straightway put a little red mark.
"Come back after our nugget, George. Fools we were to carry it blazing in folks' eyes."
"I dare say we can beat him."
"I am game to try. Jacky, I want to put a question to you."
While Jacky and Tom were conferring in animated whispers, George was fixing an old spur he had picked up into the heel of his boot.
"That is capital, Jacky. Well, George, we have hit upon a plan."
"And so have I."
"Yes! me! but tell me yours first, Tom."
Robinson detailed him his scheme with all its ramifications, and a very ingenious stratagem it was.
For all that, when George propounded his plan in less than six words, Robinson stared with surprise and then gave way to ludicrous admiration.
"Well," cried he, "simplicity before cunning; look at that now. Where was my head?--George, this is your day--carried nem. con."
"And, Tom, you can do yours all the same."
"Can I? Why, yes, to be sure I can. There, he saw that, too, before. Why, George, if you don't mind, you will be No. 1 and I No. 2. What makes you so sharp all of a sudden?"
"I have to think for Susan as well as us," said the poor fellow, tenderly, "that is why I am sharp--for once in a way. And now, Jacky--you are a great anxiety to me, and the time is so short--come sit by me, dear Jacky, and let me try and make you understand what I have been doing for you, that you may be good and happy, and comfortable in your old age, when your poor old limbs turn stiff, and you can hunt no longer. In grateful return for the nugget, and more than that for all your goodness and kindness to me in times of bitter trouble."
Then George showed Jacky how he had given Abner one-third of all his sheep and cattle, and Jacky two-thirds, and how McLaughlan, a just man, would see the division made. "And do leave the woods, except for a hunt now and then, Jacky; you are too good for them."
Above all, George explained with homely earnestness the nature of the sheep, her time of lambing, etc., and showed Jacky how the sheep and cattle would always keep him fed and clothed, if he would but use them reasonably, and not kill the breeders for dinner.
And Jacky listened with glistening eyes, for George's glistened, and the sweet tones of affection and gratitude pierced through this family talk, and it is sad that we must drop the curtain on this green spot in the great camp and go among our villains.