It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
Isaac Levi, rescued by George Fielding, reached his tent smarting with pain and bitter insult; he sat on the floor pale and dusty, and anathematized his adversaries in the Hebrew tongue. Wrath still boiling in his heart, he drew out his letters and read them. Then grief mingled with his anger. Old Cohen, his friend and agent and coeval, was dead. Another self dead.
Besides the hint that this gave him to set his house in order, a distinct consideration drew Isaac now to England. He had trusted much larger interests to old Cohen than he was at all disposed to leave in the hands of Cohen's successors, men of another generation, "progeniem vitiosiorem," he sincerely believed.
Another letter gave him some information about Meadows that added another uneasiness to those he already felt on George's account. Hence his bitter disappointment when he found George gone from the mine, the date of his return uncertain. Hence, too, the purchase of Moore's horses, and the imploring letter to George--measures that proved invaluable to that young man, whose primitive simplicity and wise humility led him not to question the advice of his elder, but obey it.
And so it was that, although the old Jew sailed home upon his own interests, yet during the voyage George Fielding's assumed a great importance, direct and incidental. Direct, because the old man was warm with gratitude to him; indirect, because he boiled over with hate of George's most dangerous enemy. And, as he neared the English coast, the thought that though he was coming to Farnborough he could not come home, grew bitterer and bitterer, and then that he should find his enemy and his insulter in the very house sacred by the shadows of the beloved and dead!!
Finding in Nathan a youth of no common fidelity and shrewdness, Isaac confided in him; and Nathan, proud beyond description of the confidence bestowed on him by one so honored in his tribe, enlisted in his cause with all the ardor of youth tempered by Jewish address.
Often they sat together on the deck, and the young Jewish brain and the old Jewish brain mingled and digested a course of conduct to meet every imaginable contingency; for the facts they at present possessed were only general and vague.
The first result of all this was that these two crept into the town of Farnborough at three o'clock one morning; that Isaac took out a key and unlocked the house that stood next to Meadows' on the left hand; that Isaac took secret possession of the first floor, and Nathan open but not ostentatious possession of the ground-floor, with a tale skillfully concocted to excite no suspicion whatever that Isaac was in any way connected with his presence in the town. Nathan, it is to be observed, had never been in Farnborough before.
The next morning they worked. Nathan went out, locking the door after him, to execute two commissions. He was to find out what the young Cohens were doing, and how far they were likely to prove worthy of the trust reposed in their father; and what Susan Merton was doing, and whether Meadows was courting her or not. The latter part of Nathan's task was terribly easy.
The young man came home late at night, locked the door, made a concerted signal, and was admitted to the senior presence. He found him smoking his Eastern pipe. Nathan with dejected air told him that he had good news; that the Cohens not only thought themselves wiser than their father, which was permissible, but openly declared it, which he, though young, had observed to be a trait confined to very great fools.
"It is well said, my son," quoth Isaac, smoking calmly, "and the other business?"
"Oh, master!" said Nathan, "I bring still worse tidings of her. She is a true Nazarite, a creature without faith. She is betrothed to the man you hate, and whom I, for your sake, hate even to death."
They spoke in an Eastern dialect, which I am paraphrasing here and translating there, according to the measure of my humble abilities. Isaac sucked his pipe very fast; this news was a double blow to his feelings. "If she be indeed a Nazarite without faith, let her go; but judge not the simple hastily. First, let me know how far woman's frailty is to blame; how far man's guile--for not for nothing was Crawley sent out to the mine by Meadows. Let me consider;" and he smoked calmly again.
After a long silence, which Nathan was too respectful to break, the old man gave him his commission for to-morrow. He was to try and discover why Susan Merton had written no letters for many months to George; and why she had betrothed herself to the foe. "But reveal nothing in return," said Isaac, "neither ask more than three questions of any one person, lest they say, 'Who is this that being a Jew asks many questions about a Nazarite maiden, and why asks he them?'"
At night Nathan returned full of intelligence. She loved the young man Fielding. She wrote letters to him and received letters from him, until gold was found in Australia. But after this he wrote to her no more letters, wherefore her heart was troubled.
"Ah! and did she write to him?"
"Yes! but received no answer, nor any letter for many months."
"Then came a rumor that he was dead, and she mourned for him after the manner of her people many days. Verily, master, I am vexed for the Nazarite maiden, for her tale is sad. Then came a letter from Australia, that said he is not dead, but married to a stranger. Then the maiden said: 'Behold now this twelve months he writes not to me, this then is true'; and she bowed her head, and the color left her cheek. Then this Meadows visited her, and consoled her day by day. And there are those who confidently affirm that her father said often to her, 'Behold now I am a man stricken in years, and the man Meadows is rich'; so the maiden gave her hand to the man, but whether to please the old man her father, or out of the folly and weakness of females, thou, O Isaac, son of Shadrach, shalt determine; seeing that I am young, and little versed in the ways of women, knowing this only by universal report, that they are fair to the eye but often bitter to the taste."
"Aha!" cried Isaac, "but I am old, O Nathan, son of Eli, and with the thorns of old age comes one good fruit, 'experience.' No letters came to him, yet she wrote many. None came to her, yet he wrote many. All this is transparent as glass--here has been fraud as well as guile."
Nathan's eye sparkled. "What is the fraud, master?"
"Nay, that I know not, but I will know!"
"But how, master?"
"By help of thine ears, or my own!"
Nathan looked puzzled. So long as Mr. Levi shut himself up a close prisoner on the first floor what could he hear for himself?
Isaac read the look and smiled. He then rose, and, putting his finger to his lips, led the way to his own apartments. At the staircase-door, which even Nathan had not yet passed, he bade the young man take off his shoes; he himself was in slippers. He took Nathan into a room, the floor of which was entirely covered with mattresses. A staircase, the steps of which were covered with horsehair, went by a tolerably easy slope and spiral movement nearly up to the cornice. Of this cornice a portion about a foot square swung back on a well-oiled hinge, and Isaac drew out from the wall with the utmost caution a piece of gutta-percha piping, to this he screwed on another piece open at the end, and applied it to his ear.
Nathan comprehended it all in a moment. His master could overhear every word uttered in Meadows' study. Levi explained to him that ere he left his old house he had put a new cornice in the room he thought Meadows would sit in, a cornice so deeply ornamented that no one could see the ear he left in it, and had taken out bricks in the wall of the adjoining house and made the other arrangements they were inspecting together. Mr. Levi further explained that his object was simply to overhear and counteract every scheme Meadows should form. He added that he never intended to leave Farnborough for long. His intention had been to establish certain relations in that country, buy some land, and return immediately; but the gold discovery had detained him.
"But, master," said Nathan, "suppose the man had taken his business to the other side of his house?"
"Foolish youth," replied Isaac, "am I not on both sides of him!!"
"Ah! What, is there another on the other?" Isaac nodded.
Thus, while Nathan was collecting facts, Isaac had been watching, "patient as a cat, keen as a lynx," at his ear-hole, and heard--nothing.
Now the next day Nathan came in hastily long before the usual hour. "Master, another enemy is come--the man Crawley! I saw him from the window; he saw not me. What shall I do?"
"Keep the house all day. I would not have him see you. He would say, 'Aha! the old Jew is here, too.'" Nathan's countenance fell. He was a prisoner now as well as his master.
The next morning, rising early to prepare their food, he was surprised to find the old man smoking his pipe down below.
"All is well, my son. My turn has come. I have had great patience, and great is the reward." He then told him with natural exultation the long conference he had been secretly present at between Crawley and Meadows--a conference in which the enemy had laid bare, not his guilt only, but the secret crevice in his coat of mail. "She loves him not!" cried Levi, with exultation. "She is his dupe! With a word I can separate them and confound him utterly."
"Oh, master!" cried the youth eagerly, "speak that word to-day, and let me be there and hear it spoken if I have favor in your eyes."
"Speak it to-day!" cried Levi, with a look of intense surprise at Nathan's simplicity. "Go to, foolish youth!" said he; "what, after I have waited months and months for vengeance, would you have me fritter it away for want of waiting a day or two longer? No, I will strike, not the empty cup from his hand, but the full cup from his lips. Aha! you have seen the Jew insulted and despised in many lands; have patience now and you shall see how he can give blow for blow; ay! old, and feeble, and without a weapon, can strike his adversary to the heart."
Nathan's black eye flashed. "You are the master, I the scholar," said he. "All I ask is to be permitted to share the watching for your enemy's words, since I may not go abroad while it is day."
Thus the old and young lynx lay in ambush all day. And at night the young lynx prowled, but warily, lest Crawley should see him; and every night brought home some scrap of intelligence.
To change the metaphor, it was as though while the Western spider wove his artful web round the innocent fly, the Oriental spider wove another web round him, the threads of which were so subtle as to be altogether invisible. Both East and West leaned with sublime faith on their respective gossamers. nor remembered that "Dieu dispose."