It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
Meadows rode to Grassmere, to try and prevail with Susan to be married on Thursday next, instead of Monday. As he rode he revolved every argument he could think of to gain her compliance. He felt sure she was more inclined to postpone the day than to advance it, but something told him his fate hung on this: "These two men will come home on Monday. I am sure of it. Ay, Monday morning, before we can wed. I will not throw a chance away; the game is too close." Then he remembered with dismay that Susan had been irritable and snappish just before parting yester eve--a trait she had never exhibited to him before. When he arrived, his heart almost failed him, but after some little circumlocution and excuse he revealed the favor, the great favor, he was come to ask. He asked it. She granted it without the shade of a demur. He was no less surprised than delighted, but the truth is that very irritation and snappishness of yesterday was the cause of her consenting; her conscience told her she had been unkind, and he had been too wise to snap in return. So now he benefited by the reaction and little bit of self-reproach. For do but abstain from reproaching a good girl who has been unjust or unkind to you, and ten to one if she does not make you the amemde by word or deed--most likely the latter, for so she can soothe her tender conscience without grazing her equally sensitive pride. Poor Susan little knew the importance of the concession she made so easily.
Meadows galloped home triumphant. But two whole days now between him and his bliss! And that day passed and Tuesday passed. The man lived three days and nights in a state of tension that would have killed some of us or driven us mad; but his intrepid spirit rode the billows of hope and fear like a petrel. And the day before the wedding it did seem as if his adverse fate got suddenly alarmed and made a desperate effort and hurled against him every assailant that could be found. In the morning came his mother, and implored him ere it was too late to give up this marriage. "I have kept silence, yea even from good words," said the aged woman; "but at last I must speak. John, she does not love you. I am a woman and can read a woman's heart; and you fancied her long before George Fielding was false to her, if false he ever was, John."
The old woman said the whole of this last sentence with so much meaning that her son was stung to rage, and interrupted her fiercely: "I looked to find all the world against me, but not my own mother. No matter, so be it; the whole world shan't turn me, and those I don't care to fight I'll fly."
And he turned savagely on his heel and left the old woman there shocked and terrified by his vehemence. She did not stay there long. Soon the scarlet cloak and black bonnet might have been seen wending their way slowly back to the little cottage, the poor old tidy bonnet drooping lower than it was wont. Meadows came back to dinner; he had a mutton-chop in his study, for it was a busy day. While thus employed there came almost bursting into the room a man struck with remorse--Jefferies, the recreant postmaster.
"Mr. Meadows, I can carry on this game no longer, and I won't for any man living!" He then in a wild, loud, and excited way went on to say how the poor girl had come a hundred times for a letter, and looked in his face so wistfully, and once she had said: "Oh, Mr. Jefferies, do have a letter for me!" and how he saw her pale face in his dreams, and little he thought when he became Meadows' tool the length the game was to be carried.
Meadows heard him out; then simply reminded him of his theft, and assured him with an oath that if he dared to confess his villainy--
"My villainy?" shrieked the astonished postmaster.
"Whose else? You have intercepted letters--not I. You have abused the public confidence--not I. So if you are such a fool and sneak as to cut your throat by peaching on yourself, I'll cry louder than you, and I'll show you have emptied letters as well as stopped them. Go home to your wife, and keep quiet, or I'll smash both you and her."
"Oh, I know you are without mercy, and I dare not open my heart while I live; but I will beat you yet, you cruel monster. I will leave a note for Miss Merton, confessing all, and blow out my brains to-night in the office."
The man's manner was wild and despairing. Meadows eyed him sternly. He said with affected coolness: "Jefferies, you are not game to take your own life."
"Ain't I?" was the reply.
"At least I think not."
"To-night will show."
"I must know that before night," cried Meadows, and with the word he sprang on Jefferies and seized him in a grasp of iron, and put a pistol to his head.
"Ah! no! Mr. Meadows. Mercy! mercy!" shrieked the man, in an agony of fear.
"All right," said Meadows, coolly putting up the pistol. "You half imposed on me, and that is something for you to brag of. You won't kill yourself, Jefferies; you are not the stuff. Give over shaking like an aspen, and look and listen. You are in debt. I've bought up two drafts of yours--here they are. Come to me to-morrow, after the wedding, and I will give you them to light your pipe with."
"Oh, Mr. Meadows, that would be one load off my mind."
"You are short of cash, too; come to me--after the wedding, and I'll give you fifty pounds cash."
"You are very liberal, sir. I wish it was in a better cause."
"Now go home, and don't be a sneak and a fool--till after the wedding, or I will sell the bed from under your wife's back, and send you to the stone-jug. Be off."
Jefferies crept away, paralyzed in heart, and Meadows, standing up, called out in a rage: "Are there any more of you that hope to turn John Meadows? then come on, come a thousand strong, with the devil at your back--and then I'll beat you!" And for a moment the respectable man was almost grand; a man-rock standing braving earth and heaven.
"Hist! Mr. Meadows." He turned, and there was Crawley. "A word, sir. Will Fielding is in the town, in such a passion."
"Come to stop the wedding?"
"He was taking a glass of ale at the 'Toad and Pickax,' and you might hear him all over the yard."
"What is he going to do?"
"Sir, he has bought an uncommon heavy whip; he was showing it in the yard. 'This is for John Meadows' back,' said he, 'and I will give it him before the girl he has stolen from my brother. If she takes a dog instead of a man, it shall be a beaten dog,' says he."
Meadows rang the bell. "Harness the mare to the four-wheeled chaise. You know what to do, Crawley."
"Well, I can guess."
"But first get him told that I am always at Grassmere at six o'clock."
"But you won't go there this evening, of course."
"Aren't you afraid he--"
"Afraid of Will Fielding? Why, you have never looked at me. I do notice your eyes are always on the ground. Crawley, when I was eighteen, one evening (it was harvest home, and all the folk had drunk their wit and manners out) I found a farmer's wife in a lane, hemmed in by three great ignorant brutes that were for kissing her, or some nonsense, and she crying help and murder and ready to faint with fright. It was a decent woman, and a neighbor, so I interfered as thus: I knocked the first fellow senseless on his back with a blow before they knew of me, and then the three were two. I fought the two, giving and taking for full ten minutes, and then I got a chance and one went down. I put my foot on his neck and kept him down for all he could do, and over his body I fought the best man of the lot, and thrashed him so that his whole mug was like a ball of beetroot. When he was quite sick he ran one way, and t'other got up roaring and ran another, and they had to send a hurdle for No. 1. Dame Fielding gave me of her own accord what all the row was about, and more than one, and hearty ones, too, I assure you, and had me in to supper, and told her man, and he shook my hand a good one."
"Why, sir, you don't mean to say the woman you fought for was Mrs. Fielding."
"But I tell you it was, and I had those two boys on my knee, two chubby toads, pulling at my curly hair--! why do I talk of these things? Oh, I remember, it was to show you I am not a man that can be bullied. I am a much better man than I was at eighteen. I won't be married in a black eye if I can help it. But, when I am once married, here I stand against all comers, and if you hear them grumble or threaten you, tell them that any Sunday afternoon, when there is nothing better to be done, I'll throw my cap into the ring and fight all the Fieldings that ever were pupped, one down another come on." Then turning quite cool and contemptuous all in a moment, he said, "These are words, and we have work on hand;" and, even as he spoke, he strode from the room pattered after by Crawley.
At six o'clock Meadows and Susan were walking arm in arm in the garden. Presently they saw a man advancing toward them, with his right hand behind him. "Why, it is Will Fielding," cried Susan, "come to thank you."
"I think not, by the look of him," replied Meadows, coolly.
"Susan, will you be so good as to take your hand from that man's arm. I have got a word to say to him."
Susan did more than requested, seeing at once that mischief was coming. She clung to William's right arm, and while he ground his teeth with ineffectual rage, for she was strong, as her sex are strong, for half a minute, and to throw her off he must have been much rougher with her than he chose to be, three men came behind unobserved by all but Meadows, and captured him on the old judgment. And, Crawley having represented him as a violent man, they literally laid the grasp of the law on him.
"But I have got the money to pay it," remonstrated William.
"Pay it, then."
"But my money is at home, give me two days. I'll write to my wife and she will send it me." The officers, with a coarse laugh, told him he must come with them meantime.
Meadows whispered Susan: "I'll pay it for him to-morrow."
They took off William Fielding in Meadows' four-wheeled chaise.
"Where are they taking him, John?"
"To the county jail."
"Oh, don't let them take him there. Can you not trust him?"
"Then why not pay for him?"
"But I don't carry money in my pocket, and the bank is closed."
"Very! but I'll send it over to-morrow early, and we will have him out."
"Oh, yes, poor fellow! the very first thing in the morning."
"Yes! the first thing--after we are married."
Soon after this Meadows bade Susan affectionately farewell, and rode off to Newborough to buy his gloves and some presents for his bride. On the road he overtook William Fielding going to jail, leaned over his saddle as he cantered by, and said, "Mrs. Meadows will send the money in to free you in the morning," then on again as cool as a cucumber and cantered into the town before sunset, put up black Rachel at the King's Head, made his purchases, and back to the inn. As he sat in the bar-parlor drinking a glass of ale and chatting with the landlady, two travelers came into the passage. They did not stop in it long, for one of them knew the house and led his companion into the coffee-room. But in that moment, by a flash of recognition, spite of their bronzed color and long beards, Meadows had seen who they were--George Fielding and Thomas Robinson.
Words could not paint in many pages what Meadows passed through in a few seconds. His very body was one moment cold as ice, the next burning.
The coffee-room door was open--he dragged himself into the passage, though each foot in turn seemed glued to the ground, and listened. He came back and sat down in the bar.
"Are they going to stay?" said the mistress to the waiter.
"Yes, to be called at five o'clock."
The bell rang. The waiter went and immediately returned. "Hot with," demanded the waiter, in a sharp, mechanical tone.
"Here, take my keys for the lump sugar," said the landlady, and she poured first the brandy and then the hot water into a tumbler, then went upstairs to see about the travelers' beds.
Meadows was left alone a few moments with the liquor. A sudden flash came to Meadows' eye, he put his hand hastily to his waistcoat-pocket, and then his eye brightened still more. Yes, it was there, he thought he had had the curiosity to keep it by him. He drew out the white lump Crawley had left on his table that night, and flung it into the glass just as the waiter returned with the sugar.
The waiter took the brandy and water into the coffee-room. Meadows sat still as a mouse, his brain boiling and bubbling--awestruck at what he had done, yet meditating worse.
The next time the waiter came in, "Waiter," said he, "one glass among two, that is short allowance."
"Oh! the big one is teetotal," replied the waiter.
"Mrs. White," said Meadows, "if you have got a bed for me I'll sleep here, for my nag is tired and the night is darkish."
"Always a bed for you, Mr. Meadows," was the gracious reply.
Soon the two friends rang for bed-candles. Robinson staggered with drowsiness. Meadows eyed them from behind a newspaper.
Half an hour later Mr. Meadows went to bed, too--but not to sleep.