It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
At seven o'clock in the morning Crawley was at Meadows' house by appointment. To his great surprise the servant told him master had not slept at home. While he was talking to her Meadows galloped up to the door, jumped off, and almost pulled Crawley upstairs with him. "Lock the door, Crawley." Crawley obeyed, but with some reluctance, for Meadows, the iron Meadows, was ghastly and shaken as he had never been shaken before. He sank into a chair. "Perdition seize the hour I first saw her!" As for Crawley, he was paralyzed by the terrible agitation of a spirit so much greater than his own.
"Crawley," said Meadows, with a sudden unnatural calm, "when the devil buys a soul for money how much does he give? a good lump, I hear. He values our souls high--we don't, some of us."
"Mr. Meadows, sir!"
"Now count those," yelled Meadows, bursting out again, and he flung a roll of notes furiously on the ground at Crawley's feet, "count and tell me what my soul has gone for. Oh! oh!"
Crawley seized them and counted them as fast as his trembling fingers would let him. So now an eye all remorse, and another eye all greed, were bent upon the same thing.
"Why, they are all hundred-pound notes, bright as silver from the Bank of England. Oh, dear! how new and crimp they are--where do they come from, sir?"
"Ah! Oh, impossible! No! nothing is impossible to such a man as you. Twenty."
"They are at Newborough--slept at 'King's Head,'" whispered Meadows.
"Good Heavens! think of that. Thirty--"
"So did I."
"Ah! forty--four thousand pounds."
"The lump of stuff you left here hocussed one--it was a toss-up--luck was on my side--that one carried them--slept like death--long while hunting--found them under his pillow at last."
"Well done! and we fools were always beat at it. Sixty--one--two--five--seven. Seven thousand pounds."
"Seven thousand pounds! Who would have thought it? This is a dear job to me."
"Say a dear job to them and a glorious haul to you; but you deserve it all, ah!"
"Why, you fool," cried Meadows, "do you think I am going to keep the men's money?"
"Keep it? why, of course!"
"What! am I a thief? I, John Meadows, that never wronged a man of a penny? I take his sweetheart, I can't live without her; but I can live without his money. I have crimes enough on my head, but not theft, there I say halt."
"Then why in the name of Heaven did you take them at such a risk?" Crawley put this question roughly, for he was losing his respect for his idol.
"You are as blind as a mole, Crawley," was the disdainful answer. "Don't you see that I have made George Fielding penniless, and that now old Merton won't let him have his daughter? Why should he? He said, 'If you come back with one thousand pounds.' And don't you see that, when the writ is served on old Merton, he will be as strong as fire for me and against him. He can't marry her at all now. I shall soon or late, and the day I marry Susan that same afternoon seven thousand pounds will be put in George Fielding's hand, he won't know by whom, but you and I shall know. I am a sinner, but not a villain."
Crawley gave a dissatisfied grunt. Meadows struck a lucifer match and lighted a candle. He placed the candle in the grate--it was warm weather. "Come, now," said he coolly, "burn them; then they will tell no tales."
Crawley gave a shriek like a mother whose child is falling out of window, and threw himself on his knees, with the notes in his hand behind his back. "No! no! sir! Oh, don't think of it. Talk of crime, what are all the sins we have done together compared with this? You would not burn a wheat-rick, no, not your greatest enemy's; I know you would not, you, are too good a man. This is as bad; the good money that the bountiful Heaven has given us for--for the good of man."
"Come," said Meadows sternly, "no more of this folly," and he laid his iron grasp on Crawley.
"Mercy! mercy! think of me--of your faithful servant, who has risked his life and stuck at nothing for you. How ungrateful great men are!"
"Ungrateful! Crawley! Can you look me in the face and say that?"
"Never till now, but now I can;" and Crawley rose to his feet and faced the great man. The prize he was fighting for gave him supernatural courage. "To whom do you owe them? To me. You could never have had them but for my drug. And yet you would burn them before my eyes. A fortune to poor me."
"Yes! What does it matter to you what becomes of them so that he never sees them again? but it matters all to me. Give them to me and in twelve hours I will be in France with them. You won't miss me, sir. I have done my work. And it will be more prudent, for since I have left you I can't help drinking, and I might talk, you know, sir, I might, and let out what we should both be sorry for. Send me away to foreign countries where I can keep traveling, and make it always summer. I hate the long nights when it is dark. I see such cu-u-rious things. Pray! pray let me go and take these with me, and never trouble you again."
The words, though half nonsense, were the other half cunning, and the tones and looks were piteous. Meadows hesitated. Crawley knew too much; to get rid of him was a bait; and after all to annihilate the thing he had been all his life accumulating went against his heart. He rang the bell. "Hide the notes, Crawley. Bring me two shirts, a razor, and a comb. Crawley, these are the terms. That you don't go near that woman--" Crawley, with a brutal phrase, expressed his delight at the idea of getting rid of her forever. "That you go at once to the railway. Station opens to-day. First train starts in an hour. Up to London, over to France this evening."
"I will, sir. Hurrah! hurrah!" Then Crawley burst into protestations of gratitude which Meadows cut short. He rang for breakfast, fed his accomplice, gave him a great-coat for his journey, and took the precaution of going with him to the station. There he shook hands with him and returned to the principal street and entered the bank.
Crawley kept faith, he hugged his treasure to his bosom and sat down waiting for the train. "Luck is on our side," thought he; "if this had been open yesterday those two would have come on from Newborough."
He watched the preparations, they were decorating the locomotive with bouquets and branches. They did not start punctually, some soi-disant great people had not arrived. "I will have a dram," thought Crawley; he went and had three. Then he came back and as he was standing inspecting the carriages a hand was laid on his shoulder. He looked round, it was Mr. Wood, a functionary with whom he had often done business.
"Ah, Wood! how d'ye do? Going to make the first trip?"
"No, sir! I have business detains me in town."
"What! a capias, eh?" chuckled Crawley.
"Something of the sort. There is a friend of yours hard by wants to speak a word to you."
"Come along, then. Where is he?"
"This way, sir."
Crawley followed Wood to the waiting-room, and there on a bench sat Isaac Levi. Crawley stopped dead short and would have drawn back, but Levi beckoned to a seat near him. Crawley came walking like an automaton from whose joints the oil had suddenly dried. With infinite repugnance he took the seat, not liking to refuse before several persons who saw the invitation. Mr. Wood sat on the other side of him. "What does it all mean?" thought Crawley, but his cue was to seem indifferent or flattered.
"You have shaved your beard, Mr. Crawley," said Isaac, in a low tone.
"My beard! I never had one," replied Crawley, in the same key.
"Yes, you had when last I saw you--in the gold mine; you set ruffians to abuse me, sir."
"Don't you believe that, Mr. Levi."
"I saw it and felt it."
The peculiarity of this situation was, that, the room being full of people, both parties wished, each for his own reason, not to excite general attention, and therefore delivered scarce above a whisper the sort of matter that is generally uttered very loud and excitedly.
"It is my turn now," whispered Levi; "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."
"You must look sharp then," whispered Crawley; "to-morrow perhaps you may not have the chance."
"I never postpone vengeance--when it is ripe."
"Don't you, sir? dear me."
"You have seven thousand pounds about you, Mr. Crawley."
Crawley started and trembled. "Stolen!" whispered Isaac in his very ear. "Give it up to the officer."
Crawley rose instinctively. A firm hand was laid on each of his arms; he sat down again. "What--what---ever money I have is trusted to me by the wealthiest and most respectable man in the cou--nty, and--"
"Stolen by him, received by you! Give it to Wood, unless you prefer a public search."
"You can't search me without a warrant."
"Here is a warrant from the mayor. Take the notes out of your left breast and give them to the officer, or we must do it by force and publicity."
"I won't without Mr. Meadows' authority. Send for Mr. Meadows if you dare." Isaac reflected. "Well! we will take you to Mr. Meadows. Keep the money till you see him, but we must secure you. Put his coat over his hands first." The great-coat was put over his hands, and the next moment under the coat was heard a little sharp click.
"Let us go to the carriage," said Levi, in a brisk, cheerful tone.
Those present heard the friendly invitation and saw a little string of acquaintances, three in number, break up a conversation and go and get into a fly; one carried a great-coat and bundle before him with both hands.