It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
Mr. Meadows went to the bank--into the parlor--and said he must draw seven thousand pounds of cash and securities. The partners look blank.
"I know," said Meadows, "I should cripple you. Well, I am not going to, nor let any one else--it would not suit my book. Just hand me the securities and let me make over that sum to George Fielding and Thomas Robinson. There! now for some months to come those two men are not to know how rich they are, in fact not till I tell them." A very ready consent to this was given by both partners; I am afraid I might say an eager consent.
"There! now I feel another man, that is off me anyway," and Meadows strode home double the man. Soon his new top-boots were on, and his new dark blue coat with flat double-gilt buttons, and his hat broadish in the brim, and he looked the model of a British yeoman; he reached Grassmere before eleven o'clock. It was to be a very quiet wedding, but the bridesmaids, etc., were there, and Susan all in white, pale but very lovely. Father-in-law cracking jokes, Susan writhing under them.
"Now, then, is it to be a wedding without bells, for I hear none?"
"That it shall not," cried one of the young men; and off they ran to the church.
Meantime Meadows was the life and soul of the mirthful scene. He was in a violent excitement that passed with the rustics for gayety natural to the occasion. They did not notice his anxious glances up the hill that led to Newborough; his eager and repeated looks at his watch, the sigh of relief when the church-bells pealed out, the tremors of impatience, the struggle to appear cool as he sent one to hurry the clerk, another to tell the clergyman the bride was ready; the stamp of the foot when one of the bridesmaids took ten minutes to tie on a bonnet. He walked arm in arm, with Susan waiting for this girl; at last she was ready. Then came one running to say that the parson was not come home yet. What it cost him not to swear at the parson with Susan on his arm and the church in sight!
While he was thus fuming inwardly, a handsome, dark-eyed youth came up and inquired which was the bride. She was pointed out to him. "A letter for you, Miss Merton."
"For me? Who from?"
She glanced at the handwriting, and Meadows looked keenly in the boy's face. "A Jew," said he to himself. "Susan, you have got your gloves on." And in a moment he took the letter from her, but quietly, and opened it as if to return it to her to read. He glanced down it, saw "Jefferies, postmaster," and at the bottom "Isaac Levi." With wonderful presence of mind he tore it in pieces. "An insult, Susan," he cried. "A mean, malignant insult to set you against me--a wife against her husband."
Ere the words were out of his mouth he seized the young Jew and whirled him like a feather into the hands of his friends. "Duck him!" cried he. And in a moment, spite of his remonstrances and attempts at explanation, Nathan was flung into the horse-pond. He struggled out on the other side, and stood on the bank in a stupor of rage and terror, while the bridegroom menaced him with another dose, should he venture to return. "I will tell you all about it to-morrow, Susan."
"Calm yourself," replied Susan. "I know you have enemies, but why punish a messenger for the letter he only carries?"
"You are an angel, Susan. Boys, let him alone, do you hear?" N. B. He had been ducked.
And now a loud hurrah was heard from behind the church. "The parson, at last," cried Meadows, exultingly. Susan lowered her eyes, and hated herself for the shiver that passed through her. To her the parson was the executioner.
It was not the parson. The next moment two figures came round in sight. Meadows turned away with a groan. "George Fielding!" said he. The words dropped, as it were, out of his mouth.
Susan misunderstood this. She thought he read her heart, and ascribed her repugnance to her lingering attachment to George. She was angry with herself for letting this worthy man see her want of pride. "Why do you mention that name to me? What do I care for him who has deceived me? I wish he stood at the church door, that he might see how I would look at him and pass him leaning on your faithful arm."
"Susan!" cried a well-known voice behind her. She trembled and almost crouched ere she turned; but the moment she turned round she gave a scream that brought all the company running, and the bride forgot everything at the sight of George's handsome, honest face beaming truth and love, and threw herself into his arms. George kissed the bride.
"Oh!" cried the bridesmaids, awaking from their stupor, and remembering this was her old lover. "Oh!" "Oh!!" "Oh!!!" on an ascending scale.
These exclamations brought Susan to her senses. She sprang from George as though an adder had stung her; and, red as fire, her eyes like basilisks', she turned on him at a safe distance. "How dare you embrace me? How dare you come where I am? Father, ask this man why he comes here now to make me expose myself, and insult the honest man who honors me with his respect. Oh, father, come to me, and take me away from here."
"Susan, what on earth is this? what have I done?"
"What have you done? You are false to me! you never wrote me a letter for twelve months, and you are married to a lady in Bathurst! Oh, George!"
"If he is," cried Robinson, "he must be slyer than I give him credit for, for I have never left his side night nor day, and I never saw him say three civil words to a woman."
"Yes, Mr. Robinson. Somebody has been making a fool of you, Miss Merton. Why, all his cry night and day has been, 'Susan! Susan!' When we found the great nugget he kisses it, and says he, 'There, that is not because you are gold, but because you take me to Susan.'"
"Hold your tongue, Tom," said George, sternly. "Who puts me on my defense? Is there any man here who has been telling her I have ever had a thought of any girl but her? If there is, let him stand out now and say it to my face if he dares." There was a dead silence. "There is a lie without a backer, it seems;" and he looked round on all the company with his calm superior eye. "And now, Susan, what were you doing on that man's arm?"
"Miss Merton and I are to be married to-day," said Meadows, "that is why I gave her my arm."
George gasped for breath, but he controlled himself by a mighty effort. "She thought me false, and now she knows I am true. Susan," faltered he, "I say nothing about the promises that have passed between us two, and the ring you gave. Here it is."
"He has kept my ring!"
"I was there before you, Mr. Meadows--but I won't stand upon that; I don't believe there is a man in the world loves a woman in the world better than I love Susan; but still I would not give a snap of the finger to have her if her will was toward another. So please yourself, my lass, and don't cry like that; only this must end. I won't live in doubt a moment, no, nor half a moment. Speak your pleasure and nothing else; choose between John Meadows and George Fielding."
"That is fair," cried one of the bridegrooms. The women secretly admired George. This is a man, thought they--won't stand our nonsense.
Susan looked up in mute astonishment. "What choice can there be? The moment I saw your face, and truth still shining in it, I forgot there was a John Meadows in the world!"
With these words Susan cast a terrified look all round, and, losing every other feeling in a paroxysm of shame, hid her burning face in her hands, and made a sudden bolt into the house and upstairs to her room, where she was followed and discovered by one of her bridesmaids tearing off her wedding-clothes, and laughing and crying all in a breath.
1st Bridegroom. "Well, Josh, what d'ye think?"
2d Bridegroom. "Why, I think there won't be a wedding to-day."
1st Bridegroom. "No, nor to-morrow neither. Sal, put on your bonnet and let's you and I go home. I came to Meadows' wedding; mustn't stay to anybody's else's."
These remarks were delivered openly, pro bono, and dissolved the wedding party. Four principal parties remained--Meadows, old Merton, and the two friends.
"Well, uncle, Susan has spoken her mind, now you speak yours."
"George, I have been an imprudent fool, I am on the brink of ruin. I owe more than two thousand pounds. We heard you had changed your mind, and Meadows came forward like a man, and said he would--"
"Your word, uncle, your promise. I crossed the seas on the faith of it." An upper window was gently opened, and a blushing face listened, and the hand that they were all discussing and disposing of drew back a little curtain, and clutched it convulsively.
"You did, George," said the old farmer.
"Says you, 'Bring back a thousand pounds to show me you are not a fool, and you shall have my daughter,' and she was to have your blessing. Am I right, Mr. Meadows? you were present."
"Those were the words," replied Meadows.
"Well! and have you brought back the thousand pounds?"
"John, I must stand to my word; and I will--it is justice. Take the girl, and be as happy as you can with her, and her father in the work-house."
"I take her, and that is as much as to say that neither her father nor any one she respects shall go to the workhouse. How much is my share, Tom?"
"Four thousand pounds."
"No, not so much."
"Yes, it is. Jacky gave you his share of the great nugget, and you gave him sheep in return. Here they are, lads and lasses, seventy of them varying from one five six naught to one six two nine, and all as crimp as a muslin gown new starched. Why? I never put this," and he took pieces of newspaper out of his pocketbook, and looked stupidly at each as it came out.
"Robbed! oh! I put the book under my pillow, and there I found it this morning. Robbed! robbed! Kill me, George, I have ruined you."
"I can't speak," gasped George. "Oh, what is the meaning of this?"
"But I can speak! Don't tell me of a London thief being robbed!!! George Fielding, if you are a man at all, go and leave me and my daughter in peace. If you had come home with money to keep her, I was ready to give you Susan to my own ruin. Now it is your turn to show yourself the right stuff. My daughter has given her hand to a man who can make a lady of her, and set me on my legs again. You can only beggar us. Don't stand in the poor girl's light; for pity's sake, George, leave us in peace."
"You are right, old man; my head is confused;" and George put his hand feebly to his brow. "But I seem to see it is my duty to go, and I'll go." George staggered. Robinson made toward him to support him. "There, don't make a fuss with me. There is nothing the matter with me--only my heart is dead. Let me sit on this bench and draw my breath a minute--and then--I'll go. Give me your hand, Tom. Never heed their jibes. I'd trust you with more gold than the best of them was ever worth."
Robinson began to blubber the moment George took his hand, spite of the money lost. "We worked hard for it, too, good folks, and risked our lives as well as our toil;" and George and Robinson sat hand in hand upon the bench, and turned their heads away--that it was pitiful to see.
But still the pair held one another by the hand, and George said, faltering: "I have got this left me still. Ay, I have heard say that friendship was better than love, and I dare say so it is."
As if to plead against this verdict, Susan came timidly to her lover in his sorrow, and sat on his other side, and laid her head gently on his shoulder. "What signifies money to us two?" she murmured. "Oh, I have been robbed of what was dearer than life this bitter year, and now you are down-hearted at loss of money. How foolish to grieve for such nonsense when I am so hap--hap--happy!" and again the lovely face rested light as down on George's shoulder, weeping deliciously.
"It is hard, Tom," gasped George; "it is bitter hard; but I shall find a little bit of manhood by and by to do my duty. Give me breath! only give me breath! We will go back again where we came from, Tom; only I shall have nothing to work for now. Where is William, if you please? Has he forgotten me, too?"
"William is in prison for debt," said old Merton, gravely.
"No, he is not," put in Meadows, "for I sent the money to let him out an hour ago."
"You sent the money to let my brother out of jail? That sounds queer to me. I suppose I ought to thank you, but I can't."
"I don't ask your thanks, young man."
"You see, George," said old Merton, "ours is a poor family, and it will be a great thing for us all to have such a man as Mr. Meadows in it, if you will only let us."
"Oh, father, you make me blush," cried Susan, beginning to get her first glimpse of his character.
"He doesn't make me blush," cried George; "but he makes me sick. This old man would make me walk out of heaven if he was in it. Come, let us go back to Australia."
"Ay, that is the best thing you can do," cried old Merton.
"If he does, I shall go with him," said Susan, with sudden calmness. She added, dropping her voice, "If he thinks me worthy to go anywhere with him."
"You are worthy of better than that, and better shall be your luck;" and George sat down on the bench with one bitter sob that seemed to tear his manly heart in two.
There was a time Meadows would have melted at this sad sight, but now it enraged him. He whispered fiercely to old Merton: "Touch him on his pride; get rid of him, and your debts shall be all paid that hour; if not--" He then turned to that heart-stricken trio, touched his hat, "Good-day, all the company," said he, and strode away with rage in his heart to set the law in motion against old Merton, and so drive matters to a point.
But before he had taken a dozen steps he was met by two men who planted themselves right before him. "You can't pass, sir."
Meadows looked at them with humorous surprise. They had hooked noses. He did not like that so well.
"Why not?" said he, quietly, but with a wicked look.
One of the men whistled, a man popped out of the churchyard and joined the two; he had a hooked nose. Another came through the gate from the lane; another from behind the house. The scene kept quietly filling with hooked noses till it seemed as if the ten tribes were reassembling from the four winds.
"Are they going to pitch into me?" thought Meadows; and he felt in his pocket to see if his pistol was there.
Meantime, George and Susan and Tom rose to their feet in some astonishment.
"There is a chentleman coming to put a question or two," said the first speaker. And, in fact, an old acquaintance of ours, Mr. Williams, came riding up, and, hooking his horse to the gate, came in, saying, "Oh, here you are, Mr. Meadows. There is a ridiculous charge brought against you, but I am obliged to hear it before dismissing it. Give me a seat. Oh, here is a bench. It is very hot. I am informed that two men belonging to this place have been robbed of seven thousand pounds at the 'King's Head'--the 'King's Heads in Newborough."
"It is true, sir," cried Robinson, "but how did you know?"
"I am here to ask questions," was the sharp answer. "Who are you?"
"Which is George Fielding?"
"I am George Fielding, sir.
"Have you been robbed?"
"We have, sir."
"Of how much?"
"Seven thousand pounds."
"Come, that tallies with the old gentleman's account. Hum! where did you sleep last night, Mr. Meadows?"
"At the 'King's Head' in Newborough, sir," replied Meadows, without any visible hesitation.
"Well, that is curious, but I need not say I don't believe it is more than coincidence. Where is the old gentleman? Oh! give way there, and let him come here."
Now all this was inexplicable to Meadows, but still it brought a deadly chill of vague apprehension over him. He felt as if a huge gossamer net was closing round him. Another moment the only spider capable of spinning it stood in front of him. "I thought so," dropped from his lips as Isaac Levi and he stood once more face to face.
"I accuse that man of the theft. Nathan and I heard him tell Crawley that he had drugged the young man's liquor and stolen the notes. Then we heard Crawley beg for the notes, and after much entreaty he gave them him."
"It is true!" cried Robinson, in violent agitation; "it must be true. You know what a light sleeper I am, and how often you had to shake me this morning. I was hocussed and no mistake!"
"Yes, your worship."
"Where were you, Mr. Levi, to hear all this?"
"In the east room of my house."
"And where was he?"
"In the west room of his house."
"It is impossible."
"Say not so, sir. I will show you it is true. Meantime I will explain it."
He explained his contrivance at full. Meadows hung his head; he saw how terribly the subtle Oriental had outwitted him; yet his presence of mind never for a moment deserted him.
"Sir," said he, "I have had the misfortune to offend Mr. Levi, and he is my sworn enemy. If you really mean to go into this ridiculous affair, allow me to bring witnesses, and I will prove to you he has been threatening vengeance against me these two years--and you know a lie is not much to a Jew. Does this appear likely? I am worth sixty thousand pounds--why should I steal?"
"Why, indeed?" said Mr. Williams. "I stole these notes to give them away--that is your story, is it?"
"Nay, you stole them to beggar your rival, whose letters to the maiden he loved you had intercepted by fraud at the post-office in Farnborough." Susan and George uttered an exclamation at the same moment. "But, having stole them, you gave them to Crawley."
"How generous!" sneered Meadows. "Well, when you find Crawley with seven thousand pounds, and he says I gave them him, Mr. Williams will take your word against mine, and not till then, I think."
"Certainly not--the most respectable man for miles round!"
"So be it," retorted Isaac, coolly; "Nathan, bring Crawley." At that unexpected word, Meadows looked round for a way to escape. The hooked-nosed ones hemmed him in. Crawley was brought out of the fly, quaking with fear.
"Sir," said Levi, "if in that man's bosom, on the left-hand side, the missing notes are not found, let me suffer scorn; but, if they be found, give us justice on the evil-doer."
The constable searched Crawley amid the intense anxiety of all present. He found a bundle of notes. There was a universal cry.
"Stop, sir!" said Robinson, "to make sure I will describe our property--seventy notes of one hundred pounds each. Numbers one five six naught to one six two nine."
Mr. Williams examined the bundle, and at once handed them over to Robinson, who shoved them hastily into George's hands and danced for joy.
Mr. Williams looked ruefully at Meadows, then he hesitated; then, turning sharply to Crawley, he said, "Where did you get these?"
Meadows tried to catch his eye and prevail on him to say nothing; but Crawley, who had not heard Levi's evidence, made sure of saving himself by means of Meadows' reputation.
"I had them from Mr. Meadows," he cried; "and what about it? it is not the first time he has trusted me with much larger sums than that."
"Oh! you had them from Mr. Meadows?"
"Yes, I had!"
"Mr. Meadows, I am sorry to say I must commit you; but I still hope you will clear yourself elsewhere."
"I have not the least uneasiness about that, sir, thank you. You will admit me to bail, of course?"
"Impossible! Wood, here is a warrant, I will sign it."
While the magistrate was signing the warrant, Meadows' head fell upon his breast; he seemed to collapse standing.
Isaac Levi eyed him scornfully. "You had no mercy on the old Jew. You took his house from him, not for your need but for hate. So he made that house a trap and caught you in your villainy."
"Yes! you have caught me," cried Meadows, "but you will never cage me!" and in a moment his pistol was at his own temple and he pulled the trigger--the cap failed; he pulled the other trigger, the other cap failed. He gave a yell like a wounded tiger, and stood at bay gnashing his teeth with rage and despair. Half a dozen men threw themselves upon him, and a struggle ensued that almost baffles description. He dragged those six men about up and down, some clinging to his legs, some to his body. He whirled nearly every one of them to the ground in turn; and, when by pulling at his legs they got him down, he fought like a badger on his back, seized two by the throat, and putting his feet under another drove him into the air doubled up like a ball, and he fell on Levi and sent the old man into Mr. Williams' arms, who sat down with a Jew in his lap, to the derangement of his magisterial dignity.
At last he was mastered, and his hands tied behind him with two handkerchiefs.
"Take the rascal to jail!" cried Williams, in a passion. Meadows groaned. "Ay! take me," said he, "you can't make me live there. I've lived respected all these years, and now I shall be called a felon. Take me where I may hide my head and die!" and the wretched man moved away with feeble steps, his strength and spirit crushed now his hands were tied.
Then Crawley followed him, abusing and reviling him. "So this is the end of all your maneuvering! Oh, what a fool I was to side with such a bungler as you against Mr. Levi. Here am I, an innocent man, ruined through knowing a thief--ah! you don't like that word, but what else are you but a thief?" and so he followed his late idol and heaped reproaches and insults on him, till at last Meadows turned round and cast a vague look of mute despair, as much as to say, "How am I fallen, when this can trample me!"
One of the company saw this look and understood it. Yielding to an impulse he took three steps, and laid his hand on Crawley. "Ye little snake," said he, "let the man alone!" and he sent Crawley spinning like a teetotum; then turned on his own heel and came away, looking a little red and ashamed of what he had done. My reader shall guess which of the company this was.
Half way to the county jail Meadows and Crawley met William Fielding coming back.
It took hours and hours to realize all the happiness that had fallen on two loving hearts. First had to pass away many a spasm of terror at the wrongs they had suffered, the danger they had escaped, the long misery they had grazed. They remained rooted to the narrow spot of ground where such great and strange events had passed in a few minutes, and their destinies had fluctuated so violently, and all ended in joy unspeakable. And everybody put questions to everybody, and all compared notes, and the hours fled while they unraveled their own strange story. And Susan and George almost worshipped Isaac Levi; and Susan kissed him and called him her father, and hung upon his neck all gratitude. And he passed his hand over her chestnut hair, and said, "Go to, foolish child," but his deep rich voice trembled a little, and wonderful tenderness and benevolence glistened in that fiery eye.
He would now have left them, but nobody there would part with him; behooved him to stay and eat fish and pudding with them--the meat they would excuse him if he would be good and not talk about going again. And after dinner George and Tom must tell their whole story; and, as they told their eventful lives, it was observed that the hearers were far more agitated than the narrators. The latter had been in a gold mine; had supped so full of adventures and crimes and horrors that nothing astonished them, and they were made sensible of the tremendous scenes they had been through by the loud ejaculations, the pallor, the excitement of their hearers. As for Susan, again and again during the men's narratives the tears streamed down her face, and once she was taken faint at George's peril, and the story had to be interrupted and water sprinkled on her, and the men in their innocence were for not going on with their part, but she peremptorily insisted, and sneered at them for being so foolish as to take any notice of her foolishness--she would have every word. After all was he not there alive and well, sent back to her safe after so many perils, never, never to leave England again!
"Oh, giorno felice!" A day to be imagined; or described by a pen a thousand times greater and subtler than mine, but of this be sure--it was a day such as, neither to Susan nor George, nor to you nor me, nor to any man or woman upon earth, has ever come twice between the cradle and the grave.