It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
A month of Elysium. And then one day George asked Susan, plump, when it would be agreeable to her to marry him.
"Marry you, George?" replied Susan, opening her eyes; "why, never! I shall never marry any one after--you must be well aware of that." Susan proceeded to inform George, that, though foolishness was a part of her character, selfishness was not; recent events had destroyed an agreeable delusion under which she had imagined herself worthy to be Mrs. George Fielding; she therefore, though with some reluctance, intended to resign that situation to some wiser and better woman than she had turned out. In this agreeable resolution she persisted, varying it occasionally with little showers of tears unaccompanied by the slightest convulsion of the muscles of the face. But, as I am not, like George Fielding, in love with Susan Merton, or with self-deception (another's), I spare the reader all the pretty things this young lady said and believed and did, to postpone her inevitable happiness. Yes, inevitable, for this sort of thing never yet kept lovers long apart since the world was, except in a novel worse than common. I will but relate how that fine fellow, George, dried "these foolish drops" on one occasion.
"Susan," said he, "if I had found you going to be married to another man with the roses on your cheek, I should have turned on my heel and back to Australia. But a look in your face was enough; you were miserable, and any old fool could see your heart was dead against it; look at you now blooming like a rose, so what is the use of us two fighting against human nature? we can't be happy apart--let us come together."
"Ah! George, if I thought your happiness depended on having--a foolish wife--"
"Why, you know it does," replied the inadvertent Agricola.
"That alters the case; sooner than you should be unhappy--I think--I--"
"Name the day, then."
In short the bells rang a merry peal, and to reconcile Susan to her unavoidable happiness, Mr. Eden came down and gave an additional weight (in her way of viewing things) to the marriage ceremony by officiating. It must be owned that this favorable circumstance cost her a few tears, too.
How so, Mr. Reade?
Marry, sir, thus: Mr. Eden was what they call eccentric; among his other deviations from usage he delivered the meaning of sentences in church along with the words.
This was a thunder-clap to poor Susan. She had often heard a chanting machine utter the marriage service all on one note, and heard it with a certain smile of unintelligent complacency her sex wear out of politeness; but when the man Eden told her at the altar with simple earnestness what a high and deep and solemn contract she was making then and there with God and man, she began to cry, and wept like April through the ceremony.
I have not quite done with this pair, but leave them a few minutes, for some words are due to other characters, and to none, I think, more than to this very Mr. Eden, whose zeal and wisdom brought our hero and unheroine happily together through the subtle sequence of causes I have related, the prime thread a converted thief.
Mr. Eden's strength broke down under the prodigious effort to defeat the effect of separate confinement on the bodies and souls of his prisoners. Dr. Gulson ordered him abroad. Having now since the removal of Hawes given the separate and silent system a long and impartial trial, his last public act was to write at the foot of his report a solemn protest against it, as an impious and mad attempt to defy God's will as written on the face of man's nature--to crush too those very instincts from which rise communities, cities, laws, prisons, churches, civilization--and to wreck souls and bodies under pretense of curing souls, not by knowledge, wisdom, patience, Christian love, or any great moral effort, but by the easy and physical expedient of turning one key on each prisoner instead of on a score.
"These," said Mr. Eden, "are the dreams of selfish, lazy, heartless dunces and reckless bigots, dwarf Robespierres, with self-deceiving hearts that dream philanthropy, fluent lips that cant philanthropy and hands swift to shed blood--which is not blood to them--because they are mere sensual brutes, so low in intelligence that, although men are murdered and die before their eyes, they cannot see it was murder, because there was no knocking on the head or cutting of throats."
The reverend gentleman then formally washed his hands of the bloodshed and reason-shed of the separate system, and resigned his office, earnestly requesting at the same time that, as soon as the government should come round to his opinion, they would permit him to co-operate in any enlightened experiment where God should no longer be defied by a knot of worms as in ---- Jail.
Then he went abroad, but though professedly hunting health he visited and inspected half the principal prisons in Europe. After many months events justified his prediction. The government started a large prison on common sense and humanity, and Mr. Lacy's interest procured Mr. Eden the place of its chaplain.
This prison was what every prison in the English provinces will be in five years' time--a well-ordered community, an epitome of the world at large, for which a prison is to prepare men, not unfit them as frenzied dunces would do; it was also a self-sustaining community, like the world. The prisoners ate prisoner-grown corn and meat, wore prisoner-made clothes and bedding, wire lighted by gas made in the prison, etc., etc., etc., etc. The agricultural laborers had out-door work suited to their future destiny, and mechanical trades were zealously ransacked for the city rogues. Anti-theft reigned triumphant. No idleness, no wicked waste of sweat.
The members of this community sleep in separate cells, as men do in other well-ordered communities, but they do not pine and wither and die in cells for offenses committee outside the prison walls. Here, if you see a man caged like a wild beast all day, you may be sure he is there, not so much for his own good as for that of the little community in which he has proved himself unworthy to mix pro tem. Foul language and contamination are checkmated here, not by the lazy, selfish, cruel expedient of universal solitude, but by Argus-like surveillance. Officers, sufficient in number, listen with sharp ears, and look with keen eyes. The contaminator is sure to be seized and confined till prudence, if not virtue, ties his tongue. Thus he is disarmed, and the better-disposed encourage one another. Compare this legitimate and necessary use of that most terrible of tortures, the cell, with the tigro-asinine use of it in seven English prisons out of nine at the present date. It is just the difference between arsenic as used by a good physician and by a poisoner. It is the difference between a razor-bladed, needle-pointed knife in the hands of a Christian, a philosopher, a skilled surgeon, and the same knife in the hands of a savage, a brute, a scoundrel, or a fanatical idiot.
Mr. Eden had returned from abroad but a fortnight when he was called on to unite George and Susan.
I have little more to add than that he was very hard worked and supremely happy in his new situation, and that I have failed to do him justice in these pages. But he shall have justice one day, when pitiless asses will find themselves more foul in the eyes of the All-pure than the thieves they crushed under four walls, and "The just shall shine forth as the sun, and they that turn* many to righteousness as the stars forever and ever."
* Not crush.
Thomas Robinson did not stay long at Grassmere. Things were said in the village that wounded him. Ill-repute will not stop directly ill-conduct does. He went to see Mr. Eden, sent his name in as Mr. Sinclair, was received with open arms, and gave the good man a glow of happiness such as most of us, I fear, go to the grave without feeling--or earning. He presented him a massive gold ring he had hammered out of a nugget. Mr. Eden had never worn a ring in his life, but he wore this with an innocent pride, and showed it people, and valued it more than he would the Pitt diamond, which a French king bought of an English subject, and the price was so heavy he paid for it by installments spread over many years.
Robinson very wisely went back to Australia, and, more wisely still, married Jenny, with whom he had corresponded ever since he left her.
I have no fear he will ever break the Eighth Commandment again. His heart was touched long ago, and ever since then his understanding had received conviction upon conviction; for, oh, the blaze of light that enters our souls when our fate puts us in his place--in her place--in their place--whom we used to strike, never realizing how it hurt them! He is respected for his intelligence and good-nature; he is sober, industrious, pushing and punctilious in business. One trait of the Bohemian remains. About every four months a restlessness comes over him; then the wise Jenny of her own accord proposes a trip. Poor Tom's eyes sparkle directly; off they go together. A foolish wife would have made him go alone. They come back, and my lord goes to his duties with fresh zest till the periodical fit comes again. No harm ever comes of it.
Servants are at a great premium, masters at a discount, in the colony; hence a domestic phenomenon, which my English readers can hardly conceive, but I am told my American friends have a faint glimpse of it in the occasional deportment of their "helps" in out-of-the-way places.
Now Tom, and especially Jenny, had looked forward to reigning in their own house, and it was therefore a disappointment when they found themselves snubbed and treated with hauteur, and Jenny revolted against servant after servant, who straightway abdicated and left her forlorn. At last their advertisement was answered by a male candidate for menial authority, who proved to be Mr. Miles, their late master. Tom and Jenny colored up, and both agreed it was out of the question--they should feel too ashamed. Mr. Miles answered by offering to bet a crown he should make them the best servant in the street; and, strange to say, the bargain was struck and he did turn out a model servant. He was civil and respectful, especially in public, and never abused his situation. Comparing his conduct with his predecessors', it really appeared that a gentleman can beat snobs in various relations of life. As Tom's master and Jenny's, he had never descended to servility, nor was he betrayed into arrogance now that he had risen to be their servant.
A word about Jacky. After the meal off the scented rabbit in the bush, Robinson said slyly to George: "I thought you promised Jacky a hiding--well, here he is."
"Now, Tom," replied the other, coloring up, "is it reasonable, and he has just saved our two lives? but if you think that I won't take him to task, you are much mistaken."
George then remonstrated with the chief for spoiling Abner with his tomahawk. Jacky opened his eyes with astonishment and admiration. Here was another instance of the white fellow's wonderful power of seeing things a good way behind him. He half closed his eyes, and tried in humble imitation to peer back into the past. Yes! he could just manage to see himself very indistinctly giving Abner a crack; but stop! let him see, it was impossible to be positive, but was not there also some small trifle of insolence, ingratitude, and above all bungality, on the part of this Abner? When the distance had become too great to see the whole of a transaction, why strain the eyes looking at a part? Finally Jacky submitted that these microscopic researches cost a good deal of trouble, and on the whole his tribe were wiser than the white fellows in this, that they reveled in the present, and looked on the past as a period that never had been, and the future as one that never would be. On this George resigned the moral culture of his friend. "Soil is not altogether bad," said Agricola, "but, bless your heart, it isn't a quarter of an inch deep."
On George's departure, Jacky, being under the temporary impression of his words, collected together a mixed company of blacks, and marched them to his possessions. Arrived, he harangued them on the cleverness of the white fellows, and invited them to play at Europeans.
"Behold this ingenious structure," said he, in Australian; "this is called a house; its use is to protect us from the weather at night; all you have to do is to notice which way the wind blows, and go and lie down on the opposite side of the house and there you are. Then again, when you are cold, you will find a number of wooden articles in the house. You go in, you bring them out and burn them and are warm." He then produced what he had always considered the chef d'oeuvre of the white races, a box of lucifer matches; this, too, was a present from George. "See what clever fellows they are," said he, "they carry about fire, which is fire or not fire at the fortunate possessor's will;" and he let off a lucifer. These the tribe admired, but doubted whether all those little sticks had the same marvelous property and would become fire in the hour of need; Jacky sneered at their incredulity, and let them all off one by one in a series of preliminary experiments; this impaired their future usefulness. In short, they settled there; one or two's heads had to be broken for killing the breeders for dinner, and that practice stopped; but the pot-bellied youngsters generally celebrated the birth of a lamb by spearing it. They slept on the lee side of the house, warmed at night by the chairs and tables, etc., which they lighted. They got on very nicely, only one fine morning, without the slightest warning, whir-r-r-r they all went off to the woods, Jacky and all, and never returned. The remaining bullocks strayed devious, and the douce McLaughlan blandly absorbed the sheep.
Hasty and imperfect as my sketch of this Jacky is, give it a place in your notebook of sketches, for in a few years the Australian savage will breathe only in these pages, and the Saxon plow will erase his very grave, his milmeridien.
brutus lived; but the form and strength he had abused were gone--he is the shape of a note of interrogation, and by a coincidence is now an "asker," i.e., he begs, receives alms, and sets on a gang of burglars, with whom he is in league, to rob the good Christians that show him pity.
mephistopheles came suddenly to grief; when gold was found in Victoria he crossed over to that port and robbed. One day he robbed the tent of an old man, a native of the colony, who was digging there with his son, a lad of fifteen. Now these currency lads are very sharp and determined. The youngster caught a glimpse of the retiring thief and followed him and saw him enter a tent. He watched at the entrance, and when mephistopheles came out again, he put a pistol to the man's breast and shot him dead without a word of remonstrance, accusation or explanation.
A few diggers ran out of their claims. "If our gold is not on him," says the youngster, "I have made a mistake."
The gold was found on the carcass, and the diggers went coolly back to their work.
The youngster went directly to the commissioner and told him what he had done. "I don't see that I am called on to interfere," replied that functionary; "he was taken in the act; you have buried him, of course."
"Not I. I let him lie for whoever chose to own him."
"You let him lie? What, when there is a printed order from the government stuck over the whole mine that nobody is to leave carrion about! You go off directly and bury your carrion or you will get into trouble, young man." And the official's manner became harsh and threatening.
If ever a man was "shot like a dog," surely the assassin of Carlo was.
Mr. Meadows in the prison refused his food, and fell into a deep depression; but the third day he revived, and fell to scheming again. He sent to Mr. Levi and offered to give him a long lease of his old house if he would but be absent from the trial. This was a sore temptation to the old man. But meantime stronger measures were taken in his defense and without consulting him.
One evening that Susan and George were in the garden at Grassmere, suddenly an old woman came toward them with slow and hesitating steps. Susan fled at the sight of her--she hated the very name this old woman bore. George stood his ground, looking sheepish; the old woman stood before him trembling violently and fighting against her tears. She could not speak, but held out a letter to him. He took it, the ink was rusty, it was written twenty years ago; it was from his mother to her neighbor, Mrs. Meadows, then on a visit at Newborough, telling her how young John had fought for and protected her against a band of drunken ruffians, and how grateful she was.
"And I do hope, dame, he will be as good friends with my lads when they are men as you and I have been this many a day."
George did not speak for a long time. He held the letter, and it trembled a little in his hand. He looked at the old woman, standing a piteous, silent supplicant. "Mrs. Meadows," said he, scarce above a whisper, "give me this letter, if you will be so good. I have not got her handwriting, except our names in the Bible."
She gave him the letter half reluctantly, and looked fearfully and inquiringly in his face. He smiled kindly, and a sort of proud curl came for a moment to his lip, and the woman read the man. This royal rustic would not have taken the letter if he had not granted the mother's unspoken prayer.
"God bless you both!" said she, and went on her way.
The assizes came, and Meadows' two plaintiffs both were absent: Robinson gone to Australia, and George forfeited his recognizances and had, to pay a hundred pound for it. The defendants were freed. Then Isaac Levi said to himself, "He will not keep faith with me." But he did not know his man. Meadows had a conscience, though an oblique one. A promise from him was sacred in his own eyes. A man came to Grassmere and left a hundred pound in a letter for George Fielding. Then he went on to Levi, and gave him a parcel and a note. The parcel contained the title-deeds of the house; and the note said: "Take the house and the furniture and pay me what you consider they are worth. And, old man, I think you might take your curse off me, for I have never known a heart at rest since you laid it on me, and you see now our case is altered--you have a home now and John Meadows has none."
Then the old man was softened, and he wrote a line in reply, and said: "Three just men shall value the house and furniture, and I will pay, etc., etc. Put now adversity to profit--repent and prosper. Isaac Levi wishes you no ill from this day, but rather good." Thus died, as mortal feelings are apt to die, an enmity its owners thought immortal.
A steam-vessel glided down the Thames bound for Port Phillip. On the deck were to be seen a little girl crying bitterly--this was Hannah--a stalwart, yeoman-like figure, who stood unmoved as the shores glided by,
Omne solum forti patria,
and an old woman who held his arm as if she needed to feel him at the moment of leaving her native land. This old woman had hated and denounced his sins, and there was scarce a point of morality on which she thoroughly agreed with him. Yet at threescore years and ten she left her native land with two sole objects--to comfort this stout man, and win him to repentance.
"He shall repent," said she to herself. "Even now his eyes are opening, his heart is softening. Three times he has said to me, 'That George Fielding is a better man than I am.' He will repent. Again he said to me, I have thought too little of you, and too much where it was a sin for me even to look.' He will repent--his voice is softer--he bears no malice--he blames none but himself. It is never too late to mend. He will repent, and I shall see him happy and lay my old bones to rest contented, though not where I thought to lay them, in Grassmere churchyard."
Ah, you do well to hold that quaint little old figure with that strong arm closer to you than you have done this many years, ay, since you were a curly-headed boy. It is a good sign, John; on neither side of the equator shall you ever find a friend like her.
"All other love is mockery and deceit. 'Tis like the mirage of the desert that appears A cool refreshing water, and allures The thirsty traveler, but flies anon And leaves him disappointed, wondering So fair a vision should so futile prove. A mother's love is like unto a well Sealed and kept secret, a deep-hidden fount That flows when every other spring is dry."*
* Sophia Woodrooffe.
Peter Crawley, left to his own resources, practices at the County Courts in his old neighborhood, and drinks with all his clients, who are of the lowest imaginable order. He complains that "he can't peck," yet continues the cause of his infirmity, living almost entirely upon cock-a-doodle broth--eggs beat up in brandy and a little water. Like Scipio, he is never less alone than when alone; with this difference, that the companions of P. C.'s solitude do not add to the pleasure of his existence. Unless somebody can make him see that it is never too late to mend, this little rogue, fool and sot will "shut up like a knife some day" (so says a medical friend), and then it will be too late.
It is nine in the evening. A little party is collected of farmers and their wives and daughters. Mrs. George Fielding rises and says, "Now I must go home." Remonstrance of hostess. "George will be at home by now."
"Well, wait till he comes for you."
"Oh, he won't come, for fear of shortening my pleasure."
Susan then explains that George is so foolish that he never will go into the house when she is not in it. "And here is a drizzle come on, and there he will be sitting out in it, I know, if I don't go and drive him in."
Events justify the prediction. The good wife finds her husband sitting on the gate kicking his heels quite contented and peaceable, only he would not pay the house the compliment of going into it when she was not there. He told her once he looked on it as no better than a coal-hole when she was not shining up and down it.
N. B.--They have been some years married. A calm but very tender conjugal love sits at this innocent hearth.
George has made a great concession for an Englishman. He has solemnly deposited before witnesses his sobriquet of "Unlucky George," not (he was careful to explain) because he found the great nugget, nor because the meadow he bought in Bathurst for two hundred pounds has just been sold by Robinson for twelve thousand pounds, but on account of his being Susan's husband.
And Susan is very happy. Besides the pleasure of loving and being loved, she is in her place in creation. The class of women (a very large one) to which she belongs comes into the world to make others happy. Susan is skillful at this and very successful. She makes everybody happy round her, "and that is so pleasant." She makes the man she loves happy, and that is delightful.
My reader shall laugh at her; my unfriendly critic shall sneer at her. As a heroine of a novel she deserves it; but I hope for their own sakes neither will undervalue the original in their passage through life. These average women are not the spice of fiction, but they are the salt of real life.
William Fielding is godfather to Susan's little boy.
He can stand by his brother's side and look without compunction on Anne Fielding's grave, and think without an unmanly shudder of his own.