It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
"You going to leave us, Mr. Eden, and going to live in a jail? Oh! Mr. Eden, I can't bear to think of it. You to be cooped up there among thieves and rogues, and perhaps murderers?"
"They have the more need of me."
"And you, who love the air of heaven so; why, sir, I see you take off your very hat at times to enjoy it as you are walking along; you would be choked in a prison. Besides, sir, it is only little parsons that go there."
"What are little parsons?"
"Those that are not clever enough or good enough to be bishops and vicars, and so forth; not such ones as you."
"How odd! This is exactly what the Devil whispered in my ear when the question was first raised, but I did not expect to find you on his side."
"Didn't you, sir? Ah! well, if 'tis your duty I know I may as well hold my tongue. And then, such as you are not like other folk; you come like sunshine to some dark place, and when you have warmed it and lighted it a bit, Heaven, that sent you, will have you go and shine elsewhere. You came here, sir, you waked up the impenitent folk in this village and comforted the distressed and relieved the poor, and you have saved one poor broken-hearted girl from despair, from madness, belike; and now we are not to be selfish, we must not hold you back, but let you run the race that is set before you, and remember your words and your deeds, and your dear face and voice to the last hour of our lives."
"And give me the benefit of your prayers, little sister, do not deny me them; your prayers, that I may persevere to the end. Ay! it is too true, Susan; in this world there is nothing but meeting and parting; it is sad. We have need to be stout-hearted--stouter-hearted than you are. But it will not always be so. A few short years and we who have fought the good fight shall meet to part no more--to part no more--to part no more!"
As he repeated these words, half mechanically, Susan could see that he had suddenly become scarce conscious of her presence. The light of other days was in his eye and his lips moved inarticulately. Delicate-minded Susan left him, and with the aid of the servant brought out the tea-things and set the little table on the grass square in her garden, where you could see the western sun. And then she came for Mr. Eden.
"Come, sir, there is not a breath of wind this evening, so the tea-things are set in the air. I know you like that."
The little party sat down in the open air. The butter, churned by Susan, was solidified cream. The bread not very white, but home-made, juicy and sweet as milk. The tea seemed to diffuse a more flowery fragrance out of doors than it does in, and to mix fraternally with the hundred odors of Susan's flowers that now perfumed the air, and the whole innocent meal, unlike coarse dinner or supper, mingled harmoniously with the scene, with the balmy air, the blue sky and the bright emerald grass sprinkled with gold by the descending sun. Farmer Merton soon left them, and then Susan went in and brought out pen and ink and a large sheet of paper.
Susan sat apart working with her needle, Mr. Eden sketched a sermon and sipped his tea, and now and then purred three words to Susan, who purred as many in reply. And yet over this pleasant scene there hung a gentle sadness, felt most by Susan, as with head bent down she plied her needle in silence. "He will not sit in my garden many times more, nor write many more notes of sermons under my eye, nor preach to us all many more sermons; and then he is going to a nasty jail, where he won't have his health, I'm doubtful. And then I'm fearful he won't be comfortable in his house, with nobody to take care of him that really cares for him; servants soon find out where there is no woman to scold them as should be, and he is not the man to take his own part against them." And Susan sighed at the domestic prospects of her friend, and her needle went slower and slower.
These reflections were interrupted by the servant, who announced a visitor. Susan laid down her work and went into the parlor, and there found Isaac Levi. She greeted him with open arms and heightened color, and never for a moment suspected that he was come there full of suspicions of her.
After the first greeting a few things of little importance were said on either side. Isaac watching to see whether Mr. Meadows had succeeded in supplanting George, and too cunning to lead the conversation that way himself, lay patiently in wait like a sly old fox. However, he soon found he was playing the politician superfluously, for Susan laid bare her whole heart to the simplest capacity. Instead of waiting for the skillful, subtle, almost invisible cross-examination which the descendant of Maimonides was preparing for her, she answered all his questions before they were asked. It came out that her thought by day and night was George, that she had been very dull, and very unhappy. "But I am better now, Mr. Levi, thank God. He has been very good to me: he has sent me a friend, a clergyman, or an angel in the dress of one, I sometimes think. He knows all about me and George, sir; so that makes me feel quite at home with him, and I can--and now Mr. Meadows stops an hour on market-days, and he is so kind as to tell me all about Australia, and you may guess I like to hear about--Mr. Levi, come and see us some market evening. Mr. Meadows is capital company; to hear him you would think he had passed half his life in Australia. Were you ever in Australia, sir, if you please?"
"Never, but I shall."
"Shall you, sir?"
"Yes; the old Jew is not to die till he has drifted to every part in the globe. In my old days I shall go back toward the East, and there methinks I shall lay these wandering bones."
"Oh, sir, inquire after George and show him some kindness, and don't see him wronged, he is very simple. No! no! no! you are too old; you must not cross the seas at your age; don't think of it; stay quiet at home till you leave us for a better world."
"At home!" said the old man sorrowfully; "I have no home. I had a home, but the man Meadows has driven me out of it."
"Mr. Meadows! La, sir, as how?"
"He bought the house I live in, and next Lady-day, as the woman-worshiper calls it, he turns me to the door."
"But he won't if you ask him. He is a very good-natured man. You go and ask him to be so good as let you stay; he won't gainsay you, you take my word."
"Susannah!" replied Isaac, "you are good and innocent; you cannot fathom the hearts of the wicked. This Meadows is a man of Belial. I did beseech him; I bowed these gray hairs to him to let me stay in the house where I lived so happily with my Leah twenty years, where my children were born to me and died from me, where my Leah consoled me for their loss a while, but took no comfort herself and left me, too."
"Poor old man! and what did he say?"
"He refused me with harsh words. To make the refusal more bitter he insulted my religion and my much-enduring tribe, and at the day appointed he turns me, at threescore years and ten, adrift upon the earth."
"Eh, dear! how hard the world is!" cried Susan; "I had a great respect for Mr. Meadows, but now if he comes here I know I shall shut the door in his face."
Isaac reflected. This would not have suited a certain subtle Eastern plan of vengeance he had formed. "No!" said he, "that is folly. Take not another man's quarrel on your shoulders. A Jew knows how to revenge himself without your aid."
So then her inquisitor was satisfied; Australia really was the topic that made Meadows welcome. He departed, revolving Oriental vengeance.
Smooth Meadows, at his next visit, removed the impression excited against him, and easily persuaded Susan that Levi was more in the wrong than he, in which opinion she stood firm till Levi's next visit.
At last she gave up all hope of dijudicating, and determined to end the matter by bringing them together and making them friends.
And now approached the day of Mr. Eden's departure. The last sermon--the last quiet tea in the garden. On Monday afternoon he was to go to Oxford, and the following week to his new sphere of duties, which he had selected to the astonishment of some hundred persons who knew him superficially--knew him by his face, by his pretensions as a scholar, a divine and a gentleman of descent and independent means, but had not sounded his depths.
All Sunday Susan sought every opportunity of conversing with him even on indifferent matters. She was garnering up his words, his very syllables, and twenty times in the day he saw her eyes fill with tears apropos of such observations as this:
"We shall have a nice warm afternoon, Susan."
"It is to be hoped so, sir; the blackbirds are giving a chirrup or two."
All Monday forenoon Susan was very busy. There was bread to be baked and butter to be made. Mr. Eden must take some of each to Oxford. They would keep Grassmere in his mind a day or two longer; and besides they were wholesome and he was fond of them. Then there was his linen to be looked over, and buttons sewed on for the last time. Then he must eat a good dinner before he went, so then he would want nothing but his tea when he got to Oxford; and the bread would be fit to eat by tea-time, especially a small crusty cake she had made for that purpose. So with all this Susan was energetic, almost lively; and even when it was all done and they were at dinner, her principal anxiety seemed to be that he should eat more than usual because he was going a journey. But when all bustle of every kind was over and the actual hour of parting came, she suddenly burst out crying before her father and the servant, who bade her not take on and instantly burst out crying too from vague sympathy.
The old farmer ordered the girl out of the room directly, and without the least emotion proceeded to make excuses to Mr. Eden for Susan.
"A young maid's eyes soon flow over," etc.
Mr. Eden interrupted him.
"Such tears as these do not scald the heart. I feel this separation from my dear kind friend as much as she feels it. But I am more than twice her age and have passed through--I should feel it bitterly if I thought our friendship and Christian love were to end because our path of duty lies separate. But no, Susan, still look on me as your adviser, your elder brother, and in some measure your pastor. I shall write to you and watch over you, though it some distance--and not so great a distance. I am always well horsed, and I know you will give me a bed at Grassmere once a quarter."
"That we will," cried the farmer, warmly, "and proud and happy to see you cross the threshold, sir."
"And, Mr. Merton, my new house is large. I shall be alone in it. Whenever you and Miss Merton have nothing better to do, pray come and visit me. I will make you as uncomfortable as you have made me comfortable, but as welcome as you have made me welcome."
"We will come, sir! we will come some one of these days, and thank you for the honor."
So Mr. Eden went from Grassmere village and Grassmere farmhouse--but he left neither as he found them; fifty years hence an old man and woman or two will speak to their grandchildren of the "Sower," and Susan Merton (if she is on earth then) of "the good Physician." She may well do so, for it was no vulgar service he rendered her, no vulgar malady he checked.
Not every good man could have penetrated so quickly a coy woman's grief, nor, the wound found, have soothed her fever and deadened her smart with a hand as firm as gentle, as gentle as firm.
Such men are human suns! They brighten and warm wherever they pass. Fools count them mad, till death wrenches open foolish eyes; they are not often called "my Lord,"* nor sung by poets when they die; but the hearts they heal, and their own are their rich reward on earth--and their place is high in heaven.
* Sometimes thought.