Chapter LIII.
 

Mr. Meadows dispatched his work in Shropshire twice as fast as he had calculated, and returned home with two forces battling inside him--love and prudence. The battle was decided for him.

William Fielding's honest but awkward interference had raised in Susan Merton a desire to separate her sentiments from his by showing Mr. Meadows a marked respect. She heard of his arrival and instantly sent her father to welcome him home. Old Merton embraced the commission, for he happened to need Meadows's advice and assistance. The speculations into which he had been led by Mr. Clinton, after some fluctuations, wore a gloomy look, "which could only be temporary," said that gentleman. Still a great loss would be incurred by selling out of them at a period of depression, and Mr. Clinton advised him to borrow a thousand pounds and hold on till things brightened.

Mr. Meadows smiled grimly as the fly came and buzzed all this in his web: "Dear! dear! what a pity my money is locked up! Go to Lawyer Crawley. Use my name. He won't refuse my friend, for I could do him an ill turn if I chose."

"I will. You are a true friend. You will look in and see us, of course, market-day?"

"Why not?"

Meadows did not resume his visits at Grassmere without some twinges of conscience and a prudent resolve not to anchor his happiness upon Susan Merton. "That man might come here any day with his thousand pounds and take her from me," said he. "He seems by his letters to be doing well, and they say any fool can make money in the colonies. Well, if he comes home respectable and well to do--I'll go out. If I am not to have the only woman I ever loved or cared for, let thousands and thousands of miles of sea lie between me and that pair." But still he wheeled about the flame.

Ere long matters took a very different turn. The tone of George's letters began to change. His repeated losses of bullocks and sheep were all recorded in his letters to Susan, and these letters were all read with eager anxiety by Meadows a day before they reached Grassmere.

The respectable man did not commit this action without some iron passing through his own soul--Nemo repente turpissimus. The first letter he opened it was like picking a lock. He writhed and blushed, and his uncertain fingers fumbled with another's property as if it had been red-hot. The next cost him some shame, too, but the next less, and soon these little spasms of conscience began to be lost in the pleasure the letters gave him. "It is clear he will never make a thousand pounds out there, and if he doesn't the old farmer won't give him Susan. Won't? He shan't! He shall be too deep in my debt to venture on it even if he was minded." Meadows exulted over the letters; and as he exulted they stabbed him, for by the side of the records of his ill fortune the exile never failed to pour out his love and confidence in his Susan and to acknowledge the receipt of some dear letter from her, which Meadows could see by George's must have assured him of undiminished or even increased affection.

Thus did sin lead to sin. By breaking a seal which was not his and reading letters which were not his, Meadows filled himself with the warmest hopes of possessing Susan one day, and got to hate George for the stabs the young man innocently gave him. At last he actually looked on George as a sort of dog in the manger, who could not make Susan happy, yet would come between her heart and one who could. All weapons seemed lawful against such a mere pest as this--a dog in the manger.

Meadows started with nothing better nor worse than a commonplace conscience. A vicious habit is an iron that soon sears that sort of article. When he had opened and read about four letters, his moral nature turned stone-blind of one eye. And now he was happier (on the surface) than he had been ever since he fell in love with Susan.

Sure now that one day or another she must be his, he waited patiently, enjoyed her society twice a week, got everybody into his power, and bided his time. And one frightful thing in all this was that his love for Susan was not only a strong but in itself a good love. I mean it was a love founded on esteem; it was a passionate love, and yet a profound and tender affection. It was the love which, under different circumstances, has often weaned men, ay, and women, too, from a frivolous, selfish, and sometimes from a vicious life. This love Meadows thought and hoped would hallow the unlawful means by which he must crown it. In fact, he was mixing vice and virtue. The snow was to whiten the pitch, not the pitch blacken the snow. Thousands had tried this before him and will try it after him. Oh, that I could persuade them to mix fire and gunpowder instead! Men would bless me for this when all else I have written has been long, long forgotten.

He felt good all over when he sat with Susan and thought how his means would enable that angel to satisfy her charitable nature, and win the prayers of the poor as well as the admiration of the wealthy. "If ever a woman was cherished she shall be! If ever a woman was happy she shall be!" And as for him, if he had done wrong to win her, he would more than compensate it afterward. In short, he had been for more than twenty years selling, buying, swapping, driving every conceivable earthly bargain--so now he was proposing one to Heaven.

At last came a letter in which George told Susan of the fatal murrain among his sheep, of his fever that had followed immediately, of the further losses while he lay ill, and concluded by saying that he had no right to tie her to his misfortunes, and that he felt it would be more manly to set her free.

When he read this, Meadows' exultation broke all bounds. "Ah ha!" cried he, "is it come to that at last? Well, he is a fine fellow after all, and looks at it the sensible way, and if I can do him a good turn in business I always will."

The next day he called at Grassmere. Susan met him all smiles and was more cheerful than usual. The watchful man was delighted. "Come, she does not take it to heart." He did not guess that Susan had cried for hours and hours over the letter, and then had sat quietly down and written a letter and begged George to come home and not add separation to their other misfortunes; and that it was this decision, and having acted upon it, that had made her cheerful. Meadows argued in his own favor, and now made sure to win. The next week he called three times at Grassmere instead of twice, and asked himself how much longer he must wait before he should speak out. Prudence said, "A little more patience;" and so he still hid in his bosom the flame that burned him the deeper for this unnatural smothering. But he drank deep, silent draughts of love, and reveled in the bright future of his passion. It was no longer hope, it was certainty. Susan liked him; her eye brightened at his coming; her father was in his power. There was nothing between them but the distant shadow of a rival; sooner or later she must be his. So passed three calm, delicious weeks away.