Chapter LIV.
 

Meadows sat one day in his study receiving Crawley's report.

"Old Mr. Merton came yesterday. I made difficulties as instructed. Is to come to-morrow."

"He shall have the eight hundred."

"That makes two thousand four hundred; why, his whole stock won't cover it."

"No!"

"Don't understand it, it is too deep for me. What is the old gentleman doing?"

"Hunting Will-o'-the-wisp. Throwing it away in speculations that are colored bright for him by a man that wants to ruin him."

"Aha!" cackled Crawley.

"And do him no harm."

"Augh! How far is it to the bottom of the sea, sir, if you please? I'm sure you know? Mr. Levi and you."

"Crawley," said Meadows, suddenly turning the conversation, "the world calls me close-fisted, have you found me so?"

"Liberal as running water, sir. I sometimes say how long will this last before such a great man breaks Peter Crawley and flings him away and takes another?" and Crawley sighed.

"Then your game is to make yourself necessary to me."

"I wish I could," said Peter, with mock candor. "Sir," he crept on, "if the most ardent zeal, if punctuality, secrecy, and unscrupulous fidelity--"

"Hold your gammon! Are we writing a book together! Answer me this in English. How far dare you go along with me?"

"As far as your purse extends: only--"

"Only what? Only your thermometer is going down already, I suppose."

"No, sir; but what I mean is, I shouldn't like to do anything too bad."

"What d'ye mean by too bad?"

"Punishable by law."

"It is not your conscience you fear, then?" asked the other gloomily.

"Oh, dear, no, sir, only the law."

"I envy you. There is but one crime punishable by law, and that I shall never counsel you to."

"Only one--too deep, sir, too deep. Which is that?"

"The crime of getting found out."

"What a great man! how far would I go with you? To the end of the earth. I have but one regret, sir."

"And what is that?"

"That I am not thought worthy of your confidence. That after so many years I am still only a too--I mean an honored instrument, and not a humble friend."

"Crawley," said Meadows, solemnly, "let well alone. Don't ask my confidence, for I am often tempted to give it you, and that would be all one as if I put the blade of a razor in your naked hand."

"I don't care, sir! You are up to some game as deep as a coal-pit; and I go on working and working all in the dark. I'd give anything to be in your confidence."

"Anything is nothing; put it in figures," sneered Meadows, incredulously.

"I'll give twenty per cent off all you give me if you will let me see the bottom."

"The bottom?"

"The reason, sir--the motive!--the why!--the wherefore--the what it is all to end in. The bottom!"

"Why not say you would like to read John Meadows' heart?"

"Don't be angry, sir; it is presumption, but I can't help it. Deduct twenty per cent for so great a honor."

"Why, the fool is in earnest."

"He is; we have all got our little vanity, and like to be thought worthy of confidence."

"Humph!"

"And then I can't sleep for puzzling. Why should you stop every letter that comes here from Australia. Oh, bless me, how neglectful I am; here is a letter from there, just come. To think of me bringing it, and then forgetting."

"Give it me, directly."

"There it is. And then, why on earth are we ruining old Mr. Merton without benefiting you? and you seem so friendly with him; and indeed, you say he is not to be harmed--only ruined; it makes my head ache. Why, what is the matter, Mr. Meadows, sir? What is wrong? No ill news, I hope. I wish I'd never brought the letter."

"That will do, Crawley," said Meadows, faintly, "you may go."

Crawley rose with a puzzled air.

"Come here to-morrow evening at nine o'clock, and you shall have your wish. All the worse for you," added he, moodily. "All the worse for me. Now go, without one word."

Crawley retired dumfounded. He saw the iron man had received some strange, unexpected and terrible blow; but for a moment awe suppressed curiosity, and he went off on tiptoe, saying almost in a whisper, "To-morrow night at nine, sir."

Meadows spread George's letter on the table and leaned on his two hands over it.

The letter was written some weeks after the last desponding one. It was full of modest, but warm and buoyant exultation. Heaven had been very good to Susan and him. Robinson had discovered gold; gold in such abundance and quality as beat even California. The thousand pounds, so late despaired of, was now a certainty. Six months' work, with average good fortune, would do it. Robinson said five thousand apiece was the least they ought to bring home; but how could he (George) wait so long as that would take! "And, Susan, dear, if anything could make this wonderful luck sweeter, it is to think that I owe it to you and to your goodness. It was you that gave Tom the letter, and bade me be kind to him, and keep him by me for his good; he has repaid me by making us two man and wife, please God. See what a web life is! Tom and I often talk of this. But Tom says it is Parson Eden I have to thank for it, and the lessons he learned in the prison; but I tell him if he goes so far back as that, he should go farther, and thank Farmer Meadows, for he it was that sent Tom to the prison, where he was converted, and became as honest a fellow as any in the world, and a friend to your George as true as steel."

The letter concluded as it began, with thanks to Heaven, and bidding Susan expect his happy return in six months after this letter. In short, the letter was one "Hurrah!" tempered with simple piety and love.

Meadows turned cold as death in reading it. At the part where Farmer Meadows was referred to as the first link in the golden chain, he dashed it to the ground and raised his foot to trample on it, but forbore lest he should dirty a thing that must go to Susan.

Then he walked the room in great agitation.

"Too late, George Fielding," he cried aloud--"too late; I can't shift my heart like a weathercock to suit the changes in your luck. You have been feeding me with hopes till I can't live without them. I never longed for a thing yet but what I got it, and I'll have this though I trample a hundred George Fieldings dead on my way to it. Now let me think."

He pondered deeply, his great brows knitted and lowered. For full half an hour invention and resource poured scheme after scheme through that teeming brain, and prudence and knowledge of the world sat in severe and cool judgment on each in turn, and dismissed the visionary ones. At last the deep brow began to relax, and the eye to kindle; and when he rose to ring the bell his face was a sign-post with Eureka written on it in Nature's vivid handwriting. In that hour he had hatched a plot worthy of Machiavel---a plot complex yet clear. A servant-girl answered the bell.

"Tell David to saddle Rachel directly."

And in five minutes Mr. Meadows, with a shirt, a razor, a comb, and a map of Australia, was galloping by cross lanes to the nearest railway station. There he telegraphed Mr. Clinton to meet him at Peel's Coffee-House at two o'clock. The message flashed up to town like lightning. The man followed it slowly like the wind.