Chapter LXXVIII.
 

Joyous as the first burst of summer were the months Susan passed after the receipt of George's happy letter. Many warm feelings combined in one stream of happiness in Susan's heart. Perhaps the keenest of all was pride at George's success. Nobody could laugh at George now, and insult her again there where she was most sensitive, by telling her that George was not good enough for her or any woman; and even those who set such store upon money-making would have to confess that George could do even that for love of her, as well as they could do it for love of themselves. Next to this her joy was greatest at the prospect of his speedy return.

And now she became joyfully impatient for further news, but not disappointed at his silence till two months had passed without another letter. Then, indeed, anxiety mingled now and then with her happiness. Then it was that Meadows, slowly and hesitatingly to the last, raised his hand and struck the first direct blow at her heart. He struck in the dark. He winced for her both before and after. Yet he struck.

One market-day a whisper passed through Farnborough that George Fielding had met with wonderful luck. That he had made his fortune by gold, and was going to marry a young lady out in Australia. Farmer Merton brought the whisper home. Meadows was sure he would.

Meadows did not come to the house for some days. He half feared to look upon his work; to see Susan's face agonized under his blow. At last he came. He watched her by stealth. He found he might have spared his qualms. She chatted as usual in very good spirits, and just before he went she told him the report with a smile of ineffable scorn.

She was simple, unsuspicious, and every way without a shield against a Meadows, but the loyal heart by its own virtue had turned the dagger's edge.

A week after this Jefferies brought Meadows a letter; it was from Susan to George. Meadows read it writhing. It breathed kind affection, with one or two demi-maternal cautions about his health, and to be very prudent for her sake. Not a word of doubt; there was, however, a postscript of which the following is the exact wording:

"P. S. It is all over Farnborough that you are going to be married to some one in Australia."

Two months more passed, and no letter from George. These two months told upon Susan; she fretted and became restless and irritable, and cold misgivings crept over her, and the anguish of suspense!

At last one day she unbosomed herself, though with hesitation, to a warm and disinterested friend; blushing all over with tearful eyes she confessed her grief to Mr. Meadows. "Don't tell father, sir; I hide my trouble from him as well as I can, but what does it mean George not writing to me these four months and three days? Do pray tell me what does it mean!" and Susan cried so piteously that Meadows winced at his success.

"Oh, Mr. Meadows! don't flatter me; tell me the truth." While he was exulting in her firmness, who demanded the truth, bitter or not, she continued: "Only don't tell me that I am forgotten!" And she looked so piteously in the oracle's face that he forgot everything in the desire to say something she would like him the better for saying; he muttered, "Perhaps he has sailed for home." He expected her to say, "And if he has he would have written to me before sailing." But instead of this Susan gave a little cry of joy.

"Ah! how foolish I have been. Mr. Meadows, you are a friend out of a thousand; you are as wise as I am foolish. Poor George! you will never let him know I was so wicked as to doubt him." And Susan brightened with joy and hope. The heart believes so readily the thing it longs should be true. She was happy all the rest of the evening.

Meadows went away mad with her for her folly, and with himself for his feebleness of purpose, and next market-day again the whisper went round the market that George Fielding was going to marry out there. This time a detail was sketched in: "It was a lady in the town of Bathurst." Old Merton brought this home and twitted his daughter. She answered haughtily that it was a falsehood. She would stake her life on George's fidelity.

"See, Mr. Meadows, they are all against poor George, all except you. But what does it mean? if he does not write or come soon I think I shall go mad."

"Report is a common liar; I would not believe anything till I saw it in black and white," said Meadows, doggedly.

"No more I will."

Soon after this William Fielding had a talk with Susan.

"Have you heard a report about George?"

"Yes! I have heard a rumor."

"You don't believe it, I hope."

"Why should I believe it?"

"I'm going to trace it up to the liar that forged it, if I can."

Susan suppressed her satisfaction at this resolution of Will Fielding's.

"Is it worth while?" asked she coldly.

"If I didn't think so, I shouldn't take that much trouble, not expecting any thanks."

"Have I said anything to offend you?" asked Susan, with a still more frigid tone.

The other did not trust himself to answer. But two days after he came again, and told her he had written a letter to George, telling him what reports were about, and begging for an answer whether or not there was any truth in them.

A gleam of satisfaction from Susan's eyes, but not a word. This man, who had once been George's rival at heart, was the last to whom she would openly acknowledge her doubts. Then Will went on to tell her that he had traced the rumor from one to another up to a stranger whose name nobody knew; "but I dare say Mr. Meadows has a notion."

"No!"

"Are you sure?"

"Yes! he would have told me if he had."

William gave a snort of incredulity, and hinted that probably Mr. Meadows himself was at the bottom of the scandal.

Now Meadows' artful conduct had fortified Susan against such a suspicion, and, being by nature a warm-hearted friend, she fired up for him, as she would have for Mr. Eden, or even for poor Will in his absence. She did it, too, in the most womanish way. She did not tell the young man that she had consulted Mr. Meadows, and that he had constantly discredited the report, and set her against believing it. Had she done this, she would have staggered the simple-minded Will; but no; she said to herself, "He has attacked a good friend of mine, I won't satisfy him so far as to give him reasons;" so she merely snubbed him.

"Oh, I know you are set against poor Mr. Meadows; he is a good friend of ours, of my father, and me, and of George, too."

"I wish you may not have to alter your mind," sneered Will.

"I will not without a reason."

"I will give you a reason; do you remember that day--"

"When you insulted him in his own house, and me into the bargain, Will?"

"Not you, Susan, leastways I hope not, but him I did, and am just as like to do it again; well, when you were gone, I took a thought, and I said, appearances deceive the wisest; I may be mistaken--"

"He! he!"

"I don't know what you are laughing at; and then, says I, it is his own house, after all, so I said, 'If I am wrong, and you don't mean to undermine my brother, take my hand;' and I gave it him."

"And be refused it?"

"No, Susan!"

"Well, then--"

"But, Susan," said William, solemnly, "his hand lay in mine like a stone."

"Really, now!"

"A lump of ice would be as near the mark."

"Well! is that the reason you promised me?" William nodded.

"William, you are a fool."

"Oh I am a fool now?"

"You go and insult a man, your superior in every respect, and the very next moment he is to give you his hand as warmly as to a friend, and an equal; you really are too foolish to go without a keeper, and if it was in any man's power to set me against poor George altogether you have gone the way to do it this twelve months past;" and Susan closed the conference abruptly.

It was William's fate to rivet Meadows' influence by every blow he aimed at it. For all that the prudent Meadows thought it worth his while to rid himself of this honest and determined foe, and he had already taken steps. He had discovered that this last month William Fielding, returning from market, had been seen more than once to stop and chat at one Mrs. Holiday's, a retired small tradeswoman in Farnborough. Now Mrs. Holiday was an old acquaintance of Meadows' and had given him sugar-plums thirty years ago. It suited his purpose to remember all of a sudden these old sugar-plums, and that Mrs. Holiday had lately told him she wanted to get out of the town and end her days upon turf.

There was a cottage, paddock and garden for sale within a hundred yards of "The Grove." Meadows bought them a good bargain, and offered them to the widow at a very moderate rent.

The widow was charmed. "Why, we can keep a cow, Mr. Meadows."

"Well, there is grass enough."

The widow took the cottage with enthusiasm.

Mrs. Holiday had a daughter, a handsome--a downright handsome girl, and a good girl into the bargain.

Meadows had said to himself: "It is not the old woman Will Fielding goes there for. Well, she will want some one to teach her how to farm that half acre of grass, and buy the cow and milk her. Friendly offices--chat coming and going--come in, Mr. Fielding, and taste your cow's cream!--and, when he has got a lass of his own, his eye won't be forever on mine."

William's letter to George went to the post-office, and from the post-office to a little pile of intercepted letters in Meadows' desk.