It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
Susan Merton had two unfavored lovers; it is well to observe how differently these two behaved. William Fielding stayed at home, threw his whole soul into his farm, and seldom went near the woman he loved but had no right to love. Meadows dangled about the flame; ashamed and afraid to own his love, he fed it to a prodigious height by encouraging it and not expressing it. William Fielding was moody and cross and sad enough at times; but at others a little spark ignited inside his heart, and a warm glow diffused itself from that small point over all his being. I think this spark igniting was an approving conscience commencing its uphill work of making a disappointed lover, but honest man, content.
Meadows, on his part, began to feel content and a certain complacency take the place of his stormy feelings. Twice a week he passed two hours with Susan. She always greeted him with a smile, and naturally showed an innocent satisfaction in these visits, managed as they were with so much art and self-restraint. On Sunday, too, he had always a word or two with her.
Meadows, though an observer of religious forms, had the character of a very worldly man, and Susan thought it highly to his credit that he came six miles to hear Mr. Eden.
"But, Mr. Meadows, your poor horse," said she, one day. "I doubt it is no Sabbath to him now."
"No more it is," said Meadows, as if a new light came to him from Susan. The next Sunday he appeared in dusty shoes, instead of top-boots.
Susan looked down at them, and saw, and said nothing; but she smiled. Her love of goodness and her vanity were both gratified a little.
Meadows did not stop there; wherever Susan went he followed modestly in her steps. Nor was this mere cunning. He loved her quite well enough to imitate her, and try and feel with her; and he began to be kinder to the poor, and to feel good all over, and comfortable. He felt as if he had not an enemy in the world. One day in Farnborough he saw William Fielding on the other side of the street. Susan Merton did not love William, therefore Meadows had no cause to hate him. He remembered William had asked a loan of him and he had declined. He crossed over to him.
"Good-day, Mr. William."
"Good-day, Mr. Meadows."
"You were speaking to me one day about a trifling loan. I could not manage it just then, but now--" Here Meadows paused. He had been on the point of offering the money, but suddenly, by one of those instincts of foresight these able men have, he turned it off thus: "but I know who will. You go to Lawyer Crawley; he lends money to people of credit."
"I know he does; but he won't lend it me."
"He does not like us. He is a poor sneaking creature, and my brother George he caught Crawley selling up some poor fellow or other, and they had words; leastways it went beyond words, I fancy. I don't know the rights of it, but George was a little rough with him by all accounts."
"And what has that to do with this?" said the man of business coolly.
"Why, I am George's brother."
"And if you were George himself and he saw his way to make a shilling out of you he would do it, wouldn't he? There, you go to Crawley and ask him to lend you one hundred pounds, and he will lend it you, only he will make you pay heavy interest, heavier than I should, you know, if I could manage it myself."
"Oh, I don't care," said simple William; "thank you kindly, Mr. Meadows," and off he went to Crawley.
He found that worthy in his office. Crawley, who instantly guessed his errand, and had no instructions from Meadows, promised himself the satisfaction of refusing the young man. He asked, with a cringing manner and a treacherous smile, "What security, sir?"
Poor William higgled and hammered, and offered first one thing, which was blandly declined for this reason; then another, which was blandly declined for that, Crawley drinking deep draughts of mean vengeance all the while from the young man's shame and mortification, when the door opened, a man walked in, and gave Crawley a note and vanished. Crawley opened the note; it contained a check drawn by Meadows, and these words: "Lend W. F. the money at ten per cent on his acceptance of your draft at two months."
Crawley put the note and check in his pocket.
"Well, sir," said he to William, "you stay here, and I will see if I have got a loose hundred in the bank to spare." He went over to the bank, cashed the check, drew a bill of exchange at two months' date, deducted the interest and stamp, and William accepted it, and Crawley bowed him out cringing, smiling, and secretly shooting poisoned arrows out of his venomous eye in the direction of William's heels.
William thanked him warmly.
This loan made him feel happy.
He had paid his brother's debt to the landlord by sacrificing a large portion of his grain at a time the price was low; and now he was so cramped he had much ado to pay his labor when this loan came. The very next day he bought several hogs--hogs, as George had sarcastically observed, were William Fielding's hobby; he had I confidence in that animal. Potatoes and pigs versus sheep and turnips was the theory of William Fielding.
Now the good understanding between William and Meadows was not to last long. William, though he was too wise to visit Grassmere Farm much, was mindful of his promise to George, and used to make occasional inquiries after Susan. He heard that Meadows called at the farm twice a week, and he thought it a little odd. He pondered on it, but did not quite go the length of suspecting anything, still less of suspecting Susan. Still, he thought it odd; but he thought it odder, when, one market-day, old Isaac Levi said to him:
"Do you remember the promise you made to the lion-hearted young man, your brother?"
"Do you ask that to affront me?"
"You never visit her; and others are not so neglectful."
"Go this evening and you will see."
"Yes, I will go, and I will soon see if there is anything in it," said William, not stopping even to inquire why the old Jew took all this interest in the affair.
That evening, as Meadows was in the middle of a description of the town of Sydney, Susan started up. "Why, here is William Fielding!" and she ran out and welcomed him in with much cordiality, perhaps with some excess of cordiality.
William came in and saluted the farmer and Meadows in his dogged way. Meadows was not best pleased, but kept his temper admirably, and, leaving Australia, engaged both the farmers in a conversation on home topics. Susan looked disappointed. Meadows was content with that, and the party separated half an hour sooner than usual.
The next market evening in strolls William. Meadows again plays the same game. This time Susan could hardly restrain her temper. She did not want to hear about the Grassmere acres, and "The Grove," and oxen and hogs, but about something that mattered to George.
But when the next market evening William arrived before Mr. Meadows, she was downright provoked and gave him short answers, which raised his suspicions and made him think he had done wisely in coming. This evening Susan excused herself and went to bed early.
She was in Farnborough the next market-day, and William met her and said:
"I'll take a cup of tea with you to-night, Susan, if you are agreeable."
"William," said Susan sharply, "what makes you always come to us on market-day?"
"I don't know. What makes Mr. Meadows come that day?"
"Because he passes our house to go to his own, I suppose; but you live but two miles off; you can come any day that you are minded."
"Should I be welcome, Susan?"
"What do you think, Will? Speak your mind; I don't understand you."
"Seems to me I was not very welcome last time."
"If I thought that I wouldn't come again," replied Susan, as sharp as a needle. Then instantly repenting a little, she explained: "You are welcome to me, Will, and you know that as well as I do, but I want you to come some other evening, if it is all the same to you."
"Why? because I am dull other evenings, and it would be nice to have a chat with you."
"Would it, Susan?"
"Of course it would; but that evening I have company--and he talks to me of Australia."
"Nothing else?" sneered the unlucky William.
Susan gave him such a look.
"And that interests me more than anything you can say to me--if you won't be offended," snapped Susan.
William bit his lip.
"Well, then, I won't come this evening, eh! Susan?"
"No, don't, that is a good soul."
"Les femmes sont impitoyables pour ceux qu'elles n'aiment pas." This is a harsh saying, and of course not pure truth; but there is a deal of truth in it.
William was proud, and the consciousness of his own love for her made him less able to persist, for he knew she might be so ungenerous as to retort if he angered her too far. So he altered the direction of his battery. He planted himself at the gate of Grassmere Farm, and as Meadows got off his horse requested a few words with him. Meadows ran him over with one lightning glance, and then the whole man was on the defensive. William bluntly opened the affair.
"You heard me promise to look on Susan as my sister, and keep her as she is for my brother that is far away."
"I heard you, Mr. William," said Meadows with a smile that provoked William as the artful one intended it should.
"You come here too often, sir."
"Too often for who?"
"Too often for me, too often for George, too often for the girl herself. I won't have George's sweetheart talked about."
"You are the first to talk about her; if there's scandal it is of your making."
"I won't have it--at a word."
Meadows called out, "Miss Merton, will you step here."
William was astonished at his audacity; he did not know his man.
Susan opened the parlor window.
"What is it, Mr. Meadows?"
"Will you step here, if you please?" Susan came. 'Here is a young man tells me I must not call on your father or you."
"I say you must not do it often enough to make her talked of."
"Who dares to talk of me?" cried Susan, scarlet.
"Nobody, Miss Merton. Nobody but the young man himself; and so I told him. Is your father within? Then I'll step in and speak with him anyway." And the sly Meadows vanished to give Susan an opportunity of quarreling with William while she was hot.
"I don't know how you came to take such liberties with me," began Susan, quite pale now with anger.
"It is for George's sake," said William doggedly.
"Did George bid you insult my friends and me? I would not put up with it from George himself, much less from you. I shall write to George and ask him whether he wishes me to be your slave."
"Don't ye do so. Don't set my brother against me," remonstrated William ruefully.
"The best thing you can do is to go home and mind your farm, and get a sweetheart for yourself, and then you won't trouble your head about me more than you have any business to do."
This last cut wounded William to the quick.
"Won't you shake hands?"
"It would serve you right if I said no! But I won't make you of so much importance as you want to be. There! And come again as soon as ever you can treat my friends with respect."
"I shan't trouble you again for a while," said William sadly. "Good-by. God bless you, Susan dear."
When he was gone the tears came into Susan's eyes, but she was bitterly indignant with him for making a scene about her, which a really modest girl hates. On her reaching the parlor Mr. Meadows was gone, too, and that incensed her still more against William. "Mr. Meadows is affronted, no doubt," said she, "and of course he would not come here to be talked of; he would not like that any more than I. A man that comes here to us out of pure good nature and nothing else."
The next market-day the deep Meadows did not come. Susan missed him and his talk. She had few pleasures, and this was one of them. But the next after he came as usual, and Susan did not conceal her satisfaction. She was too shy and he too wise to allude to William's interference. They both ignored the poor fellow and his honest, clumsy attempt.
William, discomfited but not convinced, determined to keep his eye upon them both. "I swore it and I'll do it," said this honest fellow. "But I can't face her tongue; it goes through me like a pitchfork; but as for him"--and he clinched his fist most significantly; then he revolved one or two plans in his head, and rejected them each in turn. At last a thought struck him. "Mr. Levi! he 'twas that put me on my guard. I'll tell him." Accordingly he recounted the whole affair and his failure to Mr. Levi. The old man smiled. "You are no match for either of these. You have given the maiden offense, just offense."
"Just offence! Mr. Levi. Now don't ye say so; why, how?"
"By your unskillfulness, my son."
"It is all very well for you to say that, sir, but I can tell you women are kittle folk--manage them who can? I don't know what to do, I'm sure."
"Stay at home and till the land," replied Isaac, somewhat dryly. "I will go to Grassmere Farm."