"Don't I?" said Mr. Arabin, still musing, not knowing what he said.
"I ask you the question: do you succeed?"
Mr. Arabin looked at her piteously. It seemed to him as though he were being interrogated by some inner spirit of his own, to whom he could not refuse an answer, and to whom he did not dare to give a false reply.
"Come, Mr. Arabin, confess; do you succeed? Is money so contemptible? Is worldly power so worthless? Is feminine beauty a trifle to be so slightly regarded by a wise man?"
"Feminine beauty!" said he, gazing into her face, as though all the feminine beauty in the world were concentrated there. "Why do you say I do not regard it?"
"If you look at me like that, Mr. Arabin, I shall alter my opinion—or should do so, were I not of course aware that I have no beauty of my own worth regarding."
The gentleman blushed crimson, but the lady did not blush at all. A slightly increased colour animated her face, just so much so as to give her an air of special interest. She expected a compliment from her admirer, but she was rather gratified than otherwise by finding that he did not pay it to her. Messrs. Slope and Thorne, Messrs. Brown, Jones, and Robinson, they all paid her compliments. She was rather in hopes that she would ultimately succeed in inducing Mr. Arabin to abuse her.
"But your gaze," said she, "is one of wonder, not of admiration. You wonder at my audacity in asking you such questions about yourself."
"Well, I do rather," said he.
"Nevertheless, I expect an answer, Mr. Arabin. Why were women made beautiful if men are not to regard them?"
"But men do regard them," he replied.
"And why not you?"
"You are begging the question, Madame Neroni."
"I am sure I shall beg nothing, Mr. Arabin, which you will not grant, and I do beg for an answer. Do you not as a rule think women below your notice as companions? Let us see. There is the Widow Bold looking round at you from her chair this minute. What would you say to her as a companion for life?"
Mr. Arabin, rising from his position, leaned over the sofa and looked through the drawing-room door to the place where Eleanor was seated between Bertie Stanhope and Mr. Slope. She at once caught his glance and averted her own. She was not pleasantly placed in her present position. Mr. Slope was doing his best to attract her attention, and she was striving to prevent his doing so by talking to Mr. Stanhope, while her mind was intently fixed on Mr. Arabin and Madame Neroni. Bertie Stanhope endeavoured to take advantage of her favours, but he was thinking more of the manner in which he would by and by throw himself at her feet than of amusing her at the present moment.
"There," said the signora. "She was stretching her beautiful neck to look at you, and now you have disturbed her. Well, I declare I believe I am wrong about you; I believe that you do think Mrs. Bold a charming woman. Your looks seem to say so, and by her looks I should say that she is jealous of me. Come, Mr. Arabin, confide in me, and if it is so, I'll do all in my power to make up the match."
It is needless to say that the signora was not very sincere in her offer. She was never sincere on such subjects. She never expected others to be so, nor did she expect others to think her so. Such matters were her playthings, her billiard table, her hounds and hunters, her waltzes and polkas, her picnics and summer-day excursions. She had little else to amuse her, and therefore played at love-making in all its forms. She was now playing at it with Mr. Arabin, and did not at all expect the earnestness and truth of his answer.
"All in your power would be nothing," said he, "for Mrs. Bold is, I imagine, already engaged to another."
"Then you own the impeachment yourself."
"You cross-question me rather unfairly," he replied, "and I do not know why I answer you at all. Mrs. Bold is a very beautiful woman, and as intelligent as beautiful. It is impossible to know her without admiring her."
"So you think the widow a very beautiful woman?"
"Indeed I do."
"And one that would grace the parsonage of St. Ewold's."
"One that would well grace any man's house."
"And you really have the effrontery to tell me this," said she; "to tell me, who, as you very well know, set up to be a beauty myself, and who am at this very moment taking such an interest in your affairs, you really have the effrontery to tell me that Mrs. Bold is the most beautiful woman you know."
"I did not say so," said Mr. Arabin; "you are more beautiful—"
"Ah, come now, that is something like. I thought you could not be so unfeeling."
"You are more beautiful, perhaps more clever."
"Thank you, thank you, Mr. Arabin. I knew that you and I should be friends."
"Not a word further. I will not hear a word further. If you talk till midnight you cannot improve what you have said."
"But Madame Neroni, Mrs. Bold—"
"I will not hear a word about Mrs. Bold. Dread thoughts of strychnine did pass across my brain, but she is welcome to the second place."
"I won't hear anything about her or her place. I am satisfied, and that is enough. But Mr. Arabin, I am dying with hunger; beautiful and clever as I am, you know I cannot go to my food, and yet you do not bring it to me."
This at any rate was so true as to make it necessary that Mr. Arabin should act upon it, and he accordingly went into the dining-room and supplied the signora's wants.
"And yourself?" said she.
"Oh," said he, "I am not hungry. I never eat at this hour."
"Come, come, Mr. Arabin, don't let love interfere with your appetite. It never does with mine. Give me half a glass more champagne and then go to the table. Mrs. Bold will do me an injury if you stay talking to me any longer."
Mr. Arabin did as he was bid. He took her plate and glass from her and, going into the dining-room, helped himself to a sandwich from the crowded table and began munching it in a corner.
As he was doing so Miss Thorne, who had hardly sat down for a moment, came into the room and, seeing him standing, was greatly distressed.
"Oh, my dear Mr. Arabin," said she, "have you never sat down yet? I am so distressed. You of all men, too."
Mr. Arabin assured her that he had only just come into the room.
"That is the very reason why you should lose no more time. Come, I'll make room for you. Thank'ee, my dear," she said, seeing that Mrs. Bold was making an attempt to move from her chair, "but I would not for worlds see you stir, for all the ladies would think it necessary to follow. But, perhaps, if Mr. Stanhope has done—just for a minute, Mr. Stanhope, till I can get another chair."
And so Bertie had to rise to make way for his rival. This he did, as he did everything, with an air of good-humoured pleasantry which made it impossible for Mr. Arabin to refuse the proffered seat.
"His bishopric let another take," said Bertie, the quotation being certainly not very appropriate either for the occasion or the person spoken to. "I have eaten and am satisfied; Mr. Arabin, pray take my chair. I wish for your sake that it really was a bishop's seat."
Mr. Arabin did sit down, and as he did so Mrs. Bold got up as though to follow her neighbour.
"Pray, pray don't move," said Miss Thorne, almost forcing Eleanor back into her chair. "Mr. Stanhope is not going to leave us. He will stand behind you like a true knight as he is. And now I think of it, Mr. Arabin, let me introduce you to Mr. Slope. Mr. Slope, Mr. Arabin." And the two gentlemen bowed stiffly to each other across the lady whom they both intended to marry, while the other gentleman who also intended to marry her stood behind, watching them.
The two had never met each other before, and the present was certainly not a good opportunity for much cordial conversation, even if cordial conversation between them had been possible. As it was, the whole four who formed the party seemed as though their tongues were tied. Mr. Slope, who was wide awake to what he hoped was his coming opportunity, was not much concerned in the interest of the moment. His wish was to see Eleanor move, that he might pursue her. Bertie was not exactly in the same frame of mind; the evil day was near enough; there was no reason why he should precipitate it. He had made up his mind to marry Eleanor Bold if he could, and was resolved to-day to take the first preliminary step towards doing so. But there was time enough before him. He was not going to make an offer of marriage over the table-cloth. Having thus good-naturedly made way for Mr. Arabin, he was willing also to let him talk to the future Mrs. Stanhope as long as they remained in their present position.
Mr. Arabin, having bowed to Mr. Slope, began eating his food without saying a word further. He was full of thought, and though he ate he did so unconsciously.
But poor Eleanor was the most to be pitied. The only friend on whom she thought she could rely was Bertie Stanhope, and he, it seemed, was determined to desert her. Mr. Arabin did not attempt to address her. She said a few words in reply to some remarks from Mr. Slope and then, feeling the situation too much for her, started from her chair in spite of Miss Thorne and hurried from the room. Mr. Slope followed her, and young Stanhope lost the occasion.
Madeline Neroni, when she was left alone, could not help pondering much on the singular interview she had had with this singular man. Not a word that she had spoken to him had been intended by her to be received as true, and yet he had answered her in the very spirit of truth. He had done so, and she had been aware that he had so done. She had wormed from him his secret, and he, debarred as it would seem from man's usual privilege of lying, had innocently laid bare his whole soul to her. He loved Eleanor Bold, but Eleanor was not in his eye so beautiful as herself. He would fain have Eleanor for his wife, but yet he had acknowledged that she was the less gifted of the two. The man had literally been unable to falsify his thoughts when questioned, and had been compelled to be true malgre lui, even when truth must have been so disagreeable to him.
This teacher of men, this Oxford pundit, this double-distilled quintessence of university perfection, this writer of religious treatises, this speaker of ecclesiastical speeches, had been like a little child in her hands; she had turned him inside out and read his very heart as she might have done that of a young girl. She could not but despise him for his facile openness, and yet she liked him for it, too. It was a novelty to her, a new trait in a man's character. She felt also that she could never so completely make a fool of him as she did of the Slopes and Thornes. She felt that she never could induce Mr. Arabin to make protestations to her that were not true, or to listen to nonsense that was mere nonsense.
It was quite clear that Mr. Arabin was heartily in love with Mrs. Bold; and the signora, with very unwonted good nature, began to turn it over in her mind whether she could not do him a good turn. Of course Bertie was to have the first chance. It was an understood family arrangement that her brother was, if possible, to marry the Widow Bold. Madeline knew too well his necessities and what was due to her sister to interfere with so excellent a plan, as long as it might be feasible. But she had strong suspicion that it was not feasible. She did not think it likely that Mrs. Bold would accept a man in her brother's position, and she had frequently said so to Charlotte. She was inclined to believe that Mr. Slope had more chance of success, and with her it would be a labour of love to rob Mr. Slope of his wife.
And so the signora resolved, should Bertie fail, to do a good-natured act for once in her life and give up Mr. Arabin to the woman whom he loved.
The Lookalofts and the Greenacres
On the whole, Miss Thorne's provision for the amusement and feeding of the outer classes in the exoteric paddock was not unsuccessful.
Two little drawbacks to the general happiness did take place, but they were of a temporary nature, and apparent rather than real. The first was the downfall of young Harry Greenacre, and the other the uprise of Mrs. Lookaloft and her family.
As to the quintain, it became more popular among the boys on foot than it would ever have been among the men on horseback, even had young Greenacre been more successful. It was twirled round and round till it was nearly twirled out of the ground, and the bag of flour was used with great gusto in powdering the backs and heads of all who could be coaxed within its vicinity.
Of course it was reported all through the assemblage that Harry was dead, and there was a pathetic scene between him and his mother when it was found that he had escaped scatheless from the fall. A good deal of beer was drunk on the occasion, and the quintain was "dratted" and "bothered," and very generally anathematized by all the mothers who had young sons likely to be placed in similar jeopardy. But the affair of Mrs. Lookaloft was of a more serious nature.
"I do tell 'ee plainly—face to face—she be there in madam's drawing-room; herself and Gussy, and them two walloping gals, dressed up to their very eyeses." This was said by a very positive, very indignant, and very fat farmer's wife, who was sitting on the end of a bench leaning on the handle of a huge, cotton umbrella.
"But: you didn't zee her, Dame Guffern?" said Mrs. Greenacre, whom this information, joined to the recent peril undergone by her son, almost overpowered. Mr. Greenacre held just as much land as Mr. Lookaloft, paid his rent quite as punctually, and his opinion in the vestry room was reckoned to be every whit as good. Mrs. Lookaloft's rise in the world had been wormwood to Mrs. Greenacre. She had no taste herself for the sort of finery which had converted Barleystubb farm into Rosebank and which had occasionally graced Mr. Lookaloft's letters with the dignity of esquirehood. She had no wish to convert her own homestead into Violet Villa, or to see her goodman go about with a new-fangled handle to his name. But it was a mortal injury to her that Mrs. Lookaloft should be successful in her hunt after such honours. She had abused and ridiculed Mrs. Lookaloft to the extent of her little power. She had pushed against her going out of church, and had excused herself with all the easiness of equality. "Ah, dame, I axes pardon, but you be grown so mortal stout these times." She had inquired with apparent cordiality of Mr. Lookaloft after "the woman that owned him," and had, as she thought, been on the whole able to hold her own pretty well against her aspiring neighbour. Now, however, she found herself distinctly put into a separate and inferior class. Mrs. Lookaloft was asked into the Ullathorne drawing-room merely because she called her house Rosebank and had talked over her husband into buying pianos and silk dresses instead of putting his money by to stock farms for his sons.
Mrs. Greenacre, much as she reverenced Miss Thorne, and highly as she respected her husband's landlord, could not but look on this as an act of injustice done to her and hers. Hitherto the Lookalofts had never been recognized as being of a different class from the Greenacres. Their pretensions were all self-pretensions, their finery was all paid for by themselves and not granted to them by others. The local sovereigns of the vicinity, the district fountains of honour, had hitherto conferred on them the stamp of no rank. Hitherto their crinoline petticoats, late hours, and mincing gait had been a fair subject of Mrs. Greenacre's raillery, and this raillery had been a safety-valve for her envy. Now, however, and from henceforward, the case would be very different. Now the Lookalofts would boast that their aspirations had been sanctioned by the gentry of the country; now they would declare with some show of truth that their claims to peculiar consideration had been recognized. They had sat as equal guests in the presence of bishops and baronets; they had been curtseyed to by Miss Thorne on her own drawing-room carpet; they were about to sit down to table in company with a live countess! Bab Lookaloft, as she had always been called by the young Greenacres in the days of their juvenile equality, might possibly sit next to the Honourable George, and that wretched Gussy might be permitted to hand a custard to the Lady Margaretta De Courcy.
The fruition of those honours, or such of them as fell to the lot of the envied family, was not such as should have caused much envy. The attention paid to the Lookalofts by the De Courcys was very limited, and the amount of entertainment which they received from the bishop's society was hardly in itself a recompense for the dull monotony of their day. But of what they endured Mrs. Greenacre took no account; she thought only of what she considered they must enjoy, and of the dreadfully exalted tone of living which would be manifested by the Rosebank family, as the consequence of their present distinction.
"But did 'ee zee 'em there, dame, did 'ee zee 'em there with your own eyes?" asked poor Mrs. Greenacre, still hoping that there might be some ground for doubt.
"And how could I do that, unless so be I was there myself?" asked Mrs. Guffern. "I didn't zet eyes on none of them this blessed morning, but I zee'd them as did. You know our John; well, he will be for keeping company with Betsey Rusk, madam's own maid, you know. And Betsey isn't none of your common kitchen wenches. So Betsey, she come out to our John, you know, and she's always vastly polite to me, is Betsey Rusk, I must say. So before she took so much as one turn with John she told me every ha'porth that was going on up in the house."
"Did she now?" said Mrs. Greenacre.
"Indeed she did," said Mrs. Guffern.
"And she told you them people was up there in the drawing-room?"
"She told me she zee'd 'em come in—that they was dressed finer by half nor any of the family, with all their neckses and buzoms stark naked as a born babby."
"The minxes!" exclaimed Mrs. Greenacre, who felt herself more put about by this than any other mark of aristocratic distinction which her enemies had assumed.
"Yes, indeed," continued Mrs. Guffern, "as naked as you please, while all the quality was dressed just as you and I be, Mrs. Greenacre."
"Drat their impudence," said Mrs. Greenacre, from whose well-covered bosom all milk of human kindness was receding, as far as the family of the Lookalofts were concerned.
"So says I," said Mrs. Guffern; "and so says my goodman, Thomas Guffern, when he hear'd it. 'Molly,' says he to me, 'if ever you takes to going about o' mornings with yourself all naked in them ways, I begs you won't come back no more to the old house.' So says I, 'Thomas, no more I wull.' 'But,' says he, 'drat it, how the deuce does she manage with her rheumatiz, and she not a rag on her;'" and Mrs. Guffern laughed loudly as she thought of Mrs. Lookaloft's probable sufferings from rheumatic attacks.
"But to liken herself that way to folk that ha' blood in their veins," said Mrs. Greenacre.
"Well, but that warn't all neither that Betsey told. There they all swelled into madam's drawing-room, like so many turkey cocks, as much as to say, 'and who dare say no to us?' and Gregory was thinking of telling of 'em to come down here, only his heart failed him 'cause of the grand way they was dressed. So in they went, but madam looked at them as glum as death."
"Well, now," said Mrs. Greenacre, greatly relieved, "so they wasn't axed different from us at all then?"
"Betsey says that Gregory says that madam wasn't a bit too well pleased to see them where they was, and that to his believing they was expected to come here just like the rest of us."
There was great consolation in this. Not that Mrs. Greenacre was altogether satisfied. She felt that justice to herself demanded that Mrs. Lookaloft should not only not be encouraged, but that she should also be absolutely punished. What had been done at that scriptural banquet, of which Mrs. Greenacre so often read the account to her family? Why had not Miss Thorne boldly gone to the intruder and said, "Friend, thou hast come up hither to high places not fitted to thee. Go down lower, and thou wilt find thy mates." Let the Lookalofts be treated at the present moment with ever so cold a shoulder, they would still be enabled to boast hereafter of their position, their aspirations, and their honour.
"Well, with all her grandeur, I do wonder that she be so mean," continued Mrs. Greenacre, unable to dismiss the subject. "Did you hear, goodman?" she went on, about to repeat the whole story to her husband who then came up. "There's Dame Lookaloft and Bab and Gussy and the lot of 'em all sitting as grand as fivepence in madam's drawing-room, and they not axed no more nor you nor me. Did you ever hear tell the like o' that?"
"Well, and what for shouldn't they?" said Farmer Greenacre.
"Likening theyselves to the quality, as though they was estated folk, or the like o' that!" said Mrs. Guffern.
"Well, if they likes it, and madam likes it, they's welcome for me," said the farmer. "Now I likes this place better, 'cause I be more at home-like, and don't have to pay for them fine clothes for the missus. Everyone to his taste, Mrs. Guffern, and if neighbour Lookaloft thinks that he has the best of it, he's welcome."
Mrs. Greenacre sat down by her husband's side to begin the heavy work of the banquet, and she did so in some measure with restored tranquillity, but nevertheless she shook her head at her gossip to show that in this instance she did not quite approve of her husband's doctrine.
"And I'll tell 'ee what, dames," continued he; "if so be that we cannot enjoy the dinner that madam gives us because Mother Lookaloft is sitting up there on a grand sofa, I think we ought all to go home. If we greet at that, what'll we do when true sorrow comes across us? How would you be now, Dame, if the boy there had broke his neck when he got the tumble?"
Mrs. Greenacre was humbled and said nothing further on the matter. But let prudent men such as Mr. Greenacre preach as they will, the family of the Lookalofts certainly does occasion a good deal of heart-burning in the world at large.
It was pleasant to see Mr. Plomacy as, leaning on his stout stick, he went about among the rural guests, acting as a sort of head constable as well as master of the revels. "Now, young'un, if you can't manage to get along without that screeching, you'd better go to the other side of the twelve-acre field and take your dinner with you. Come, girls, what do you stand there for, twirling of your thumbs? Come out, and let the lads see you; you've no need to be so ashamed of your faces. Hollo there, who are you? How did you make your way in here?"
This last disagreeable question was put to a young man of about twenty-four who did not, in Mr. Plomacy's eye, bear sufficient vestiges of a rural education and residence.
"If you please, your Worship, Master Barrell the coachman let me in at the church wicket, 'cause I do be working mostly al'ays for the family."
"Then Master Barrell the coachman may let you out again," said Mr. Plomacy, not even conciliated by the magisterial dignity which had been conceded to him. "What's your name? And what trade are you? And who do you work for?"
"I'm Stubbs, your worship, Bob Stubbs; and—and—and—"
"And what's your trade, Stubbs?"
"Plasterer, please your worship."
"I'll plaster you, and Barrell too; you'll just walk out of this 'ere field as quick as you walked in. We don't want no plasterers; when we do, we'll send for 'em. Come my buck, walk."
Stubbs the plasterer was much downcast at this dreadful edict. He was a sprightly fellow, and had contrived since his ingress into the Ullathorne elysium to attract to himself a forest nymph, to whom he was whispering a plasterer's usual soft nothings, when he was encountered by the great Mr. Plomacy. It was dreadful to be thus dissevered from his dryad and sent howling back to a Barchester pandemonium just as the nectar and ambrosia were about to descend on the fields of asphodel. He began to try what prayers would do, but city prayers were vain against the great rural potentate. Not only did Mr. Plomacy order his exit but, raising his stick to show the way which led to the gate that had been left in the custody of that false Cerberus Barrell, proceeded himself to see the edict of banishment carried out.
The goddess Mercy, however, the sweetest goddess that ever sat upon a cloud, and the dearest to poor, frail, erring man, appeared on the field in the person of Mr. Greenacre. Never was interceding goddess more welcome.
"Come, man," said Mr. Greenacre, "never stick at trifles such a day as this. I know the lad well. Let him bide at my axing. Madam won't miss what he can eat and drink, I know."
Now Mr. Plomacy and Mr. Greenacre were sworn friends. Mr. Plomacy had at his own disposal as comfortable a room as there was in Ullathorne House, but he was a bachelor, and alone there, and, moreover, smoking in the house was not allowed even to Mr. Plomacy. His moments of truest happiness were spent in a huge armchair in the warmest corner of Mrs. Greenacre's beautifully clean front kitchen. 'Twas there that the inner man dissolved itself and poured itself out in streams of pleasant chat; 'twas there that he was respected and yet at his ease; 'twas there, and perhaps there only, that he could unburden himself from the ceremonies of life without offending the dignity of those above him, or incurring the familiarity of those below. 'Twas there that his long pipe was always to be found on the accustomed chimney-board, not only permitted but encouraged.
Such being the state of the case, it was not to be supposed that Mr. Plomacy could refuse such a favour to Mr. Greenacre; but nevertheless he did not grant it without some further show of austere authority.
"Eat and drink, Mr. Greenacre! No. It's not what he eats and drinks, but the example such a chap shows, coming in where he's not invited—a chap of his age, too. He too that never did a day's work about Ullathorne since he was born. Plasterer! I'll plaster him!"
"He worked long enough for me, then, Mr. Plomacy. And a good hand he is at setting tiles as any in Barchester," said the other, not sticking quite to veracity, as indeed mercy never should. "Come, come, let him alone to-day and quarrel with him to-morrow. You wouldn't shame him before his lass there?"
"It goes against the grain with me, then," said Mr. Plomacy. "And take care, you Stubbs, and behave yourself. If I hear a row, I shall know where it comes from. I'm up to you Barchester journeymen; I know what stuff you're made of."
And so Stubbs went off happy, pulling at the forelock of his shock head of hair in honour of the steward's clemency and giving another double pull at it in honour of the farmer's kindness. And as he went he swore within his grateful heart that if ever Farmer Greenacre wanted a day's work done for nothing, he was the lad to do it for him. Which promise it was not probable that he would ever be called on to perform.
But Mr. Plomacy was not quite happy in his mind, for he thought of the unjust steward and began to reflect whether he had not made for himself friends of the mammon of unrighteousness. This, however, did not interfere with the manner in which he performed his duties at the bottom of the long board; nor did Mr. Greenacre perform his the worse at the top on account of the good wishes of Stubbs the plasterer. Moreover the guests did not think it anything amiss when Mr. Plomacy, rising to say grace, prayed that God would make them all truly thankful for the good things which Madame Thorne in her great liberality had set before them!
All this time the quality in the tent on the lawn were getting on swimmingly—that is, if champagne without restriction can enable quality folk to swim. Sir Harkaway Gorse proposed the health of Miss Thorne, and likened her to a blood race-horse, always in condition and not to be tired down by any amount of work. Mr. Thorne returned thanks, saying he hoped his sister would always be found able to run when called upon, and then gave the health and prosperity of the De Courcy family. His sister was very much honoured by seeing so many of them at her poor board. They were all aware that important avocations made the absence of the earl necessary. As his duty to his prince had called him from his family hearth, he, Mr. Thorne, could not venture to regret that he did not see him at Ullathorne; but nevertheless he would venture to say—that was, to express a wish—an opinion, he meant to say—And so Mr. Thorne became somewhat gravelled, as country gentlemen in similar circumstances usually do; but he ultimately sat down, declaring that he had much satisfaction in drinking the noble earl's health, together with that of the countess, and all the family of De Courcy Castle.
And then the Honourable George returned thanks. We will not follow him through the different periods of his somewhat irregular eloquence. Those immediately in his neighbourhood found it at first rather difficult to get him on his legs, but much greater difficulty was soon experienced in inducing him to resume his seat. One of two arrangements should certainly be made in these days: either let all speech-making on festive occasions be utterly tabooed and made as it were impossible; or else let those who are to exercise the privilege be first subjected to a competing examination before the civil-service examining commissioners. As it is now, the Honourable Georges do but little honour to our exertions in favour of British education.
In the dining-room the bishop went through the honours of the day with much more neatness and propriety. He also drank Miss Thorne's health, and did it in a manner becoming the bench which he adorned. The party there was perhaps a little more dull, a shade less lively than that in the tent. But what was lost in mirth was fully made up in decorum.
And so the banquets passed off at the various tables with great eclat and universal delight.
Ullathorne Sports—Act II
"That which has made them drunk has made me bold." 'Twas thus that Mr. Slope encouraged himself, as he left the dining-room in pursuit of Eleanor. He had not indeed seen in that room any person really intoxicated, but there had been a good deal of wine drunk, and Mr. Slope had not hesitated to take his share, in order to screw himself up to the undertaking which he had in hand. He is not the first man who has thought it expedient to call in the assistance of Bacchus on such an occasion.
Eleanor was out through the window and on the grass before she perceived that she was followed. Just at that moment the guests were nearly all occupied at the tables. Here and there were to be seen a constant couple or two, who preferred their own sweet discourse to the jingle of glasses or the charms of rhetoric which fell from the mouths of the Honourable George and the Bishop of Barchester; but the grounds were as nearly vacant as Mr. Slope could wish them to be.
Eleanor saw that she was pursued, and as a deer, when escape is no longer possible, will turn to bay and attack the hounds, so did she turn upon Mr. Slope.
"Pray don't let me take you from the room," said she, speaking with all the stiffness which she knew how to use. "I have come out to look for a friend. I must beg of you, Mr. Slope, to go back."
But Mr. Slope would not be thus entreated. He had observed all day that Mrs. Bold was not cordial to him, and this had to a certain extent oppressed him. But he did not deduce from this any assurance that his aspirations were in vain. He saw that she was angry with him. Might she not be so because he had so long tampered with her feelings—might it not arise from his having, as he knew was the case, caused her name to be bruited about in conjunction with his own without having given her the opportunity of confessing to the world that henceforth their names were to be one and the same? Poor lady. He had within him a certain Christian conscience-stricken feeling of remorse on this head. It might be that he had wronged her by his tardiness. He had, however, at the present moment imbibed too much of Mr. Thorne's champagne to have any inward misgivings. He was right in repeating the boast of Lady Macbeth: he was not drunk, but he was bold enough for anything. It was a pity that in such a state he could not have encountered Mrs. Proudie.
"You must permit me to attend you," said he; "I could not think of allowing you to go alone."
"Indeed you must, Mr. Slope," said Eleanor still very stiffly, "for it is my special wish to be alone."
The time for letting the great secret escape him had already come. Mr. Slope saw that it must be now or never, and he was determined that it should be now. This was not his first attempt at winning a fair lady. He had been on his knees, looked unutterable things with his eyes, and whispered honeyed words before this. Indeed, he was somewhat an adept at these things, and had only to adapt to the perhaps different taste of Mrs. Bold the well-remembered rhapsodies which had once so much gratified Olivia Proudie.
"Do not ask me to leave you, Mrs. Bold," said he with an impassioned look, impassioned and sanctified as well, with that sort of look which is not uncommon with gentlemen of Mr. Slope's school and which may perhaps be called the tender-pious. "Do not ask me to leave you till I have spoken a few words with which my heart is full—which I have come hither purposely to say."
Eleanor saw how it was now. She knew directly what it was she was about to go through, and very miserable the knowledge made her. Of course she could refuse Mr. Slope, and there would be an end of that, one might say. But there would not be an end of it, as far as Eleanor was concerned. The very fact of Mr. Slope's making an offer to her would be a triumph to the archdeacon and, in a great measure, a vindication of Mr. Arabin's conduct. The widow could not bring herself to endure with patience the idea that she had been in the wrong. She had defended Mr. Slope, she had declared herself quite justified in admitting him among her acquaintance, had ridiculed the idea of his considering himself as more than an acquaintance, and had resented the archdeacon's caution in her behalf: now it was about to be proved to her in a manner sufficiently disagreeable that the archdeacon had been right, and she herself had been entirely wrong.
"I don't know what you can have to say to me, Mr. Slope, that you could not have said when we were sitting at table just now;" and she closed her lips, and steadied her eyeballs, and looked at him in a manner that ought to have frozen him.
But gentlemen are not easily frozen when they are full of champagne, and it would not at any time have been easy to freeze Mr. Slope.
"There are things, Mrs. Bold, which a man cannot well say before a crowd; which perhaps he cannot well say at any time; which indeed he may most fervently desire to get spoken, and which he may yet find it almost impossible to utter. It is such things as these that I now wish to say to you;" and then the tender-pious look was repeated, with a little more emphasis even than before.
Eleanor had not found it practicable to stand stock still before the dining-room window, there receive his offer in full view of Miss Thorne's guests. She had therefore in self-defence walked on, and thus Mr. Slope had gained his object of walking with her. He now offered her his arm.
"Thank you, Mr. Slope, I am much obliged to you; but for the very short time that I shall remain with you I shall prefer walking alone."
"And must it be so short?" said he. "Must it be—"
"Yes," said Eleanor, interrupting him, "as short as possible, if you please, sir."
"I had hoped, Mrs. Bold—I had hoped—"
"Pray hope nothing, Mr. Slope, as far as I am concerned; pray do not; I do not know and need not know what hope you mean. Our acquaintance is very slight, and will probably remain so. Pray, pray let that be enough; there is at any rate no necessity for us to quarrel."
Mrs. Bold was certainly treating Mr. Slope rather cavalierly, and he felt it so. She was rejecting him before he had offered himself, and informing him at the same time that he was taking a great deal too much on himself to be so familiar. She did not even make an attempt
From such a sharp and waspish word as "no" To pluck the sting.
He was still determined to be very tender and very pious, seeing that, in spite of all Mrs. Bold had said to him, he had not yet abandoned hope; but he was inclined also to be somewhat angry. The widow was bearing herself, as he thought, with too high a hand, was speaking of herself in much too imperious a tone. She had clearly no idea that an honour was being conferred on her. Mr. Slope would be tender as long as he could, but he began to think if that failed it would not be amiss if he also mounted himself for awhile on his high horse. Mr. Slope could undoubtedly be very tender, but he could be very savage also, and he knew his own abilities.
"That is cruel," said he, "and unchristian, too. The worst of us are still bidden to hope. What have I done that you should pass on me so severe a sentence?" And then he paused a moment, during which the widow walked steadily on with measured steps, saying nothing further.
"Beautiful woman," at last he burst forth, "beautiful woman, you cannot pretend to be ignorant that I adore you. Yes, Eleanor, yes, I love you. I love you with the truest affection which man can bear to woman. Next to my hopes of heaven are my hopes of possessing you." (Mr. Slope's memory here played him false, or he would not have omitted the deanery.) "How sweet to walk to heaven with you by my side, with you for my guide, mutual guides. Say, Eleanor, dearest Eleanor, shall we walk that sweet path together?"
Eleanor had no intention of ever walking together with Mr. Slope on any other path than that special one of Miss Thorne's which they now occupied, but as she had been unable to prevent the expression of Mr. Slope's wishes and aspirations, she resolved to hear him out to the end before she answered him.
"Ah, Eleanor," he continued, and it seemed to be his idea that as he had once found courage to pronounce her Christian name, he could not utter it often enough. "Ah, Eleanor, will it not be sweet, with the Lord's assistance, to travel hand in hand through this mortal valley which His mercies will make pleasant to us, till hereafter we shall dwell together at the foot of His throne?" And then a more tenderly pious glance than ever beamed from the lover's eyes. "Ah, Eleanor—"
"My name, Mr. Slope, is Mrs. Bold," said Eleanor, who, though determined to hear out the tale of his love, was too much disgusted by his blasphemy to be able to bear much more of it.
"Sweetest angel, be not so cold," said he, and as he said it the champagne broke forth, and he contrived to pass his arm round her waist. He did this with considerable cleverness, for up to this point Eleanor had contrived with tolerable success to keep her distance from him. They had got into a walk nearly enveloped by shrubs, and Mr. Slope therefore no doubt considered that as they were now alone it was fitting that he should give her some outward demonstration of that affection of which he talked so much. It may perhaps be presumed that the same stamp of measures had been found to succeed with Olivia Proudie. Be this as it may, it was not successful with Eleanor Bold.
She sprang from him as she would have jumped from an adder, but she did not spring far—not, indeed, beyond arm's length—and then, quick as thought, she raised her little hand and dealt him a box on the ear with such right goodwill that it sounded among the trees like a miniature thunderclap.
And now it is to be feared that every well-bred reader of these pages will lay down the book with disgust, feeling that, after all, the heroine is unworthy of sympathy. She is a hoyden, one will say. At any rate she is not a lady, another will exclaim. I have suspected her all through, a third will declare; she has no idea of the dignity of a matron, or of the peculiar propriety which her position demands. At one moment she is romping with young Stanhope; then she is making eyes at Mr. Arabin; anon she comes to fisticuffs with a third lover—and all before she is yet a widow of two years' standing.
She cannot altogether be defended, and yet it may be averred that she is not a hoyden, not given to romping nor prone to boxing. It were to be wished devoutly that she had not struck Mr. Slope in the face. In doing so she derogated from her dignity and committed herself. Had she been educated in Belgravia, had she been brought up by any sterner mentor than that fond father, had she lived longer under the rule of a husband, she might, perhaps, have saved herself from this great fault. As it was, the provocation was too much for her, the temptation to instant resentment of the insult too strong. She was too keen in the feeling of independence, a feeling dangerous for a young woman, but one in which her position peculiarly tempted her to indulge. And then Mr. Slope's face, tinted with a deeper dye than usual by the wine he had drunk, simpering and puckering itself with pseudo-pity and tender grimaces, seemed specially to call for such punishment. She had, too, a true instinct as to the man; he was capable of rebuke in this way and in no other. To him the blow from her little hand was as much an insult as a blow from a man would have been to another. It went directly to his pride. He conceived himself lowered in his dignity and personally outraged. He could almost have struck at her again in his rage. Even the pain was a great annoyance to him, and the feeling that his clerical character had been wholly disregarded sorely vexed him.
There are such men: men who can endure no taint on their personal self-respect, even from a woman; men whose bodies are to themselves such sacred temples that a joke against them is desecration, and a rough touch downright sacrilege. Mr. Slope was such a man, and therefore the slap on the face that he got from Eleanor was, as far as he was concerned, the fittest rebuke which could have been administered to him.
But nevertheless, she should not have raised her hand against the man. Ladies' hands, so soft, so sweet, so delicious to the touch, so graceful to the eye, so gracious in their gentle doings, were not made to belabour men's faces. The moment the deed was done Eleanor felt that she had sinned against all propriety, and would have given little worlds to recall the blow. In her first agony of sorrow she all but begged the man's pardon. Her next impulse, however, and the one which she obeyed, was to run away.
"I never, never will speak another word to you," she said, gasping with emotion and the loss of breath which her exertion and violent feelings occasioned her, and so saying she put foot to the ground and ran quickly back along the path to the house.
But how shall I sing the divine wrath of Mr. Slope, or how invoke the tragic muse to describe the rage which swelled the celestial bosom of the bishop's chaplain? Such an undertaking by no means befits the low-heeled buskin of modern fiction. The painter put a veil over Agamemnon's face when called on to depict the father's grief at the early doom of his devoted daughter. The god, when he resolved to punish the rebellious winds, abstained from mouthing empty threats. We will not attempt to tell with what mighty surgings of the inner heart Mr. Slope swore to revenge himself on the woman who had disgraced him, nor will we vainly strive to depict his deep agony of soul.
There he is, however, alone in the garden walk, and we must contrive to bring him out of it. He was not willing to come forth quite at once. His cheek was stinging with the weight of Eleanor's fingers, and he fancied that everyone who looked at him would be able to see on his face the traces of what he had endured. He stood awhile, becoming redder and redder with rage. He stood motionless, undecided, glaring with his eyes, thinking of the pains and penalties of Hades, and meditating how he might best devote his enemy to the infernal gods with all the passion of his accustomed eloquence. He longed in his heart to be preaching at her. 'Twas thus that he was ordinarily avenged of sinning mortal men and women. Could he at once have ascended his Sunday rostrum and fulminated at her such denunciations as his spirit delighted in, his bosom would have been greatly eased.
But how preach to Mr. Thorne's laurels, or how preach indeed at all in such a vanity fair as this now going on at Ullathorne? And then he began to feel a righteous disgust at the wickedness of the doings around him. He had been justly chastised for lending, by his presence, a sanction to such worldly lures. The gaiety of society, the mirth of banquets, the laughter of the young, and the eating and drinking of the elders were, for awhile, without excuse in his sight. What had he now brought down upon himself by sojourning thus in the tents of the heathen? He had consorted with idolaters round the altars of Baal, and therefore a sore punishment had come upon him. He then thought of the Signora Neroni, and his soul within him was full of sorrow. He had an inkling—a true inkling—that he was a wicked, sinful man, but it led him in no right direction; he could admit no charity in his heart. He felt debasement coming on him, and he longed to shake it off, to rise up in his stirrup, to mount to high places and great power, that he might get up into a mighty pulpit and preach to the world a loud sermon against Mrs. Bold.
There he stood fixed to the gravel for about ten minutes. Fortune favoured him so far that no prying eyes came to look upon him in his misery. Then a shudder passed over his whole frame; he collected himself and slowly wound his way round to the lawn, advancing along the path and not returning in the direction which Eleanor had taken. When he reached the tent, he found the bishop standing there in conversation with the Master of Lazarus. His lordship had come out to air himself after the exertion of his speech.
"This is very pleasant—very pleasant, my lord, is it not?" said Mr. Slope with his most gracious smile, pointing to the tent; "very pleasant. It is delightful to see so many persons enjoying themselves so thoroughly."
Mr. Slope thought he might force the bishop to introduce him to Dr. Gwynne. A very great example had declared and practised the wisdom of being everything to everybody, and Mr. Slope was desirous of following it. His maxim was never to lose a chance. The bishop, however, at the present moment was not very anxious to increase Mr. Slope's circle of acquaintance among his clerical brethren. He had his own reasons for dropping any marked allusion to his domestic chaplain, and he therefore made his shoulder rather cold for the occasion.
"Very, very," said he without turning round, or even deigning to look at Mr. Slope. "And therefore, Dr. Gwynne, I really think that you will find that the hebdomadal board will exercise as wide and as general an authority as at the present moment. I, for one, Dr. Gwynne—"
"Dr. Gwynne," said Mr. Slope, raising his hat and resolving not to be outwitted by such an insignificant little goose as the Bishop of Barchester.
The Master of Lazarus also raised his hat and bowed very politely to Mr. Slope. There is not a more courteous gentleman in the queen's dominions than the Master of Lazarus.
"My lord," said Mr. Slope, "pray do me the honour of introducing me to Dr. Gwynne. The opportunity is too much in my favour to be lost."
The bishop had no help for it. "My chaplain, Dr. Gwynne," said he, "my present chaplain, Mr. Slope." He certainly made the introduction as unsatisfactory to the chaplain as possible, and by the use of the word "present" seemed to indicate that Mr. Slope might probably not long enjoy the honour which he now held. But Mr. Slope cared nothing for this. He understood the innuendo, and disregarded it. It might probably come to pass that he would be in a situation to resign his chaplaincy before the bishop was in a situation to dismiss him from it. What need the future Dean of Barchester care for the bishop, or for the bishop's wife? Had not Mr. Slope, just as he was entering Dr. Stanhope's carriage, received an all-important note from Tom Towers of "The Jupiter"? Had he not that note this moment in his pocket?
So disregarding the bishop, he began to open out a conversation with the Master of Lazarus.
But suddenly an interruption came, not altogether unwelcome to Mr. Slope. One of the bishop's servants came up to his master's shoulder with a long, grave face and whispered into the bishop's ear.
"What is it, John?" said the bishop.
"The dean, my lord; he is dead."
Mr. Slope had no further desire to converse with the Master of Lazarus, and was very soon on his road back to Barchester.
Eleanor, as we have said, having declared her intention of never holding further communication with Mr. Slope, ran hurriedly back towards the house. The thought, however, of what she had done grieved her greatly, and she could not abstain from bursting into tears. 'Twas thus she played the second act in that day's melodrama.
Mrs. Bold Confides Her Sorrow to Her Friend Miss Stanhope
When Mrs. Bold came to the end of the walk and faced the lawn, she began to bethink herself what she should do. Was she to wait there till Mr. Slope caught her, or was she to go in among the crowd with tears in her eyes and passion in her face? She might in truth have stood there long enough without any reasonable fear of further immediate persecution from Mr. Slope, but we are all inclined to magnify the bugbears which frighten us. In her present state of dread she did not know of what atrocity he might venture to be guilty. Had anyone told her a week ago that he would have put his arm round her waist at this party of Miss Thorne's, she would have been utterly incredulous. Had she been informed that he would be seen on the following Sunday walking down the High Street in a scarlet coat and top boots, she would not have thought such a phenomenon more improbable.
But this improbable iniquity he had committed, and now there was nothing she could not believe of him. In the first place it was quite manifest that he was tipsy; in the next place it was to be taken as proved that all his religion was sheer hypocrisy; and finally the man was utterly shameless. She therefore stood watching for the sound of his footfall, not without some fear that he might creep out at her suddenly from among the bushes.
As she thus stood she saw Charlotte Stanhope at a little distance from her, walking quickly across the grass. Eleanor's handkerchief was in her hand, and putting it to her face so as to conceal her tears, she ran across the lawn and joined her friend.
"Oh, Charlotte," she said, almost too much out of breath to speak very plainly; "I am so glad I have found you."
"Glad you have found me!" said Charlotte, laughing; "that's a good joke. Why Bertie and I have been looking for you everywhere. He swears that you have gone off with Mr. Slope, and is now on the point of hanging himself."
"Oh, Charlotte, don't," said Mrs. Bold.
"Why, my child, what on earth is the matter with you?" said Miss Stanhope, perceiving that Eleanor's hand trembled on her own arm, and finding also that her companion was still half-choked by tears. "Goodness heaven! Something has distressed you. What is it? What can I do for you?"
Eleanor answered her only by a sort of spasmodic gurgle in her throat. She was a good deal upset, as people say, and could not at the moment collect herself.
"Come here, this way, Mrs. Bold; come this way, and we shall not be seen. What has happened to vex you so? What can I do for you? Can Bertie do anything?"
"Oh, no, no, no, no," said Eleanor. "There is nothing to be done. Only that horrid man—"
"What horrid man?" asked Charlotte.
There are some moments in life in which both men and women feel themselves imperatively called on to make a confidence, in which not to do so requires a disagreeable resolution and also a disagreeable suspicion. There are people of both sexes who never make confidences, who are never tempted by momentary circumstances to disclose their secrets, but such are generally dull, close, unimpassioned spirits, "gloomy gnomes, who live in cold dark mines." There was nothing of the gnome about Eleanor, and she therefore resolved to tell Charlotte Stanhope the whole story about Mr. Slope.
"That horrid man; that Mr. Slope," said she. "Did you not see that he followed me out of the dining-room?"
"Of course I did, and was sorry enough, but I could not help it. I knew you would be annoyed. But you and Bertie managed it badly between you."
"It was not his fault nor mine either. You know how I disliked the idea of coming in the carriage with that man."
"I am sure I am very sorry if that has led to it."
"I don't know what has led to it," said Eleanor, almost crying again. "But it has not been my fault."
"But what has he done, my dear?"
"He's an abominable, horrid, hypocritical man, and it would serve him right to tell the bishop all about it."
"Believe me, if you want to do him an injury, you had far better tell Mrs. Proudie. But what did he do, Mrs. Bold?"
"Ugh!" exclaimed Eleanor.
"Well, I must confess he's not very nice," said Charlotte Stanhope.
"Nice!" said Eleanor. "He is the most fulsome, fawning, abominable man I ever saw. What business had he to come to me?—I that never gave him the slightest tittle of encouragement—I that always hated him, though I did take his part when others ran him down."
"That's just where it is, my dear. He has heard that and therefore fancied that of course you were in love with him."
This was wormwood to Eleanor. It was in fact the very thing which all her friends had been saying for the last month past—and which experience now proved to be true. Eleanor resolved within herself that she would never again take any man's part. The world, with all its villainy and all its ill-nature, might wag as it liked: she would not again attempt to set crooked things straight.
"But what did he do, my dear?" said Charlotte, who was really rather interested in the subject.
"Well—come, it can't have been anything so very horrid, for the man was not tipsy."
"Oh, I am sure he was" said Eleanor. "I am sure he must have been tipsy."
"Well, I declare I didn't observe it. But what was it, my love?"
"Why, I believe I can hardly tell you. He talked such horrid stuff that you never heard the like: about religion, and heaven, and love. Oh, dear—he is such a nasty man."
"I can easily imagine the sort of stuff he would talk. Well—and then—?"
"And then—he took hold of me."
"Took hold of you?"
"Yes—he somehow got close to me and took hold of me—"
"By the waist?"
"Yes," said Eleanor shuddering.
"Then I jumped away from him, and gave him a slap on the face, and ran away along the path till I saw you."
"Ha, ha, ha!" Charlotte Stanhope laughed heartily at the finale to the tragedy. It was delightful to her to think that Mr. Slope had had his ears boxed. She did not quite appreciate the feeling which made her friend so unhappy at the result of the interview. To her thinking the matter had ended happily enough as regarded the widow, who indeed was entitled to some sort of triumph among her friends. Whereas to Mr. Slope would be due all those gibes and jeers which would naturally follow such an affair. His friends would ask him whether his ears tingled whenever he saw a widow, and he would be cautioned that beautiful things were made to be looked at and not to be touched.
Such were Charlotte Stanhope's views on such matters, but she did not at the present moment clearly explain them to Mrs. Bold. Her object was to endear herself to her friend, and therefore, having had her laugh, she was ready enough to offer sympathy. Could Bertie do anything? Should Bertie speak to the man and warn him that in future he must behave with more decorum? Bertie indeed, she declared, would be more angry than anyone else when he heard to what insult Mrs. Bold had been subjected.
"But you won't tell him?" said Mrs. Bold with a look of horror.
"Not if you don't like it," said Charlotte; "but considering everything, I would strongly advise it. If, you had a brother, you know, it would be unnecessary. But it is very right that Mr. Slope should know that you have somebody by you that will and can protect you."
"But my father is here."
"Yes, but it is so disagreeable for clergymen to have to quarrel with each other; and circumstanced as your father is just at this moment, it would be very inexpedient that there should be anything unpleasant between him and Mr. Slope. Surely you and Bertie are intimate enough for you to permit him to take your part."
Charlotte Stanhope was very anxious that her brother should at once on that very day settle matters with his future wife. Things had now come to that point between him and his father, and between him and his creditors, that he must either do so, or leave Barchester; either do that, or go back to his unwashed associates, dirty lodgings, and poor living at Carrara. Unless he could provide himself with an income, he must go to Carrara, or to ——. His father the prebendary had not said this in so many words, but had he done so, he could not have signified it more plainly.
Such being the state of the case it was very necessary that no more time should be lost. Charlotte had seen her brother's apathy, when he neglected to follow Mrs. Bold out of the room, with anger which she could hardly suppress. It was grievous to think that Mr. Slope should have so distanced him. Charlotte felt that she had played her part with sufficient skill. She had brought them together and induced such a degree of intimacy that her brother was really relieved from all trouble and labour in the matter. And moreover it was quite plain that Mrs. Bold was very fond of Bertie. And now it was plain enough also that he had nothing to fear from his rival, Mr. Slope.
There was certainly an awkwardness in subjecting Mrs. Bold to a second offer on the same day. It would have been well perhaps to have put the matter off for a week, could a week have been spared. But circumstances are frequently too peremptory to be arranged as we would wish to arrange them, and such was the case now. This being so, could not this affair of Mr. Slope's be turned to advantage? Could it not be made the excuse for bringing Bertie and Mrs. Bold into still closer connexion—into such close connexion that they could not fail to throw themselves into each other's arms? Such was the game which Miss Stanhope now at a moment's notice resolved to play.
And very well she played it. In the first place it was arranged that Mr. Slope should not return in the Stanhopes' carriage to Barchester. It so happened that Mr. Slope was already gone, but of that of course they knew nothing. The signora should be induced to go first, with only the servants and her sister, and Bertie should take Mr. Slope's place in the second journey. Bertie was to be told in confidence of the whole affair, and when the carriage was gone off with its first load, Eleanor was to be left under Bertie's special protection, so as to insure her from any further aggression from Mr. Slope. While the carriage was getting ready, Bertie was to seek out that gentleman and make him understand that he must provide himself with another conveyance back to Barchester. Their immediate object should be to walk about together in search of Bertie. Bertie in short was to be the Pegasus on whose wings they were to ride out of their present dilemma.
There was a warmth of friendship and cordial kindliness in all this that was very soothing to the widow; but yet, though she gave way to it, she was hardly reconciled to doing so. It never occurred to her that, now that she had killed one dragon, another was about to spring up in her path; she had no remote idea that she would have to encounter another suitor in her proposed protector, but she hardly liked the thought of putting herself so much into the hands of young Stanhope. She felt that if she wanted protection, she should go to her father. She felt that she should ask him to provide a carriage for her back to Barchester. Mrs. Clantantram she knew would give her a seat. She knew that she should not throw herself entirely upon friends whose friendship dated, as it were, but from yesterday. But yet she could not say no to one who was so sisterly in her kindness, so eager in her good nature, so comfortably sympathetic as Charlotte Stanhope. And thus she gave way to all the propositions made to her.
They first went into the dining-room, looking for their champion, and from thence to the drawing-room. Here they found Mr. Arabin, still hanging over the signora's sofa; or rather they found him sitting near her head, as a physician might have sat had the lady been his patient. There was no other person in the room. The guests were some in the tent, some few still in the dining room, some at the bows and arrows, but most of them walking with Miss Thorne through the park and looking at the games that were going on.
All that had passed, and was passing between Mr. Arabin and the lady, it is unnecessary to give in detail. She was doing with him as she did with all others. It was her mission to make fools of men, and she was pursuing her mission with Mr. Arabin. She had almost got him to own his love for Mrs. Bold and had subsequently almost induced him to acknowledge a passion for herself. He, poor man, was hardly aware what he was doing or saying, hardly conscious whether was in heaven or in hell. So little had he known of female attractions of that peculiar class which the signora owned, that he became affected with a kind of temporary delirium when first subjected to its power. He lost his head rather than this heart, and toppled about mentally, reeling in his ideas as a drunken man does on his legs. She had whispered to him words that really meant nothing but which, coming from such beautiful lips and accompanied by such lustrous glances, seemed to have a mysterious significance, which he felt though he could not understand.
In being thus besirened, Mr. Arabin behaved himself very differently from Mr. Slope. The signora had said truly that the two men were the contrasts of each other—that the one was all for action, the other all for thought. Mr. Slope, when this lady laid upon his senses the overpowering breath of her charms, immediately attempted to obtain some fruition, to achieve some mighty triumph. He began by catching at her hand and progressed by kissing it. He made vows of love and asked for vows in return. He promised everlasting devotion, knelt before her, and swore that had she been on Mount Ida, Juno would have had no cause to hate the offspring of Venus. But Mr. Arabin uttered no oaths, kept his hand mostly in his trousers pocket, and had no more thought of kissing Madame Neroni than of kissing the Countess De Courcy.
As soon as Mr. Arabin saw Mrs. Bold enter the room he blushed and rose from his chair; then he sat down again, and then again got up. The signora saw the blush at once and smiled at the poor victim, but Eleanor was too much confused to see anything.
"Oh, Madeline," said Charlotte, "I want to speak to you particularly; we must arrange about the carriage, you know," and she stooped down to whisper to her sister. Mr. Arabin immediately withdrew to a little distance, and as Charlotte had in fact much to explain before she could make the new carriage arrangement intelligible, he had nothing to do but to talk to Mrs. Bold.
"We have had a very pleasant party," said he, using the tone he would have used had he declared that the sun was shining very brightly, or the rain falling very fast.
"Very," said Eleanor, who never in her life had passed a more unpleasant day.
"I hope Mr. Harding has enjoyed himself."
"Oh, yes, very much," said Eleanor, who had not seen her father since she parted from him soon after her arrival.
"He returns to Barchester to-night, I suppose."
"Yes, I believe so—that is, I think he is staying at Plumstead."
"Oh, staying at Plumstead," said Mr. Arabin.
"He came from there this morning. I believe he is going back, he didn't exactly say, however."
"I hope Mrs. Grantly is quite well."
"She seemed to be quite well. She is here; that is, unless she has gone away."
"Oh, yes, to be sure. I was talking to her. Looking very well indeed." Then there was a considerable pause; for Charlotte could not at once make Madeline understand why she was to be sent home in a hurry without her brother.
"Are you returning to Plumstead, Mrs. Bold?" Mr. Arabin merely asked this by way of making conversation, but he immediately perceived that he was approaching dangerous ground.
"No," said Mrs. Bold very quietly; "I am going home to Barchester."
"Oh, ah, yes. I had forgotten that you had returned." And then Mr. Arabin, finding it impossible to say anything further, stood silent till Charlotte had completed her plans, and Mrs. Bold stood equally silent, intently occupied as it appeared in the arrangement of her rings.
And yet these two people were thoroughly in love with each other; and though one was a middle-aged clergyman, and the other a lady at any rate past the wishy-washy bread-and-butter period of life, they were as unable to tell their own minds to each other as any Damon and Phillis, whose united ages would not make up that to which Mr. Arabin had already attained.
Madeline Neroni consented to her sister's proposal, and then the two ladies again went off in quest of Bertie Stanhope.
Ullathorne Sports—Act III
And now Miss Thorne's guests were beginning to take their departure, and the amusement of those who remained was becoming slack. It was getting dark, and ladies in morning costumes were thinking that, if they were to appear by candlelight, they ought to readjust themselves. Some young gentlemen had been heard to talk so loud that prudent mammas determined to retire judiciously, and the more discreet of the male sex, whose libations had been moderate, felt that there was not much more left for them to do.
Morning parties, as a rule, are failures. People never know how to get away from them gracefully. A picnic on an island or a mountain or in a wood may perhaps be permitted. There is no master of the mountain bound by courtesy to bid you stay while in his heart he is longing for your departure. But in a private house or in private grounds a morning party is a bore. One is called on to eat and drink at unnatural hours. One is obliged to give up the day, which is useful, and is then left without resource for the evening, which is useless. One gets home fagged and desoeuvre, and yet at an hour too early for bed. There is no comfortable resource left. Cards in these genteel days are among the things tabooed, and a rubber of whist is impracticable.
All this began now to be felt. Some young people had come with some amount of hope that they might get up a dance in the evening, and were unwilling to leave till all such hope was at an end. Others, fearful of staying longer than was expected, had ordered their carriages early, and were doing their best to go, solicitous for their servants and horses. The countess and her noble brood were among the first to leave, and as regarded the Hon. George, it was certainly time that he did so. Her ladyship was in a great fret and fume. Those horrid roads would, she was sure, be the death of her if unhappily she were caught in them by the dark night. The lamps she was assured were good, but no lamp could withstand the jolting of the roads of East Barsetshire. The De Courcy property lay in the western division of the county.
Mrs. Proudie could not stay when the countess was gone. So the bishop was searched for by the Revs. Messrs. Grey and Green and found in one corner of the tent enjoying himself thoroughly in a disquisition on the hebdomadal board. He obeyed, however, the behests of his lady without finishing the sentence in which he was promising to Dr. Gwynne that his authority at Oxford should remain unimpaired, and the episcopal horses turned their noses towards the palatial stables. Then the Grantlys went. Before they did so, Mr. Harding managed to whisper a word into his daughter's ear. Of course, he said, he would undeceive the Grantlys as to that foolish rumour about Mr. Slope.
"No, no, no," said Eleanor; "pray do not—pray wait till I see you. You will be home in a day or two, and then I will I explain to you everything."
"I shall be home to-morrow," said he.
"I am so glad," said Eleanor. "You will come and dine with me, and then we shall be so comfortable."
Mr. Harding promised. He did not exactly know what there was to be explained, or why Dr. Grantly's mind should not be disabused of the mistake into which he had fallen, but nevertheless he promised. He owed some reparation to his daughter, and he thought that he might best make it by obedience.
And thus the people were thinning off by degrees as Charlotte and Eleanor walked about in quest of Bertie. Their search might have been long had they not happened to hear his voice. He was comfortably ensconced in the ha-ha, with his back to the sloping side, smoking a cigar, and eagerly engaged in conversation with some youngster from the further side of the county, whom he had never met before, who was also smoking under Bertie's pupilage and listening with open ears to an account given by his companion of some of the pastimes of Eastern clime.
"Bertie, I am seeking you everywhere," said Charlotte. "Come up here at once."
Bertie looked up out of the ha-ha and saw the two ladies before him. As there was nothing for him but to obey, he got up and threw away his cigar. From the first moment of his acquaintance with her he had liked Eleanor Bold. Had he been left to his own devices, had she been penniless, and had it then been quite out of the question that he should marry her, he would most probably have fallen violently in love with her. But now he could not help regarding her somewhat as he did the marble workshops at Carrara, as he had done his easel and palette, as he had done the lawyer's chambers in London—in fact, as he had invariably regarded everything by which it had been proposed to him to obtain the means of living. Eleanor Bold appeared before him, no longer as a beautiful woman, but as a new profession called matrimony. It was a profession indeed requiring but little labour, and one in which an income was insured to him. But nevertheless he had been as it were goaded on to it; his sister had talked to him of Eleanor, just as she had talked of busts and portraits. Bertie did not dislike money, but he hated the very thought of earning it. He was now called away from his pleasant cigar to earn it, by offering himself as a husband to Mrs. Bold. The work indeed was made easy enough, for in lieu of his having to seek the widow, the widow had apparently come to seek him.
He made some sudden absurd excuse to his auditor and then, throwing away his cigar, climbed up the wall of the ha-ha and joined the ladies on the lawn.
"Come and give Mrs. Bold an arm," said Charlotte, "while I set you on a piece of duty which, as a preux chevalier, you must immediately perform. Your personal danger will, I fear, be insignificant, as your antagonist is a clergyman."
Bertie immediately gave his arm to Eleanor, walking between her and his sister. He had lived too long abroad to fall into the Englishman's habit of offering each an arm to two ladies at the same time—a habit, by the by, which foreigners regard as an approach to bigamy, or a sort of incipient Mormonism.
The little history of Mr. Slope's misconduct was then told to Bertie by his sister, Eleanor's ears tingling the while. And well they might tingle. If it were necessary to speak of the outrage at all, why should it be spoken of to such a person as Mr. Stanhope, and why in her own hearing? She knew she was wrong, and was unhappy and dispirited, yet she could think of no way to extricate herself, no way to set herself right. Charlotte spared her as much as she possibly could, spoke of the whole thing as though Mr. Slope had taken a glass of wine too much, said that of course there would be nothing more about it, but that steps must be taken to exclude Mr. Slope from the carriage.
"Mrs. Bold need be under no alarm about that," said Bertie, "for Mr. Slope has gone this hour past. He told me that business made it necessary that he should start at once for Barchester."
"He is not so tipsy, at any rate, but what he knows his fault," said Charlotte. "Well, my dear, that is one difficulty over. Now I'll leave you with your true knight and get Madeline off as quickly as I can. The carriage is here, I suppose, Bertie?"
"It has been here for the last hour."
"That's well. Good-bye, my dear. Of course you'll come in to tea. I shall trust to you to bring her, Bertie, even by force if necessary." And so saying, Charlotte ran off across the lawn, leaving her brother alone with the widow.
As Miss Stanhope went off, Eleanor bethought herself that, as Mr. Slope had taken his departure, there no longer existed any necessity for separating Mr. Stanhope from his sister Madeline, who so much needed his aid. It had been arranged that he should remain so as to preoccupy Mr. Slope's place in the carriage, and act as a social policeman to effect the exclusion of that disagreeable gentleman. But Mr. Slope had effected his own exclusion, and there was no possible reason now why Bertie should not go with his sister—at least Eleanor saw none, and she said as much.
"Oh, let Charlotte have her own way," said he. "She has arranged it, and there will be no end of confusion if we make another change. Charlotte always arranges everything in our house and rules us like a despot."
"But the signora?" said Eleanor.
"Oh, the signora can do very well without me. Indeed, she will have to do without me," he added, thinking rather of his studies in Carrara than of his Barchester hymeneals.
"Why, you are not going to leave us?" asked Eleanor.
It has been said that Bertie Stanhope was a man without principle. He certainly was so. He had no power of using active mental exertion to keep himself from doing evil. Evil had no ugliness in his eyes; virtue no beauty. He was void of any of these feelings which actuate men to do good. But he was perhaps equally void of those which actuate men to do evil. He got into debt with utter recklessness, thinking nothing as to whether the tradesmen would ever be paid or not. But he did not invent active schemes of deceit for the sake of extracting the goods of others. If a man gave him credit, that was the man's look-out; Bertie Stanhope troubled himself nothing further. In borrowing money he did the same; he gave people references to "his governor;" told them that the "old chap" had a good income; and agreed to pay sixty per cent for the accommodation. All this he did without a scruple of conscience; but then he never contrived active villainy.
In this affair of his marriage it had been represented to him as a matter of duty that he ought to put himself in possession of Mrs. Bold's hand and fortune, and at first he had so regarded it. About her he had thought but little. It was the customary thing for men situated as he was to marry for money, and there was no reason why he should not do what others around him did. And so he consented. But now he began to see the matter in another light. He was setting himself down to catch this woman, as a cat sits to catch a mouse. He was to catch her, and swallow her up, her and her child, and her houses and land, in order that he might live on her instead of on his father. There was a cold, calculating, cautious cunning about this quite at variance with Bertie's character. The prudence of the measure was quite as antagonistic to his feelings as the iniquity.
And then, should he be successful, what would be the reward? Having satisfied his creditors with half of the widow's fortune, he would be allowed to sit down quietly at Barchester, keeping economical house with the remainder. His duty would be to rock the cradle of the late Mr. Bold's child, and his highest excitement a demure party at Plumstead Rectory, should it ultimately turn out that the archdeacon would be sufficiently reconciled to receive him.
There was very little in the programme to allure such a man as Bertie Stanhope. Would not the Carrara workshop, or whatever worldly career fortune might have in store for him, would not almost anything be better than this? The lady herself was undoubtedly all that was desirable, but the most desirable lady becomes nauseous when she has to be taken as a pill. He was pledged to his sister, however, and let him quarrel with whom he would, it behoved him not to quarrel with her. If she were lost to him, all would be lost that he could ever hope to derive henceforward from the paternal roof-tree. His mother was apparently indifferent to his weal or woe, to his wants or his warfare. His father's brow got blacker and blacker from day to day, as the old man looked at his hopeless son. And as for Madeline—poor Madeline, whom of all of them he liked the best—she had enough to do to shift for herself. No; come what might, he must cling to his sister and obey her behests, let them be ever so stern—or at the very least seem to obey them. Could not some happy deceit bring him through in this matter, so that he might save appearances with his sister and yet not betray the widow to her ruin? What if he made a confederate of Eleanor? 'Twas in this spirit that Bertie Stanhope set about his wooing.
"But you are not going to leave Barchester?" asked Eleanor.
"I do not know," he replied; "I hardly know yet what I am going to do. But it is at any rate certain that I must do something."
"You mean about your profession?" said she.
"Yes, about my profession, if you can call it one."
"And is it not one?" said Eleanor. "Were I a man, I know none I should prefer to it, except painting. And I believe the one is as much in your power as the other."
"Yes, just about equally so," said Bertie with a little touch of inward satire directed at himself. He knew in his heart that he would never make a penny by either.
"I have often wondered, Mr. Stanhope, why you do not exert yourself more," said Eleanor, who felt a friendly fondness for the man with whom she was walking. "But I know it is very impertinent in me to say so."
"Impertinent!" said he. "Not so, but much too kind. It is much too kind in you to take any interest in so idle a scamp."
"But you are not a scamp, though you are perhaps idle. And I do take an interest in you, a very great interest," she added in a voice which almost made him resolve to change his mind. "And when I call you idle, I know you are only so for the present moment. Why can't you settle steadily to work here in Barchester?"
"And make busts of the bishop, dean, and chapter? Or perhaps, if I achieve a great success, obtain a commission to put up an elaborate tombstone over a prebendary's widow, a dead lady with a Grecian nose, a bandeau, and an intricate lace veil; lying of course on a marble sofa from among the legs of which death will be creeping out and poking at his victim with a small toasting-fork."
Eleanor laughed, but yet she thought that if the surviving prebendary paid the bill, the object of the artist as a professional man would in a great measure be obtained.
"I don't know about the dean and chapter and the prebendary's widow," said Eleanor. "Of course you must take them as they come. But the fact of your having a great cathedral in which such ornaments are required could not but be in your favour."
"No real artist could descend to the ornamentation of a cathedral," said Bertie, who had his ideas of the high ecstatic ambition of art, as indeed all artists have who are not in receipt of a good income. "Buildings should be fitted to grace the sculpture, not the sculpture to grace the building."
"Yes, when the work of art is good enough to merit it. Do you, Mr. Stanhope, do something sufficiently excellent and we ladies of Barchester will erect for it a fitting receptacle. Come, what shall the subject be?"
"I'll put you in your pony chair, Mrs. Bold, as Dannecker put Ariadne on her lion. Only you must promise to sit for me."
"My ponies are too tame, I fear, and my broad-brimmed straw hat will not look so well in marble as the lace veil of the prebendary's wife."
"If you will not consent to that, Mrs. Bold, I will consent to try no other subject in Barchester."
"You are determined then to push your fortune in other lands?"
"I am determined," said Bertie slowly and significantly, as he tried to bring up his mind to a great resolve; "I am determined in this matter to be guided wholly by you."
"Wholly by me?" said Eleanor, astonished at, and not quite liking, his altered manner.
"Wholly by you," said Bertie, dropping his companion's arm and standing before her on the path. In their walk they had come exactly to the spot in which Eleanor had been provoked into slapping Mr. Slope's face. Could it be possible that this place was peculiarly unpropitious to her comfort? Could it be possible that she should here have to encounter yet another amorous swain?
"If you will be guided by me, Mr. Stanhope, you will set yourself down to steady and persevering work, and you will be ruled by your father as to the place in which it will be most advisable for you to do so."
"Nothing could be more prudent, if only it were practicable. But now, if you will let me, I will tell you how it is that I will be guided by you, and why. Will you let me tell you?"
"I really do not know what you can have to tell."
"No, you cannot know. It is impossible that you should. But we have been very good friends, Mrs. Bold, have we not?"
"Yes, I think we have," said she, observing in his demeanour an earnestness very unusual with him.
"You were kind enough to say just now that you took an interest in me, and I was perhaps vain enough to believe you."
"There is no vanity in that; I do so as your sister's brother—and as my own friend also."
"Well, I don't deserve that you should feel so kindly towards me," said Bertie, "but upon my word I am very grateful for it," and he paused awhile, hardly knowing how to introduce the subject that he had in hand.
And it was no wonder that he found it difficult. He had to make known to his companion the scheme that had been prepared to rob her of her wealth, he had to tell her that he had intended to marry her without loving her, or else that he loved her without intending to marry her; and he had also to bespeak from her not only his own pardon, but also that of his sister, and induce Mrs. Bold to protest in her future communion with Charlotte that an offer had been duly made to her and duly rejected.
Bertie Stanhope was not prone to be very diffident of his own conversational powers, but it did seem to him that he was about to tax them almost too far. He hardly knew where to begin, and he hardly knew where he should end.
By this time Eleanor was again walking on slowly by his side, not taking his arm as she had heretofore done but listening very intently for whatever Bertie might have to say to her.
"I wish to be guided by you," said he; "indeed, in this matter there is no one else who can set me right."
"Oh, that must be nonsense," said she.
"Well, listen to me now, Mrs. Bold, and if you can help it, pray don't be angry with me."
"Angry!" said she.
"Oh, indeed you will have cause to be so. You know how very much attached to you my sister Charlotte is."
Eleanor acknowledged that she did.
"Indeed she is; I never knew her to love anyone so warmly on so short an acquaintance. You know also how well she loves me?"
Eleanor now made no answer, but she felt the blood tingle in her cheek as she gathered from what he said the probable result of this double-barrelled love on the part of Miss Stanhope.
"I am her only brother, Mrs. Bold, and it is not to be wondered at that she should love me. But you do not yet know Charlotte—you do not know how entirely the well-being of our family hangs on her. Without her to manage for us, I do not know how we should get on from day to day. You cannot yet have observed all this."
Eleanor had indeed observed a good deal of this; she did not, however, now say so, but allowed him to proceed with his story.
"You cannot therefore be surprised that Charlotte should be most anxious to do the best for us all."
Eleanor said that she was not at all surprised.
"And she has had a very difficult game to play, Mrs. Bold—a very difficult game. Poor Madeline's unfortunate marriage and terrible accident, my mother's ill-health, my father's absence from England, and last, and worse perhaps, my own roving, idle spirit have almost been too much for her. You cannot wonder if among all her cares one of the foremost is to see me settled in the world."
Eleanor on this occasion expressed no acquiescence. She certainly supposed that a formal offer was to be made and could not but think that so singular an exordium was never before made by a gentleman in a similar position. Mr. Slope had annoyed her by the excess of his ardour. It was quite clear that no such danger was to be feared from Mr. Stanhope. Prudential motives alone actuated him. Not only was he about to make love because his sister told him, but he also took the precaution of explaining all this before he began. 'Twas thus, we may presume, that the matter presented itself to Mrs. Bold.
When he had got so far, Bertie began poking the gravel with a little cane which he carried. He still kept moving on, but very slowly, and his companion moved slowly by his side, not inclined to assist him in the task the performance of which appeared to be difficult to him.
"Knowing how fond she is of yourself, Mrs. Bold, cannot you imagine what scheme should have occurred to her?"
"I can imagine no better scheme, Mr. Stanhope, than the one I proposed to you just now."
"No," said he somewhat lackadaisically; "I suppose that would be the best, but Charlotte thinks another plan might be joined with it. She wants me to marry you."