But in sooth Mr. Slope was pursuing Mrs. Bold in obedience to his better instincts, and the signora in obedience to his worser. Had he won the widow and worn her, no one could have blamed him. You, O reader, and I, and Eleanor's other friends would have received the story of such a winning with much disgust and disappointment, but we should have been angry with Eleanor, not with Mr. Slope. Bishop, male and female, dean and chapter and diocesan clergy in full congress could have found nothing to disapprove of in such an alliance. Convocation itself, that mysterious and mighty synod, could in no wise have fallen foul of it. The possession of L1000 a year and a beautiful wife would not at all have hurt the voice of the pulpit charmer, or lessened the grace and piety of the exemplary clergyman.
But not of such a nature were likely to be his dealings with the Signora Neroni. In the first place he knew that her husband was living, and therefore he could not woo her honestly. Then again she had nothing to recommend her to his honest wooing, had such been possible. She was not only portionless, but also from misfortune unfitted to be chosen as the wife of any man who wanted a useful mate. Mr. Slope was aware that she was a helpless, hopeless cripple.
But Mr. Slope could not help himself. He knew that he was wrong in devoting his time to the back drawing-room in Dr. Stanhope's house. He knew that what took place there would, if divulged, utterly ruin him with Mrs. Bold. He knew that scandal would soon come upon his heels and spread abroad among the black coats of Barchester some tidings, exaggerated tidings, of the sighs which he poured into the lady's ears. He knew that he was acting against the recognized principles of his life, against those laws of conduct by which he hoped to achieve much higher success. But, as we have said, he could not help himself. Passion, for the first time in his life, passion was too strong for him.
As for the signora, no such plea can be put forward for her, for in truth she cared no more for Mr. Slope than she did for twenty others who had been at her feet before him. She willingly, nay greedily, accepted his homage. He was the finest fly that Barchester had hitherto afforded to her web, and the signora was a powerful spider that made wondrous webs, and could in no way live without catching flies. Her taste in this respect was abominable, for she had no use for the victims when caught. She could not eat them matrimonially, as young lady flies do whose webs are most frequently of their mothers' weaving. Nor could she devour them by any escapade of a less legitimate description. Her unfortunate affliction precluded her from all hope of levanting with a lover. It would be impossible to run away with a lady who required three servants to move her from a sofa.
The signora was subdued by no passion. Her time for love was gone. She had lived out her heart, such heart as she had ever had, in her early years, at an age when Mr. Slope was thinking of the second book of Euclid and his unpaid bill at the buttery hatch. In age the lady was younger than the gentleman, but in feelings, in knowledge of the affairs of love, in intrigue, he was immeasurably her junior. It was necessary to her to have some man at her feet. It was the one customary excitement of her life. She delighted in the exercise of power which this gave her; it was now nearly the only food for her ambition; she would boast to her sister that she could make a fool of any man, and the sister, as little imbued with feminine delicacy as herself, good-naturedly thought it but fair that such amusement should be afforded to a poor invalid who was debarred from the ordinary pleasures of life.
Mr. Slope was madly in love but hardly knew it. The Signora spitted him, as a boy does a cockchafer on a cork, that she might enjoy the energetic agony of his gyrations. And she knew very well what she was doing.
Mr. Slope having added to his person all such adornments as are possible to a clergyman making a morning visit—such as a clean necktie, clean handkerchief, new gloves, and a soupcon of not unnecessary scent—called about three o'clock at the doctor's door. At about this hour the signora was almost always alone in the back drawing-room. The mother had not come down. The doctor was out or in his own room. Bertie was out, and Charlotte at any rate left the room if anyone called whose object was specially with her sister. Such was her idea of being charitable and sisterly.
Mr. Slope, as was his custom, asked for Mr. Stanhope, and was told, as was the servant's custom, that the signora was in the drawing-room. Upstairs he accordingly went. He found her, as he always did, lying on her sofa with a French volume before her and a beautiful little inlaid writing-case open on her table. At the moment of his entrance she was in the act of writing.
"Ah, my friend," said she, putting out her left hand to him across her desk, "I did not expect you to-day and was this very instant writing to you—"
Mr. Slope, taking the soft, fair, delicate hand in his—and very soft and fair and delicate it was—bowed over it his huge red head and kissed it. It was a sight to see, a deed to record if the author could fitly do it, a picture to put on canvas. Mr. Slope was big, awkward, cumbrous, and, having his heart in his pursuit, was ill at ease. The lady was fair, as we have said, and delicate; everything about her was fine and refined; her hand in his looked like a rose lying among carrots, and when he kissed it, he looked as a cow might do on finding such a flower among her food. She was graceful as a couchant goddess and, moreover, as self-possessed as Venus must have been when courting Adonis.
Oh, that such grace and such beauty should have condescended to waste itself on such a pursuit!
"I was in the act of writing to you," said she, "but now my scrawl may go into the basket;" and she raised the sheet of gilded note-paper from off her desk as though to tear it.
"Indeed it shall not," said he, laying the embargo of half a stone weight of human flesh and blood upon the devoted paper. "Nothing that you write for my eyes, signora, shall be so desecrated," and he took up the letter, put that also among the carrots and fed on it, and then proceeded to read it.
"Gracious me! Mr. Slope," said she, "I hope you don't mean to say you keep all the trash I write to you. Half my time I don't know what I write, and when I do, I know it is only fit for the back of the fire. I hope you have not that ugly trick of keeping letters."
"At any rate, I don't throw them into a waste-paper basket. If destruction is their doomed lot, they perish worthily, and are burnt on a pyre, as Dido was of old."
"With a steel pen stuck through them, of course," said she, "to make the simile more complete. Of all the ladies of my acquaintance I think Lady Dido was the most absurd. Why did she not do as Cleopatra did? Why did she not take out her ships and insist on going with him? She could not bear to lose the land she had got by a swindle, and then she could not bear the loss of her lover. So she fell between two stools. Mr. Slope, whatever you do, never mingle love and business."
Mr. Slope blushed up to his eyes and over his mottled forehead to the very roots of his hair. He felt sure that the signora knew all about his intentions with reference to Mrs Bold. His conscience told him that he was detected. His doom was to be spoken; he was to be punished for his duplicity, and rejected by the beautiful creature before him. Poor man. He little dreamt that had all his intentions with reference to Mrs. Bold been known to the signora, it would only have added zest to that lady's amusement. It was all very well to have Mr. Slope at her feet, to show her power by making an utter fool of a clergyman, to gratify her own infidelity by thus proving the little strength which religion had in controlling the passions even of a religious man; but it would be an increased gratification if she could be made to understand that she was at the same time alluring her victim away from another, whose love if secured would be in every way beneficent and salutary.
The Signora had indeed discovered, with the keen instinct of such a woman, that Mr. Slope was bent on matrimony with Mrs. Bold, but in alluding to Dido she had not thought of it. She instantly perceived, however, from her lover's blushes, what was on his mind and was not slow in taking advantage of it.
She looked him full in the face, not angrily, nor yet with a smile, but with an intense and overpowering gaze; then, holding up her forefinger and slightly shaking her head, she said:—
"Whatever you do, my friend, do not mingle love and business. Either stick to your treasure and your city of wealth, or else follow your love like a true man. But never attempt both. If you do, you'll have to die with a broken heart as did poor Dido. Which is it to be with you, Mr. Slope, love or money?"
Mr. Slope was not so ready with a pathetic answer as he usually was with touching episodes in his extempore sermons. He felt that he ought to say something pretty, something also that should remove the impression on the mind of his lady-love. But he was rather put about how to do it.
"Love," said he, "true overpowering love, must be the strongest passion a man can feel; it must control every other wish, and put aside every other pursuit. But with me love will never act in that way unless it be returned;" and he threw upon the signora a look of tenderness which was intended to make up for all the deficiencies of his speech.
"Take my advice," said she. "Never mind love. After all, what is it? The dream of a few weeks. That is all its joy. The disappointment of a life is its Nemesis. Who was ever successful in true love? Success in love argues that the love is false. True love is always despondent or tragical. Juliet loved, Haidee loved, Dido loved, and what came of it? Troilus loved and ceased to be a man."
"Troilus loved and was fooled," said the more manly chaplain. "A man may love and yet not be a Troilus. All women are not Cressidas."
"No, all women are not Cressidas. The falsehood is not always on the woman's side. Imogen was true, but how was she rewarded? Her lord believed her to be the paramour of the first he who came near her in his absence. Desdemona was true and was smothered. Ophelia was true and went mad. There is no happiness in love, except at the end of an English novel. But in wealth, money, houses, lands, goods, and chattels, in the good things of this world, yes, in them there is something tangible, something that can be retained and enjoyed."
"Oh, no," said Mr. Slope, feeling himself bound to enter some protest against so very unorthodox a doctrine, "this world's wealth will make no one happy."
"And what will make you happy—you—you?" said she, raising herself up and speaking to him with energy across the table. "From what source do you look for happiness? Do not say that you look for none. I shall not believe you. It is a search in which every human being spends an existence."
"And the search is always in vain," said Mr. Slope. "We look for happiness on earth, while we ought to be content to hope for it in heaven."
"Pshaw! You preach a doctrine which you know you don't believe. It is the way with you all. If you know that there is no earthly happiness, why do you long to be a bishop or a dean? Why do you want lands and income?"
"I have the natural ambition of a man," said he.
"Of course you have, and the natural passions; and therefore I say that you don't believe the doctrine you preach. St. Paul was an enthusiast. He believed so that his ambition and passions did not war against his creed. So does the Eastern fanatic who passes half his life erect upon a pillar. As for me, I will believe in no belief that does not make itself manifest by outward signs. I will think no preaching sincere that is not recommended by the practice of the preacher."
Mr. Slope was startled and horrified, but he felt that he could not answer. How could he stand up and preach the lessons of his Master, being there, as he was, on the devil's business? He was a true believer, otherwise this would have been nothing to him. He had audacity for most things, but he had not audacity to make a plaything of the Lord's word. All this the signora understood, and felt much interest as she saw her cockchafer whirl round upon her pin.
"Your wit delights in such arguments," said he, "but your heart and your reason do not go along with them."
"My heart!" said she; "you quite mistake the principles of my composition if you imagine that there is such a thing about me." After all, there was very little that was false in anything that the signora said. If Mr. Slope allowed himself to be deceived, it was his own fault. Nothing could have been more open than her declarations about herself.
The little writing-table with her desk was still standing before her, a barrier, as it were, against the enemy. She was sitting as nearly upright as she ever did, and he had brought a chair close to the sofa, so that there was only the corner of the table between him and her. It so happened that as she spoke her hand lay upon the table, and as Mr. Slope answered her he put his hand upon hers.
"No heart!" said he. "That is a heavy charge which you bring against yourself, and one of which I cannot find you guilty—"
She withdrew her hand, not quickly and angrily, as though insulted by his touch, but gently and slowly.
"You are in no condition to give a verdict on the matter," said she, "as you have not tried me. No, don't say that you intend doing so, for you know you have no intention of the kind; nor indeed have I, either. As for you, you will take your vows where they will result in something more substantial than the pursuit of such a ghostlike, ghastly love as mine—"
"Your love should be sufficient to satisfy the dream of a monarch," said Mr. Slope, not quite clear as to the meaning of his words.
"Say an archbishop, Mr. Slope," said she. Poor fellow! She was very cruel to him. He went round again upon his cork on this allusion to his profession. He tried, however, to smile and gently accused her of joking on a matter, which was, he said, to him of such vital moment.
"Why—what gulls do you men make of us," she replied. "How you fool us to the top of our bent; and of all men you clergymen are the most fluent of your honeyed, caressing words. Now look me in the face, Mr. Slope, boldly and openly."
Mr. Slope did look at her with a languishing loving eye, and as he did so he again put forth his hand to get hold of hers.
"I told you to look at me boldly, Mr. Slope, but confine your boldness to your eyes."
"Oh, Madeline!" he sighed.
"Well, my name is Madeline," said she, "but none except my own family usually call me so. Now look me in the face, Mr. Slope. Am I to understand that you say you love me?"
Mr. Slope never had said so. If he had come there with any formed plan at all, his intention was to make love to the lady without uttering any such declaration. It was, however, quite impossible that he should now deny his love. He had, therefore, nothing for it but to go down on his knees distractedly against the sofa and swear that he did love her with a love passing the love of man.
The signora received the assurance with very little palpitation or appearance of surprise. "And now answer me another question," said she. "When are you to be married to my dear friend Eleanor Bold?"
Poor Mr. Slope went round and round in mortal agony. In such a condition as his it was really very hard for him to know what answer to give. And yet no answer would be his surest condemnation. He might as well at once plead guilty to the charge brought against him.
"And why do you accuse me of such dissimulation?" said he.
"Dissimulation! I said nothing of dissimulation. I made no charge against you, and make none. Pray don't defend yourself to me. You swear that you are devoted to my beauty, and yet you are on the eve of matrimony with another. I feel this to be rather a compliment. It is to Mrs. Bold that you must defend yourself. That you may find difficult; unless, indeed, you can keep her in the dark. You clergymen are cleverer than other men."
"Signora, I have told you that I loved you, and now you rail at me."
"Rail at you. God bless the man; what would he have? Come, answer me this at your leisure—not without thinking now, but leisurely and with consideration—are you not going to be married to Mrs. Bold?"
"I am not," said he. And as he said it he almost hated, with an exquisite hatred, the woman whom he could not help loving with an exquisite love.
"But surely you are a worshipper of hers?"
"I am not," said Mr. Slope, to whom the word worshipper was peculiarly distasteful. The signora had conceived that it would be so.
"I wonder at that," said she. "Do you not admire her? To my eye she is the perfection of English beauty. And then she is rich, too. I should have thought she was just the person to attract you. Come, Mr. Slope, let me give you advice on this matter. Marry the charming widow; she will be a good mother to your children and an excellent mistress of a clergyman's household."
"Oh, signora, how can you be so cruel?"
"Cruel," said she, changing the voice of banter which she had been using for one which was expressively earnest in its tone; "is that cruelty?"
"How can I love another while my heart is entirely your own?"
"If that were cruelty, Mr. Slope, what might you say of me if I were to declare that I returned your passion? What would you think if I bound you even by a lover's oath to do daily penance at this couch of mine? What can I give in return for a man's love? Ah, dear friend, you have not realized the conditions of my fate."
Mr. Slope was not on his knees all this time. After his declaration of love, he had risen from them as quickly as he thought consistent with the new position which he now filled, and as he stood was leaning on the back of his chair. This outburst of tenderness on the signora's part quite overcame him and made him feel for the moment that he could sacrifice everything to be assured of the love of the beautiful creature before him, maimed, lame, and already married as she was.
"And can I not sympathize with your lot?" said he, now seating himself on her sofa and pushing away the table with his foot.
"Sympathy is so near to pity!" said she. "If you pity me, cripple as I am, I shall spurn you from me."
"Oh, Madeline, I will only love you," and again he caught her hand and devoured it with kisses. Now she did not draw it from him, but sat there as he kissed it, looking at him with her great eyes, just as a great spider would look at a great fly that was quite securely caught.
"Suppose Signor Neroni were to come to Barchester," said she. "Would you make his acquaintance?"
"Signor Neroni!" said he.
"Would you introduce him to the bishop, and Mrs. Proudie, and the young ladies?" said she, again having recourse to that horrid quizzing voice which Mr. Slope so particularly hated.
"Why do you ask such a question?" said he.
"Because it is necessary that you should know that there is a Signor Neroni. I think you had forgotten it."
"If I thought that you retained for that wretch one particle of the love of which he was never worthy, I would die before I would distract you by telling you what I feel. No! Were your husband the master of your heart, I might perhaps love you, but you should never know it."
"My heart again! How you talk. And you consider then that if a husband be not master of his wife's heart, he has no right to her fealty; if a wife ceases to love, she may cease to be true. Is that your doctrine on this matter, as a minister of the Church of England?"
Mr. Slope tried hard within himself to cast off the pollution with which he felt that he was defiling his soul. He strove to tear himself away from the noxious siren that had bewitched him. But he could not do it. He could not be again heart free. He had looked for rapturous joy in loving this lovely creature, and he already found that he met with little but disappointment and self-rebuke. He had come across the fruit of the Dead Sea, so sweet and delicious to the eye, so bitter and nauseous to the taste. He had put the apple to his mouth, and it had turned to ashes between his teeth. Yet he could not tear himself away. He knew, he could not but know, that she jeered at him, ridiculed his love, and insulted the weakness of his religion. But she half-permitted his adoration, and that half-permission added such fuel to his fire that all the fountain of his piety could not quench it. He began to feel savage, irritated, and revengeful. He meditated some severity of speech, some taunt that should cut her, as her taunts cut him. He reflected as he stood there for a moment, silent before her, that if he desired to quell her proud spirit, he should do so by being prouder even than herself; that if he wished to have her at his feet suppliant for his love, it behoved him to conquer her by indifference. All this passed through his mind. As far as dead knowledge went, he knew, or thought he knew, how a woman should be tamed. But when he essayed to bring his tactics to bear, he failed like a child. What chance has dead knowledge with experience in any of the transactions between man and man? What possible chance between man and woman? Mr. Slope loved furiously, insanely and truly, but he had never played the game of love. The signora did not love at all, but she was up to every move of the board. It was Philidor pitted against a schoolboy.
And so she continued to insult him, and he continued to bear it.
"Sacrifice the world for love!" she said in answer to some renewed vapid declaration of his passion. "How often has the same thing been said, and how invariably with the same falsehood!"
"Falsehood," said he. "Do you say that I am false to you? Do you say that my love is not real?"
"False? Of course it is false, false as the father of falsehood—if indeed falsehoods need a sire and are not self-begotten since the world began. You are ready to sacrifice the world for love? Come let us see what you will sacrifice. I care nothing for nuptial vows. The wretch, I think you were kind enough to call him so, whom I swore to love and obey is so base that he can only be thought of with repulsive disgust. In the council chamber of my heart I have divorced him. To me that is as good as though aged lords had gloated for months over the details of his licentious life. I care nothing for what the world can say. Will you be as frank? Will you take me to your home as your wife? Will you call me Mrs. Slope before bishop, dean, and prebendaries?" The poor tortured wretch stood silent, not knowing what to say. "What! You won't do that. Tell me, then, what part of the world is it that you will sacrifice for my charms?"
"Were you free to marry, I would take you to my house to-morrow and wish no higher privilege."
"I am free," said she, almost starting up in her energy. For though there was no truth in her pretended regard for her clerical admirer, there was a mixture of real feeling in the scorn and satire with which she spoke of love and marriage generally. "I am free—free as the winds. Come, will you take me as I am? Have your wish; sacrifice the world, and prove yourself a true man."
Mr. Slope should have taken her at her word. She would have drawn back, and he would have had the full advantage of the offer. But he did not. Instead of doing so, he stood wrapt in astonishment, passing his fingers through his lank red hair and thinking, as he stared upon her animated countenance, that her wondrous beauty grew more wonderful as he gazed on it. "Ha! ha! ha!" she laughed out loud. "Come, Mr. Slope, don't talk of sacrificing the world again. People beyond one-and-twenty should never dream of such a thing. You and I, if we have the dregs of any love left in us, if we have the remnants of a passion remaining in our hearts, should husband our resources better. We are not in our premiere jeunesse. The world is a very nice place. Your world, at any rate, is so. You have all manner of fat rectories to get and possible bishoprics to enjoy. Come, confess; on second thoughts you would not sacrifice such things for the smiles of a lame lady?"
It was impossible for him to answer this. In order to be in any way dignified, he felt that he must be silent.
"Come," said she, "don't boody with me: don't be angry because I speak out some home truths. Alas, the world, as I have found it, has taught me bitter truths. Come, tell me that I am forgiven. Are we not to be friends?" and she again put out her hand to him.
He sat himself down in the chair beside her, took her proffered hand, and leant over her.
"There," said she with her sweetest, softest smile—a smile to withstand which a man should be cased in triple steel, "there; seal your forgiveness on it," and she raised it towards his face. He kissed it again and again, and stretched over her as though desirous of extending the charity of his pardon beyond the hand that was offered to him. She managed, however, to check his ardour. For one so easily allured as this poor chaplain, her hand was surely enough.
"Oh, Madeline!" said he, "tell me that you love me—do you—do you love me?"
"Hush," said she. "There is my mother's step. Our tete-a-tete has been of monstrous length. Now you had better go. But we shall see you soon again, shall we not?"
Mr. Slope promised that he would call again on the following day.
"And, Mr. Slope," she continued, "pray answer my note. You have it in your hand, though I declare during these two hours you have not been gracious enough to read it. It is about the Sabbath-school and the children. You know how anxious I am to have them here. I have been learning the catechism myself, on purpose. You must manage it for me next week. I will teach them, at any rate, to submit themselves to their spiritual pastors and masters."
Mr. Slope said but little on the subject of Sabbath-schools, but he made his adieu, and betook himself home with a sad heart, troubled mind, and uneasy conscience.
Mrs. Bold is Entertained by Dr. and Mrs. Grantly at Plumstead
It will be remembered that Mr. Slope, when leaving his billet-doux at the house of Mrs. Bold, had been informed that it would be sent out to her at Plumstead that afternoon. The archdeacon and Mr. Harding had in fact come into town together in the brougham, and it had been arranged that they should call for Eleanor's parcels as they left on their way home. Accordingly they did so call, and the maid, as she handed to the coachman a small basket and large bundle carefully and neatly packed, gave in at the carriage window Mr. Slope's epistle. The archdeacon, who was sitting next to the window, took it and immediately recognized the hand-writing of his enemy.
"Who left this?" said he.
"Mr. Slope called with it himself, your Reverence," said the girl, "and was very anxious that Missus should have it to-day."
So the brougham drove off, and the letter was left in the archdeacon's hand. He looked at it as though he held a basket of adders. He could not have thought worse of the document had he read it and discovered it to be licentious and atheistical. He did, moreover, what so many wise people are accustomed to do in similar circumstances; he immediately condemned the person to whom the letter was written, as though she were necessarily a particeps criminis.
Poor Mr. Harding, though by no means inclined to forward Mr. Slope's intimacy with his daughter, would have given anything to have kept the letter from his son-in-law. But that was now impossible. There it was in his hand, and he looked as thoroughly disgusted as though he were quite sure that it contained all the rhapsodies of a favoured lover.
"It's very hard on me," said he after awhile, "that this should go on under my roof."
Now here the archdeacon was certainly most unreasonable. Having invited his sister-in-law to his house, it was a natural consequence that she should receive her letters there. And if Mr. Slope chose to write to her, his letter would, as a matter of course, be sent after her. Moreover, the very fact of an invitation to one's house implies confidence on the part of the inviter. He had shown that he thought Mrs. Bold to be a fit person to stay with him by his asking her to do so, and it was most cruel to her that he should complain of her violating the sanctity of his roof-tree, when the laches committed were none of her committing.
Mr. Harding felt this, and felt also that when the archdeacon talked thus about his roof, what he said was most offensive to himself as Eleanor's father. If Eleanor did receive a letter from Mr. Slope, what was there in that to pollute the purity of Dr. Grantly's household? He was indignant that his daughter should be so judged and so spoken of, and he made up his mind that even as Mrs. Slope she must be dearer to him than any other creature on God's earth. He almost broke out and said as much, but for the moment he restrained himself.
"Here," said the archdeacon, handing the offensive missile to his father-in-law, "I am not going to be the bearer of his love-letters. You are her father and may do as you think fit with it."
By doing as he thought fit with it, the archdeacon certainly meant that Mr. Harding would be justified in opening and reading the letter, and taking any steps which might in consequence be necessary. To tell the truth, Dr. Grantly did feel rather a stronger curiosity than was justified by his outraged virtue to see the contents of the letter. Of course he could not open it himself, but he wished to make Mr. Harding understand that he, as Eleanor's father, would be fully justified in doing so. The idea of such a proceeding never occurred to Mr. Harding. His authority over Eleanor ceased when she became the wife of John Bold. He had not the slightest wish to pry into her correspondence. He consequently put the letter into his pocket, and only wished that he had been able to do so without the archdeacon's knowledge. They both sat silent during half the journey home, and then Dr. Grantly said, "Perhaps Susan had better give it to her. She can explain to her sister better than either you or I can do how deep is the disgrace of such an acquaintance."
"I think you are very hard upon Eleanor," replied Mr. Harding. "I will not allow that she has disgraced herself, nor do I think it likely that she will do so. She has a right to correspond with whom she pleases, and I shall not take upon myself to blame her because she gets a letter from Mr. Slope."
"I suppose," said Dr. Grantly, "you don't wish her to marry the man. I suppose you'll admit that she would disgrace herself if she did do so."
"I do not wish her to marry him," said the perplexed father. "I do not like him, and do not think he would make a good husband. But if Eleanor chooses to do so, I shall certainly not think that she disgraces herself."
"Good heavens!" exclaimed Dr. Grantly and threw himself back into the corner of his brougham. Mr. Harding said nothing more, but commenced playing a dirge with an imaginary fiddle bow upon an imaginary violoncello, for which there did not appear to be quite room enough in the carriage; he continued the tune, with sundry variations, till he arrived at the rectory door.
The archdeacon had been meditating sad things in his mind. Hitherto he had always looked on his father-in-law as a true partisan, though he knew him to be a man devoid of all the combative qualifications for that character. He had felt no fear that Mr. Harding would go over to the enemy, though he had never counted much on the ex-warden's prowess in breaking the hostile ranks. Now, however, it seemed that Eleanor, with her wiles, had completely trepanned and bewildered her father, cheated him out of his judgement, robbed him of the predilections and tastes of his life, and caused him to be tolerant of a man whose arrogance and vulgarity would, a few years since, have been unendurable to him. That the whole thing was as good as arranged between Eleanor and Mr. Slope there was no longer any room to doubt. That Mr. Harding knew that such was the case, even this could hardly be doubted. It was too manifest that he at any rate suspected it and was prepared to sanction it.
And to tell the truth, such was the case. Mr. Harding disliked Mr. Slope as much as it was in his nature to dislike any man. Had his daughter wished to do her worst to displease him by a second marriage, she could hardly have succeeded better than by marrying Mr. Slope. But, as he said to himself now very often, what right had he to condemn her if she did nothing that was really wrong? If she liked Mr. Slope, it was her affair. It was indeed miraculous to him that a woman with such a mind, so educated, so refined, so nice in her tastes, should like such a man. Then he asked himself whether it was possible that she did so.
Ah, thou weak man; most charitable, most Christian, but weakest of men! Why couldn't thou not have asked herself? Was she not the daughter of thy loins, the child of thy heart, the best beloved to thee of all humanity? Had she not proved to thee, by years of closest affection, her truth and goodness and filial obedience? And yet, knowing and feeling all this, thou couldst endure to go groping in darkness, hearing her named in strains which wounded thy loving heart, and being unable to defend her as thou shouldst have done!
Mr. Harding had not believed, did not believe, that his daughter meant to marry this man, but he feared to commit himself to such an opinion. If she did do it there would be then no means of retreat. The wishes of his heart were: first, that there should be no truth in the archdeacon's surmises; and in this wish he would have fain trusted entirely, had he dared so to do; secondly, that the match might be prevented, if unfortunately, it had been contemplated by Eleanor; thirdly, that should she be so infatuated as to marry this man, he might justify his conduct and declare that no cause existed for his separating himself from her.
He wanted to believe her incapable of such a marriage; he wanted to show that he so believed of her; but he wanted also to be able to say hereafter that she had done nothing amiss, if she should unfortunately prove herself to be different from what he thought her to be.
Nothing but affection could justify such fickleness, but affection did justify it. There was but little of the Roman about Mr. Harding. He could not sacrifice his Lucretia even though she should be polluted by the accepted addresses of the clerical Tarquin at the palace. If Tarquin could be prevented, well and good, but if not, the father would still open his heart to his daughter and accept her as she presented herself, Tarquin and all.
Dr. Grantly's mind was of a stronger calibre, and he was by no means deficient in heart. He loved with an honest genuine love his wife and children and friends. He loved his father-in-law, and was quite prepared to love Eleanor too, if she would be one of his party, if she would be on his side, if she would regard the Slopes and the Proudies as the enemies of mankind and acknowledge and feel the comfortable merits of the Gwynnes and Arabins. He wished to be what he called "safe" with all those whom he had admitted to the penetralia of his house and heart. He could luxuriate in no society that was deficient in a certain feeling of faithful, staunch High Churchism, which to him was tantamount to freemasonry. He was not strict in his lines of definition. He endured without impatience many different shades of Anglo-church conservatism; but with the Slopes and Proudies he could not go on all fours.
He was wanting in, moreover, or perhaps it would be more correct to say, he was not troubled by that womanly tenderness which was so peculiar to Mr. Harding. His feelings towards his friends were that while they stuck to him, he would stick to them; that he would work with them shoulder and shoulder; that he would be faithful to the faithful. He knew nothing of that beautiful love which can be true to a false friend.
And thus these two men, each miserable enough in his own way, returned to Plumstead.
It was getting late when they arrived there, and the ladies had already gone up to dress. Nothing more was said as the two parted in the hall. As Mr. Harding passed to his own room he knocked at Eleanor's door and handed in the letter. The archdeacon hurried to his own territory, there to unburden his heart to his faithful partner.
What colloquy took place between the marital chamber and the adjoining dressing-room shall not be detailed. The reader, now intimate with the persons concerned, can well imagine it. The whole tenor of it also might be read in Mrs. Grantly's brow as she came down to dinner.
Eleanor, when she received the letter from her father's hand, had no idea from whom it came. She had never seen Mr. Slope's handwriting, or if so had forgotten it, and did not think of him as she twisted the letter as people do twist letters when they do not immediately recognize their correspondents either by the writing or the seal. She was sitting at her glass, brushing her hair and rising every other minute to play with her boy, who was sprawling on the bed and who engaged pretty nearly the whole attention of the maid as well as of his mother.
At last, sitting before her toilet-table, she broke the seal and, turning over the leaf, saw Mr. Slope's name. She first felt surprised, and then annoyed, and then anxious. As she read it she became interested. She was so delighted to find that all obstacles to her father's return to the hospital were apparently removed that she did not observe the fulsome language in which the tidings were conveyed. She merely perceived that she was commissioned to tell her father that such was the case, and she did not realize the fact that such a communication should not have been made, in the first instance, to her by an unmarried young clergyman. She felt, on the whole, grateful to Mr. Slope and anxious to get on her dress that she might run with the news to her father. Then she came to the allusion to her own pious labours, and she said in her heart that Mr. Slope was an affected ass. Then she went on again and was offended by her boy being called Mr. Slope's darling—he was nobody's darling but her own, or at any rate not the darling of a disagreeable stranger like Mr. Slope. Lastly she arrived at the tresses and felt a qualm of disgust. She looked up in the glass, and there they were before her, long and silken, certainly, and very beautiful. I will not say but that she knew them to be so, but she felt angry with them and brushed them roughly and carelessly. She crumpled the letter up with angry violence, and resolved, almost without thinking of it, that she would not show it to her father. She would merely tell him the contents of it. She then comforted herself again with her boy, had her dress fastened, and went down to dinner.
As she tripped down the stairs she began to ascertain that there was some difficulty in her situation. She could not keep from her father the news about the hospital, nor could she comfortably confess the letter from Mr. Slope before the Grantlys. Her father had already gone down. She had heard his step upon the lobby. She resolved therefore to take him aside and tell him her little bit of news. Poor girl! She had no idea how severely the unfortunate letter had already been discussed.
When she entered the drawing-room, the whole party were there, including Mr. Arabin, and the whole party looked glum and sour. The two girls sat silent and apart as though they were aware that something was wrong. Even Mr. Arabin was solemn and silent. Eleanor had not seen him since breakfast. He had been the whole day at St. Ewold's, and such having been the case, it was natural that he should tell how matters were going on there. He did nothing of the kind, however, but remained solemn and silent. They were all solemn and silent. Eleanor knew in her heart that they had been talking about her, and her heart misgave her as she thought of Mr. Slope and his letter. At any rate she felt it to be quite impossible to speak to her father alone while matters were in this state.
Dinner was soon announced, and Dr. Grantly, as was his wont, gave Eleanor his arm. But he did so as though the doing it were an outrage on his feelings rendered necessary by sternest necessity. With quick sympathy Eleanor felt this, and hardly put her fingers on his coat-sleeve. It may be guessed in what way the dinner-hour was passed. Dr. Grantly said a few words to Mr. Arabin, Mr. Arabin said a few words to Mrs. Grantly, she said a few words to her father, and he tried to say a few words to Eleanor. She felt that she had been tried and found guilty of something, though she knew not what. She longed to say out to them all, "Well, what is it that I have done; out with it, and let me know my crime; for heaven's sake let me hear the worst of it;" but she could not. She could say nothing, but sat there silent, half-feeling that she was guilty, and trying in vain to pretend even to eat her dinner.
At last the cloth was drawn, and the ladies were not long following it. When they were gone, the gentlemen were somewhat more sociable but not much so. They could not of course talk over Eleanor's sins. The archdeacon had indeed so far betrayed his sister-in-law as to whisper into Mr. Arabin's ear in the study, as they met there before dinner, a hint of what he feared. He did so with the gravest and saddest of fears, and Mr. Arabin became grave and apparently sad enough as he heard it. He opened his eyes, and his mouth and said in a sort of whisper "Mr. Slope!" in the same way as he might have said "The Cholera!" had his friend told him that that horrid disease was in his nursery. "I fear so, I fear so," said the archdeacon, and then together they left the room.
We will not accurately analyse Mr. Arabin's feelings on receipt of such astounding tidings. It will suffice to say that he was surprised, vexed, sorrowful, and ill at ease. He had not perhaps thought very much about Eleanor, but he had appreciated her influence, and had felt that close intimacy with her in a country-house was pleasant to him, and also beneficial. He had spoken highly of her intelligence to the archdeacon, and had walked about the shrubberies with her, carrying her boy on his back. When Mr. Arabin had called Johnny his darling, Eleanor was not angry.
Thus the three men sat over their wine, all thinking of the same subject, but unable to speak of it to each other. So we will leave them and follow the ladies into the drawing-room.
Mrs. Grantly had received a commission from her husband, and had undertaken it with some unwillingness. He had desired her to speak gravely to Eleanor and to tell her that, if she persisted in her adherence to Mr. Slope, she could no longer look for the countenance of her present friends. Mrs. Grantly probably knew her sister better than the doctor did, and assured him that it would be in vain to talk to her. The only course likely to be of any service in her opinion was to keep Eleanor away from Barchester. Perhaps she might have added, for she had a very keen eye in such things, that there might also be ground for hope in keeping Eleanor near Mr. Arabin. Of this, however, she said nothing. But the archdeacon would not be talked over; he spoke much of his conscience, and declared that, if Mrs. Grantly would not do it, he would. So instigated, the lady undertook the task, stating, however, her full conviction that her interference would be worse than useless. And so it proved.
As soon as they were in the drawing-room Mrs. Grantly found some excuse for sending her girls away, and then began her task. She knew well that she could exercise but very slight authority over her sister. Their various modes of life, and the distance between their residences, had prevented any very close confidence. They had hardly lived together since Eleanor was a child. Eleanor had, moreover, especially in latter years, resented in a quiet sort of way the dictatorial authority which the archdeacon seemed to exercise over her father, and on this account had been unwilling to allow the archdeacon's wife to exercise authority over herself.
"You got a note just before dinner, I believe," began the eldest sister.
Eleanor acknowledged that she had done so, and felt that she turned red as she acknowledged it. She would have given anything to have kept her colour, but the more she tried to do so the more signally she failed.
"Was it not from Mr. Slope?"
Eleanor said that the letter was from Mr. Slope.
"Is he a regular correspondent of yours, Eleanor?"
"Not exactly," said she, already beginning to feel angry at the cross-examination. She determined, and why it would be difficult to say, that nothing should induce her to tell her sister Susan what was the subject of the letter. Mrs. Grantly, she knew, was instigated by the archdeacon, and she would not plead to any arraignment made against her by him.
"But, Eleanor dear, why do you get letters from Mr. Slope at all, knowing, as you do, he is a person so distasteful to Papa, and to the archdeacon, and indeed to all your friends?"
"In the first place, Susan, I don't get letters from him; and in the next place, as Mr. Slope wrote the one letter which I have got, and as I only received it, which I could not very well help doing, as Papa handed it to me, I think you had better ask Mr. Slope instead of me."
"What was his letter about, Eleanor?"
"I cannot tell you," said she, "because it was confidential. It was on business respecting a third person."
"It was in no way personal to yourself then?"
"I won't exactly say that, Susan," said she, getting more and more angry at her sister's questions.
"Well, I must say it's rather singular," said Mrs. Grantly, affecting to laugh, "that a young lady in your position should receive a letter from an unmarried gentleman of which she will not tell the contents and which she is ashamed to show to her sister."
"I am not ashamed," said Eleanor, blazing up. "I am not ashamed of anything in the matter; only I do not choose to be cross-examined as to my letters by anyone."
"Well, dear," said the other, "I cannot but tell you that I do not think Mr. Slope a proper correspondent for you."
"If he be ever so improper, how can I help his having written to me? But you are all prejudiced against him to such an extent that that which would be kind and generous in another man is odious and impudent in him. I hate a religion that teaches one to be so one-sided in one's charity."
"I am sorry, Eleanor, that you hate the religion you find here, but surely you should remember that in such matters the archdeacon must know more of the world than you do. I don't ask you to respect or comply with me, although I am, unfortunately, so many years your senior; but surely, in such a matter as this, you might consent to be guided by the archdeacon. He is most anxious to be your friend, if you will let him."
"In such a matter as what?" said Eleanor very testily. "Upon my word I don't know what this is all about."
"We all want you to drop Mr. Slope."
"You all want me to be as illiberal as yourselves. That I shall never be. I see no harm in Mr. Slope's acquaintance, and I shall not insult the man by telling him that I do. He has thought it necessary to write to me, and I do not want the archdeacon's advice about the letter. If I did, I would ask it."
"Then, Eleanor, it is my duty to tell you," and now she spoke with a tremendous gravity, "that the archdeacon thinks that such a correspondence is disgraceful, and that he cannot allow it to go on in his house."
Eleanor's eyes flashed fire as she answered her sister, jumping up from her seat as she did so. "You may tell the archdeacon that wherever I am I shall receive what letters I please and from whom I please. And as for the word 'disgraceful,' if Dr. Grantly has used it of me, he has been unmanly and inhospitable," and she walked off to the door. "When Papa comes from the dining-room I will thank you to ask him to step up to my bedroom. I will show him Mr. Slope's letter, but I will show it to no one else." And so saying, she retreated to her baby.
She had no conception of the crime with which she was charged. The idea that she could be thought by her friends to regard Mr. Slope as a lover had never flashed upon her. She conceived that they were all prejudiced and illiberal in their persecution of him, and therefore she would not join in the persecution, even though she greatly disliked the man.
Eleanor was very angry as she seated herself in a low chair by her open window at the foot of her child's bed. "To dare to say I have disgraced myself," she repeated to herself more than once. "How Papa can put up with that man's arrogance! I will certainly not sit down to dinner in his house again unless he begs my pardon for that word." And then a thought struck her that Mr. Arabin might perchance hear of her "disgraceful" correspondence with Mr. Slope, and she turned crimson with pure vexation. Oh, if she had known the truth! If she could have conceived that Mr. Arabin had been informed as a fact that she was going to marry Mr. Slope!
She had not been long in her room before her father joined her. As he left the drawing-room Mrs. Grantly took her husband into the recess of the window and told him how signally she had failed.
"I will speak to her myself before I go to bed," said the archdeacon.
"Pray do no such thing," said she; "you can do no good and will only make an unseemly quarrel in the house. You have no idea how headstrong she can be."
The archdeacon declared that as to that he was quite indifferent. He knew his duty and would do it. Mr. Harding was weak in the extreme in such matters. He would not have it hereafter on his conscience that he had not done all that in him lay to prevent so disgraceful an alliance. It was in vain that Mrs. Grantly assured him that speaking to Eleanor angrily would only hasten such a crisis and render it certain, if at present there were any doubt. He was angry, self-willed, and sore. The fact that a lady of his household had received a letter from Mr. Slope had wounded his pride in the sorest place, and nothing could control him.
Mr. Harding looked worn and woe-begone as he entered his daughter's room. These sorrows worried him sadly. He felt that if they were continued, he must go to the wall in the manner so kindly prophesied to him by the chaplain. He knocked gently at his daughter's door, waited till he was distinctly bade to enter, and then appeared as though he and not she were the suspected criminal.
Eleanor's arm was soon within his, and she had soon kissed his forehead and caressed him, not with joyous but with eager love. "Oh, Papa," she said, "I do so want to speak to you. They have been talking about me downstairs to-night—don't you know they have, Papa?"
Mr. Harding confessed with a sort of murmur that the archdeacon had been speaking of her.
"I shall hate Dr. Grantly soon—"
"Oh, my dear!"
"Well, I shall. I cannot help it. He is so uncharitable, so unkind, so suspicious of everyone that does not worship himself: and then he is so monstrously arrogant to other people who have a right to their opinions as well as he has to his own."
"He is an earnest, eager man, my dear, but he never means to be unkind."
"He is unkind, Papa, most unkind. There, I got that letter from Mr. Slope before dinner. It was you yourself who gave it to me. There, pray read it. It is all for you. It should have been addressed to you. You know how they have been talking about it downstairs. You know how they behaved to me at dinner. And since dinner Susan has been preaching to me, till I could not remain in the room with her. Read it, Papa, and then say whether that is a letter that need make Dr. Grantly so outrageous."
Mr. Harding took his arm from his daughter's waist and slowly read the letter. She expected to see his countenance lit with joy as he learnt that his path back to the hospital was made so smooth; but she was doomed to disappointment, as had once been the case before on a somewhat similar occasion. His first feeling was one of unmitigated disgust that Mr. Slope should have chosen to interfere in his behalf. He had been anxious to get back to the hospital, but he would have infinitely sooner resigned all pretensions to the place than have owed it in any manner to Mr. Slope's influence in his favour. Then he thoroughly disliked the tone of Mr. Slope's letter; it was unctuous, false, and unwholesome, like the man. He saw, which Eleanor had failed to see, that much more had been intended than was expressed. The appeal to Eleanor's pious labours as separate from his own grated sadly against his feelings as a father. And then, when he came to the "darling boy" and the "silken tresses," he slowly closed and folded the letter in despair. It was impossible that Mr. Slope should so write unless he had been encouraged. It was impossible Eleanor should have received such a letter, and have received it without annoyance, unless she were willing to encourage him. So at least Mr. Harding argued to himself.
How hard it is to judge accurately of the feelings of others. Mr. Harding, as he came to the close of the letter, in his heart condemned his daughter for indelicacy, and it made him miserable to do so. She was not responsible for what Mr. Slope might write. True. But then she expressed no disgust at it. She had rather expressed approval of the letter as a whole. She had given it to him to read, as a vindication for herself and also for him. The father's spirits sank within him as he felt that he could not acquit her.
And yet it was the true feminine delicacy of Eleanor's mind which brought on her this condemnation. Listen to me, ladies, and I beseech you to acquit her. She thought of this man, this lover of whom she was so unconscious, exactly as her father did, exactly as the Grantlys did. At least she esteemed him personally as they did. But she believed him to be in the main an honest man, and one truly inclined to assist her father. She felt herself bound, after what had passed, to show this letter to Mr. Harding. She thought it necessary that he should know what Mr. Slope had to say. But she did not think it necessary to apologize for, or condemn, or even allude to the vulgarity of the man's tone, which arose, as does all vulgarity, from ignorance. It was nauseous to her to have a man like Mr. Slope commenting on her personal attractions, and she did not think it necessary to dilate with her father upon what was nauseous. She never supposed they could disagree on such a subject. It would have been painful for her to point it out, painful for her to speak strongly against a man of whom, on the whole, she was anxious to think and speak well. In encountering such a man she had encountered what was disagreeable, as she might do in walking the streets. But in such encounters she never thought it necessary to dwell on what disgusted her.
And he, foolish, weak, loving man, would not say one word, though one word would have cleared up everything. There would have been a deluge of tears, and in ten minutes everyone in the house would have understood how matters really were. The father would have been delighted. The sister would have kissed her sister and begged a thousand pardons. The archdeacon would have apologized and wondered, and raised his eyebrows, and gone to bed a happy man. And Mr. Arabin—Mr. Arabin would have dreamt of Eleanor, have awoke in the morning with ideas of love, and retired to rest the next evening with schemes of marriage. But, alas, all this was not to be.
Mr. Harding slowly folded the letter, handed it back to her, kissed her forehead, and bade God bless her. He then crept slowly away to his own room.
As soon as he had left the passage, another knock was given at Eleanor's door, and Mrs. Grantly's very demure own maid, entering on tiptoe, wanted to know would Mrs. Bold be so kind as to speak to the archdeacon for two minutes in the archdeacon's study, if not disagreeable. The archdeacon's compliments, and he wouldn't detain her two minutes.
Eleanor thought it was very disagreeable; she was tired and fagged and sick at heart; her present feelings towards Dr. Grantly were anything but those of affection. She was, however, no coward, and therefore promised to be in the study in five minutes. So she arranged her hair, tied on her cap, and went down with a palpitating heart.
A Serious Interview
There are people who delight in serious interviews, especially when to them appertains the part of offering advice or administering rebuke, and perhaps the archdeacon was one of these. Yet on this occasion he did not prepare himself for the coming conversation with much anticipation of pleasure. Whatever might be his faults he was not an inhospitable man, and he almost felt that he was sinning against hospitality in upbraiding Eleanor in his own house. Then, also, he was not quite sure that he would get the best of it. His wife had told him that he decidedly would not, and he usually gave credit to what his wife said. He was, however, so convinced of what he considered to be the impropriety of Eleanor's conduct, and so assured also of his own duty in trying to check it, that his conscience would not allow him to take his wife's advice and go to bed quietly.
Eleanor's face as she entered the room was not such as to reassure him. As a rule she was always mild in manner and gentle in conduct; but there was that in her eye which made it not an easy task to scold her. In truth she had been little used to scolding. No one since her childhood had tried it but the archdeacon, and he had generally failed when he did try it. He had never done so since her marriage; and now, when he saw her quiet, easy step as she entered his room, he almost wished that he had taken his wife's advice.
He began by apologizing for the trouble he was giving her. She begged him not to mention it, assured him that walking downstairs was no trouble to her at all, and then took a seat and waited patiently for him to begin his attack.
"My dear Eleanor," he said, "I hope you believe me when I assure you that you have no sincerer friend than I am." To this Eleanor answered nothing, and therefore he proceeded. "If you had a brother of your own, I should not probably trouble you with what I am going to say. But as it is I cannot but think that it must be a comfort to you to know that you have near you one who is as anxious for your welfare as any brother of your own could be."
"I never had a brother," said she.
"I know you never had, and it is therefore that I speak to you."
"I never had a brother," she repeated, "but I have hardly felt the want. Papa has been to me both father and brother."
"Your father is the fondest and most affectionate of men. But—"
"He is—the fondest and most affectionate of men, and the best of counsellors. While he lives I can never want advice."
This rather put the archdeacon out. He could not exactly contradict what his sister-in-law said about her father, and yet he did not at all agree with her. He wanted her to understand that he tendered his assistance because her father was a soft, good-natured gentleman not sufficiently knowing in the ways of the world; but he could not say this to her. So he had to rush into the subject-matter of his proffered counsel without any acknowledgement on her part that she could need it, or would be grateful for it.
"Susan tells me that you received a letter this evening from Mr. Slope."
"Yes; Papa brought it in the brougham. Did he not tell you?"
"And Susan says that you objected to let her know what it was about."
"I don't think she asked me. But had she done so, I should not have told her. I don't think it nice to be asked about one's letters. If one wishes to show them, one does so without being asked."
"True. Quite so. What you say is quite true. But is not the fact of your receiving letters from Mr. Slope, which you do not wish to show to your friends, a circumstance which must excite some—some surprise—some suspicion—"
"Suspicion!" said she, not speaking above her usual voice, speaking still in a soft, womanly tone but yet with indignation. "Suspicion! And who suspects me, and of what?" And then there was a pause, for the archdeacon was not quite ready to explain the ground of his suspicion. "No, Dr. Grantly, I did not choose to show Mr. Slope's letter to Susan. I could not show it to anyone till Papa had seen it. If you have any wish to read it now, you can do so," and she handed the letter to him over the table.
This was an amount of compliance which he had not at all expected, and which rather upset him in his tactics. However, he took the letter, perused it carefully, and then refolding it, kept it on the table under his hand. To him it appeared to be in almost every respect the letter of a declared lover; it seemed to corroborate his worst suspicions; and the fact of Eleanor's showing it to him was all but tantamount to a declaration on her part that it was her pleasure to receive love-letters from Mr. Slope. He almost entirely overlooked the real subject-matter of the epistle, so intent was he on the forthcoming courtship and marriage.
"I'll thank you to give it me back, if you please, Dr. Grantly."
He took it in his hand and held it up, but made no immediate overture to return it. "And Mr. Harding has seen this?" said he.
"Of course he has," said she; "it was written that he might see it. It refers solely to his business—of course I showed it to him."
"And, Eleanor, do you think that that is a proper letter for you—for a person in your condition—to receive from Mr. Slope?"
"Quite a proper letter," said she, speaking, perhaps, a little out of obstinacy, probably forgetting at the moment the objectionable mention of her silken curls.
"Then, Eleanor, it is my duty to tell you that I wholly differ from you."
"So I suppose," said she, instigated now by sheer opposition and determination not to succumb. "You think Mr. Slope is a messenger direct from Satan. I think he is an industrious, well-meaning clergyman. It's a pity that we differ as we do. But, as we do differ, we had probably better not talk about it."
Here Eleanor undoubtedly put herself in the wrong. She might probably have refused to talk to Dr. Grantly on the matter in dispute without any impropriety, but, having consented to listen to him, she had no business to tell him that he regarded Mr. Slope as an emissary from the evil one; nor was she justified in praising Mr. Slope, seeing that in her heart of hearts she did not think well of him. She was, however, wounded in spirit, and angry, and bitter. She had been subjected to contumely and cross-questioning and ill-usage through the whole evening. No one, not even Mr. Arabin, not even her father, had been kind to her. All this she attributed to the prejudice and conceit of the archdeacon, and therefore she resolved to set no bounds to her antagonism to him. She would neither give nor take quarter. He had greatly presumed in daring to question her about her correspondence, and she was determined to show that she thought so.
"Eleanor, you are forgetting yourself," said he, looking very sternly at her. "Otherwise you would never tell me that I conceive any man to be a messenger from Satan."
"But you do," said she. "Nothing is too bad for him. Give me that letter, if you please;" and she stretched out her hand and took it from him. "He has been doing his best to serve Papa, doing more than any of Papa's friends could do; and yet, because he is the chaplain of a bishop whom you don't like, you speak of him as though he had no right to the usage of a gentleman."
"He has done nothing for your father."
"I believe that he has done a great deal; and, as far as I am concerned, I am grateful to him. Nothing that you can say can prevent my being so. I judge people by their acts, and his, as far as I can see them, are good." She then paused for a moment. "If you have nothing further to say, I shall be obliged by being permitted to say good night—I am very tired."
Dr. Grantly had, as he thought, done his best to be gracious to his sister-in-law. He had endeavoured not to be harsh to her, and had striven to pluck the sting from his rebuke. But he did not intend that she should leave him without hearing him.
"I have something to say, Eleanor, and I fear I must trouble you to hear it. You profess that it is quite proper that you should receive from Mr. Slope such letters as that you have in your hand. Susan and I think very differently. You are, of course, your own mistress, and much as we both must grieve should anything separate you from us, we have no power to prevent you from taking steps which may lead to such a separation. If you are so wilful as to reject the counsel of your friends, you must be allowed to cater for yourself. But, Eleanor, I may at any rate ask you this. Is it worth your while to break away from all those you have loved—from all who love you—for the sake of Mr. Slope?"
"I don't know what you mean, Dr. Grantly; I don't know what you're talking about. I don't want to break away from anybody."
"But you will do so if you connect yourself with Mr. Slope. Eleanor, I must speak out to you. You must choose between your sister and myself and our friends, and Mr. Slope and his friends. I say nothing of your father, as you may probably understand his feelings better than I do."
"What do you mean, Dr. Grantly? What am I to understand? I never heard such wicked prejudice in my life."
"It is no prejudice, Eleanor. I have known the world longer than you have done. Mr. Slope is altogether beneath you. You ought to know and feel that he is so. Pray—pray think of this before it is too late."
"Or if you will not believe me, ask Susan; you cannot think she is prejudiced against you. Or even consult your father—he is not prejudiced against you. Ask Mr. Arabin—"
"You haven't spoken to Mr. Arabin about this!" said she, jumping up and standing before him.
"Eleanor, all the world in and about Barchester will be speaking of it soon."
"But have you spoken to Mr. Arabin about me and Mr. Slope?"
"Certainly I have, and he quite agrees with me."
"Agrees with what?" said she. "I think you are trying to drive me mad."
"He agrees with me and Susan that it is quite impossible you should be received at Plumstead as Mrs. Slope."
Not being favourites with the tragic muse, we do not dare to attempt any description of Eleanor's face when she first heard the name of Mrs. Slope pronounced as that which would or should or might at some time appertain to herself. The look, such as it was, Dr. Grantly did not soon forget. For a moment or two she could find no words to express her deep anger and deep disgust; indeed, at this conjuncture, words did not come to her very freely.
"How dare you be so impertinent?" at last she said, and then she hurried out of the room without giving the archdeacon the opportunity of uttering another word. It was with difficulty she contained herself till she reached her own room; and then, locking the door, she threw herself on her bed and sobbed as though her heart would break.
But even yet she had no conception of the truth. She had no idea that her father and her sister had for days past conceived in sober earnest the idea that she was going to marry this man. She did not even then believe that the archdeacon thought that she would do so. By some manoeuvre of her brain she attributed the origin of the accusation to Mr. Arabin, and as she did so her anger against him was excessive, and the vexation of her spirit almost unendurable. She could not bring herself to think that the charge was made seriously. It appeared to her most probable that the archdeacon and Mr. Arabin had talked over her objectionable acquaintance with Mr. Slope; that Mr. Arabin in his jeering, sarcastic way had suggested the odious match as being the severest way of treating with contumely her acquaintance with his enemy; and that the archdeacon, taking the idea from him, thought proper to punish her by the allusion. The whole night she lay awake thinking of what had been said, and this appeared to be the most probable solution.
But the reflexion that Mr. Arabin should have in any way mentioned her name in connexion with that of Mr. Slope was overpowering; and the spiteful ill-nature of the archdeacon in repeating the charge to her made her wish to leave his house almost before the day had broken. One thing was certain: nothing should make her stay there beyond the following morning, and nothing should make her sit down to breakfast in company with Dr. Grantly. When she thought of the man whose name had been linked with her own, she cried from sheer disgust. It was only because she would be thus disgusted, thus pained and shocked and cut to the quick, that the archdeacon had spoken the horrid word. He wanted to make her quarrel with Mr. Slope, and therefore he had outraged her by his abominable vulgarity. She determined that at any rate he should know that she appreciated it.
Nor was the archdeacon a bit better satisfied with the result of his serious interview than was Eleanor. He gathered from it, as indeed he could hardly fail to do, that she was very angry with him, but he thought that she was thus angry, not because she was suspected of an intention to marry Mr. Slope, but because such an intention was imputed to her as a crime. Dr. Grantly regarded this supposed union with disgust, but it never occurred to him that Eleanor was outraged because she looked at it exactly in the same light.
He returned to his wife, vexed and somewhat disconsolate, but nevertheless confirmed in his wrath against his sister-in-law. "Her whole behaviour," said he, "has been most objectionable. She handed me his love-letter to read as though she were proud of it. And she is proud of it. She is proud of having this slavering, greedy man at her feet. She will throw herself and John Bold's money into his lap; she will ruin her boy, disgrace her father and you, and be a wretched miserable woman."
His spouse, who was sitting at her toilet-table, continued her avocations, making no answer to all this. She had known that the archdeacon would gain nothing by interfering, but she was too charitable to provoke him by saying so while he was in such deep sorrow.
"This comes of a man making such a will as that of Bold's," he continued. "Eleanor is no more fitted to be trusted with such an amount of money in her own hands than is a charity-school girl." Still Mrs. Grantly made no reply. "But I have done my duty; I can do nothing further. I have told her plainly that she cannot be allowed to form a link of connexion between me and that man. From henceforward it will not be in my power to make her welcome at Plumstead. I cannot have Mr. Slope's love-letters coming here. Susan, I think you had better let her understand that, as her mind on this subject seems to be irrevocably fixed, it will be better for all parties that she should return to Barchester."
Now Mrs. Grantly was angry with Eleanor—nearly as angry as her husband—but she had no idea of turning her sister out of the house. She therefore at length spoke out and explained to the archdeacon in her own mild, seducing way that he was fuming and fussing and fretting himself very unnecessarily. She declared that things, if left alone, would arrange themselves much better than he could arrange them, and at last succeeded in inducing him to go to bed in a somewhat less inhospitable state of mind.
On the following morning Eleanor's maid was commissioned to send word into the dining-room that her mistress was not well enough to attend prayers and that she would breakfast in her own room. Here she was visited by her father, and declared to him her intention of returning immediately to Barchester. He was hardly surprised by the announcement. All the household seemed to be aware that something had gone wrong. Everyone walked about with subdued feet, and people's shoes seemed to creak more than usual. There was a look of conscious intelligence on the faces of the women, and the men attempted, but in vain, to converse as though nothing were the matter. All this had weighed heavily on the heart of Mr. Harding, and when Eleanor told him that her immediate return to Barchester was a necessity, he merely sighed piteously and said that he would be ready to accompany her.
But here she objected strenuously. She had a great wish, she said, to go alone; a great desire that it might be seen that her father was not implicated in her quarrel with Dr. Grantly. To this at last he gave way; but not a word passed between them about Mr. Slope—not a word was said, not a question asked as to the serious interview on the preceding evening. There was, indeed, very little confidence between them, though neither of them knew why it should be so. Eleanor once asked him whether he would not call upon the bishop, but he answered rather tartly that he did not know—he did not think he should, but he could not say just at present. And so they parted. Each was miserably anxious for some show of affection, for some return of confidence, for some sign of the feeling that usually bound them together. But none was given. The father could not bring himself to question his daughter about her supposed lover, and the daughter would not sully her mouth by repeating the odious word with which Dr. Grantly had roused her wrath. And so they parted.
There was some trouble in arranging the method of Eleanor's return. She begged her father to send for a post-chaise, but when Mrs. Grantly heard of this, she objected strongly. If Eleanor would go away in dudgeon with the archdeacon, why should she let all the servants and all the neighbourhood know that she had done so? So at last Eleanor consented to make use of the Plumstead carriage, and as the archdeacon had gone out immediately after breakfast and was not to return till dinner-time, she also consented to postpone her journey till after lunch, and to join the family at that time. As to the subject of the quarrel not a word was said by anyone. The affair of the carriage was arranged by Mr. Harding, who acted as Mercury between the two ladies; they, when they met, kissed each other very lovingly and then sat down each to her crochet work as though nothing was amiss in all the world.
Another Love Scene
But there was another visitor at the rectory whose feelings in this unfortunate matter must be somewhat strictly analysed. Mr. Arabin had heard from his friend of the probability of Eleanor's marriage with Mr. Slope with amazement, but not with incredulity. It has been said that he was not in love with Eleanor, and up to this period this certainly had been true. But as soon as he heard that she loved someone else, he began to be very fond of her himself. He did not make up his mind that he wished to have her for his wife; he had never thought of her, and did not now think of her, in connexion with himself; but he experienced an inward, indefinable feeling of deep regret, a gnawing sorrow, an unconquerable depression of spirits, and also a species of self-abasement that he—he, Mr. Arabin—had not done something to prevent that other he, that vile he whom he so thoroughly despised, from carrying off this sweet prize.
Whatever man may have reached the age of forty unmarried without knowing something of such feelings must have been very successful or else very cold-hearted.
Mr. Arabin had never thought of trimming the sails of his bark so that he might sail as convoy to this rich argosy. He had seen that Mrs. Bold was beautiful, but he had not dreamt of making her beauty his own. He knew that Mrs. Bold was rich, but he had had no more idea of appropriating her wealth than that of Dr. Grantly. He had discovered that Mrs. Bold was intelligent, warm-hearted, agreeable, sensible, all in fact that a man could wish his wife to be; but the higher were her attractions, the greater her claims to consideration, the less had he imagined that he might possibly become the possessor of them. Such had been his instinct rather than his thoughts, so humble and so diffident. Now his diffidence was to be rewarded by his seeing this woman, whose beauty was to his eyes perfect, whose wealth was such as to have deterred him from thinking of her, whose widowhood would have silenced him had he not been so deterred, by his seeing her become the prey of—Obadiah Slope!
On the morning of Mrs. Bold's departure he got on his horse to ride over to St. Ewold's. As he rode he kept muttering to himself a line from Van Artevelde,
How little flattering is woman's love.
And then he strove to recall his mind and to think of other affairs—his parish, his college, his creed—but his thoughts would revert to Mr. Slope and the Flemish chieftain.
When we think upon it, How little flattering is woman's love, Given commonly to whosoe'er is nearest And propped with most advantage.
It was not that Mrs. Bold should marry anyone but him—he had not put himself forward as a suitor—but that she should marry Mr. Slope; and so he repeated over again—
Outward grace Nor inward light is needful—day by day Men wanting both are mated with the best And loftiest of God's feminine creation, Whose love takes no distinction but of gender, And ridicules the very name of choice.
And so he went on, troubled much in his mind.
He had but an uneasy ride of it that morning, and little good did he do at St. Ewold's.
The necessary alterations in his house were being fast completed, and he walked through the rooms, and went up and down the stairs, and rambled through the garden, but he could not wake himself to much interest about them. He stood still at every window to look out and think upon Mr. Slope. At almost every window he had before stood and chatted with Eleanor. She and Mrs. Grantly had been there continually; and while Mrs. Grantly had been giving orders, and seeing that orders had been complied with, he and Eleanor had conversed on all things appertaining to a clergyman's profession. He thought how often he had laid down the law to her and how sweetly she had borne with his somewhat dictatorial decrees. He remembered her listening intelligence, her gentle but quick replies, her interest in all that concerned the church, in all that concerned him; and then he struck his riding-whip against the window-sill and declared to himself that it was impossible that Eleanor Bold should marry Mr. Slope.
And yet he did not really believe, as he should have done, that it was impossible. He should have known her well enough to feel that it was truly impossible. He should have been aware that Eleanor had that within her which would surely protect her from such degradation. But he, like so many others, was deficient in confidence in woman. He said to himself over and over again that it was impossible that Eleanor Bold should become Mrs. Slope, and yet he believed that she would do so. And so he rambled about, and could do and think of nothing. He was thoroughly uncomfortable, thoroughly ill at ease, cross with himself and everybody else, and feeding in his heart on animosity towards Mr. Slope. This was not as it should be, as he knew and felt, but he could not help himself. In truth Mr. Arabin was now in love with Mrs. Bold, though ignorant of the fact himself. He was in love and, though forty years old, was in love without being aware of it. He fumed and fretted and did not know what was the matter, as a youth might do at one-and-twenty. And so having done no good at St. Ewold's, he rode back much earlier than was usual with him, instigated by some inward, unacknowledged hope that he might see Mrs. Bold before she left.
Eleanor had not passed a pleasant morning. She was irritated with everyone, and not least with herself. She felt that she had been hardly used, but she felt also that she had not played her own cards well. She should have held herself so far above suspicion as to have received her sister's innuendoes and the archdeacon's lecture with indifference. She had not done this, but had shown herself angry and sore, and was now ashamed of her own petulance, yet unable to discontinue it.
The greater part of the morning she had spent alone, but after awhile her father joined her. He had fully made up his mind that, come what come might, nothing should separate him from his younger daughter. It was a hard task for him to reconcile himself to the idea of seeing her at the head of Mr. Slope's table, but he got through it. Mr. Slope, as he argued to himself, was a respectable man and a clergyman, and he, as Eleanor's father, had no right even to endeavour to prevent her from marrying such a one. He longed to tell her how he had determined to prefer her to all the world, how he was prepared to admit that she was not wrong, how thoroughly he differed from Dr. Grantly; but he could not bring himself to mention Mr. Slope's name. There was yet a chance that they were all wrong in their surmise, and being thus in doubt, he could not bring himself to speak openly to her on the subject.
He was sitting with her in the drawing-room, with his arm round her waist, saying every now and then some little soft words of affection and working hard with his imaginary fiddle-bow, when Mr. Arabin entered the room. He immediately got up, and the two made some trite remarks to each other, neither thinking of what he was saying, while Eleanor kept her seat on the sofa, mute and moody. Mr. Arabin was included in the list of those against whom her anger was excited. He, too, had dared to talk about her acquaintance with Mr. Slope; he, too, had dared to blame her for not making an enemy of his enemy. She had not intended to see him before her departure, and was now but little inclined to be gracious.
There was a feeling through the whole house that something was wrong. Mr. Arabin, when he saw Eleanor, could not succeed in looking or in speaking as though he knew nothing of all this. He could not be cheerful and positive and contradictory with her, as was his wont. He had not been two minutes in the room before he felt that he had done wrong to return; and the moment he heard her voice, he thoroughly wished himself back at St. Ewold's. Why, indeed, should he have wished to have aught further to say to the future wife of Mr. Slope?
"I am sorry to hear that you are to leave us so soon," said he, striving in vain to use his ordinary voice. In answer to this she muttered something about the necessity of her being in Barchester, and betook herself most industriously to her crochet work.
Then there was a little more trite conversation between Mr. Arabin and Mr. Harding—trite, and hard, and vapid, and senseless. Neither of them had anything to say to the other, and yet neither at such a moment liked to remain silent. At last Mr. Harding, taking advantage of a pause, escaped out of the room, and Eleanor and Mr. Arabin were left together.
"Your going will be a great break-up to our party," said he.
She again muttered something which was all but inaudible, but kept her eyes fixed upon her work.
"We have had a very pleasant month here," said he; "at least I have; and I am sorry it should be so soon over."
"I have already been from home longer than I intended," said she, "and it is time that I should return."
"Well, pleasant hours and pleasant days must come to an end. It is a pity that so few of them are pleasant; or perhaps, rather—"
"It is a pity, certainly, that men and women do so much to destroy the pleasantness of their days," said she, interrupting him. "It is a pity that there should be so little charity abroad."
"Charity should begin at home," said he, and he was proceeding to explain that he as a clergyman could not be what she would call charitable at the expense of those principles which he considered it his duty to teach, when he remembered that it would be worse than vain to argue on such a matter with the future wife of Mr. Slope. "But you are just leaving us," he continued, "and I will not weary your last hour with another lecture. As it is, I fear I have given you too many."
"You should practise as well as preach, Mr. Arabin."
"Undoubtedly I should. So should we all. All of us who presume to teach are bound to do our utmost towards fulfilling our own lessons. I thoroughly allow my deficiency in doing so, but I do not quite know now to what you allude. Have you any special reason for telling me now that I should practise as well as preach?"
Eleanor made no answer. She longed to let him know the cause of her anger, to upbraid him for speaking of her disrespectfully, and then at last to forgive him, and so part friends. She felt that she would be unhappy to leave him in her present frame of mind, but yet she could hardly bring herself to speak to him of Mr. Slope. And how could she allude to the innuendo thrown out by the archdeacon, and thrown out, as she believed, at the instigation of Mr. Arabin? She wanted to make him know that he was wrong, to make him aware that he had ill-treated her, in order that the sweetness of her forgiveness might be enhanced. She felt that she liked him too well to be contented to part with him in displeasure, yet she could not get over her deep displeasure without some explanation, some acknowledgement on his part, some assurance that he would never again so sin against her.
"Why do you tell me that I should practise what I preach?" continued he.
"All men should do so."
"Certainly. That is as it were understood and acknowledged. But you do not say so to all men, or to all clergymen. The advice, good as it is, is not given except in allusion to some special deficiency. If you will tell me my special deficiency, I will endeavour to profit by the advice."