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CHAPTER XV THE WIDOW'S SUITORS
Mr Slope lost no time in availing himself of the bishop's permission to see Mr Quiverful, and it was in his interview with this worthy pastor that he first learned that Mrs Bold was worth the wooing. He rode out to Puddingdale to communicate to the embryo warden the good will of the bishop in his favour, and during the discussion on the matter, it was unnatural that the pecuniary resources of Mr Harding and his family should become the subject of remark.
Mr Quiverful, with his fourteen children and his four hundred a year, was a very poor man, and the prospect of this new preferment, which was to be held together with his living, was very grateful to him. To what clergyman so circumstanced would not such a prospect be very grateful? But Mr Quiverful had long been acquainted with Mr Harding, and had received kindness at his hands, so that his heart misgave him as he thought of supplanting a friend at the hospital. Nevertheless, he was extremely civil, cringingly civil, to Mr Slope; treated him quite as the great man; entreated this great man to do him the honour to drink a glass of sherry, at which, as it was very poor Marsala, the now pampered Slope turned up his nose; and ended by declaring his extreme obligation to the bishop and Mr Slope, and his great desire to accept the hospital, if - if it were certainly the case that Mr Harding had refused it.
What man, as needy as Mr Quiverful, would have been more disinterested?
'Mr Harding did positively refuse it,' said Mr Slope, with a certain air of offended dignity, 'when he heard of the conditions to which the appointment is now subjected. Of course, you understand, Mr Quiverful, that the same conditions will be imposed on yourself.'
Mr Quiverful cared nothing for the conditions. He would have undertaken to preach any number of sermons Mr Slope might have chosen to dictate, and to pass every remaining hour of his Sundays within the walls of a Sunday school. What sacrifices, or, at any rate, what promises, would have been too much to make for such an addition to his income, and for such a house! But his mind still recurred to Mr Harding.
'To be sure,' said he; 'Mr Harding's daughter is very rich, and why should he trouble himself with the hospital?'
'You mean Mrs Grantly,' said Slope.
'I meant the widowed daughter,' said the other. 'Mrs Bold has twelve hundred a year of her own, and I suppose Mr Harding means to live with her.'
'Twelve hundred a year of her own!' said Slope, and very shortly afterwards took his leave, avoiding, as far as it was possible for him to do, any further allusion to the hospital. Twelve hundred a year, said he to himself, as he rode slowly home. If it were the fact that Mrs Bold had twelve hundred a year of her own, what a fool would he be to oppose her father's return to his old place. The train of Mr Slope's ideas will probably be plain to all my readers. Why should he not make the twelve hundred a year his own? And if he did so, would it not be well for him to have a father-in-law comfortably provided with the good things of this world? Would it not, moreover, be much more easy for him to gain his daughter, if he did all in his power to forward his father's views?
These questions presented themselves to him in a very forcible way, and yet there were many points of doubt. If he resolved to restore to Mr Harding his former place, he must take the necessary steps for doing so at once; he must immediately talk over the bishop, quarrel on the matter with Mrs Proudie whom he knew he could not talk over, and let Mr Quiverful know that he had been a little too precipitate as to Mr Harding's positive refusal. That he could effect all this, he did not doubt; but he did not wish to effect it for nothing. He did not wish to give way to Mr Harding, and then be rejected by the daughter. He did not wish to lose one influential friend before he had gained another.
And thus he rode home, meditating the many things in his mind. It occurred to him that Mrs Bold was sister-in-law to the archdeacon; and that not even for twelve hundred a year would he submit to that imperious man. A rich wife was a great desideratum to him, but success in his profession was still greater; there were, moreover, other rich women who might be willing to become wives; and after all, this twelve hundred a year might, when inquired into, melt away into some small sum utterly beneath his notice. Then also he remembered that Mrs Bold had a son.
Another circumstance also much influenced him, though it was one which may almost be said to have influenced him against his will. The vision of Signora Neroni was perpetually before his eyes. It would be too much to say that Mr Slope was lost in love, but yet he thought, and kept continually thinking, that he had never seen so beautiful a woman. He was a man whose nature was open to such impulses, and the wiles of the Italianised charmer had been thoroughly successful in imposing upon his thoughts. We will not talk of his heart: not that he had no heart, but because his heart had little to do with his present feelings. His taste had been pleased, his eyes charmed, and his vanity gratified. He had been dazzled by a sort of loveliness which he had never before seen, and had been caught by an easy, free, voluptuous manner which was perfectly new to him. He had never been so tempted before, and the temptation was now irresistible. He had not owned to himself that he cared for this woman more than for others around him; but yet he thought often of the time when he might see her next, and made, almost unconsciously, little cunning plans for seeing her frequently.
He had called at Dr Stanhope's house the day after the bishop's party, and then the warmth of his admiration had been fed with fresh fuel. If the signora had been kind in her manner, and flattering in her speech when lying upon the bishop's sofa, with the eyes of so many on her, she had been much more so in her mother's drawing-room, with no one present but her sister to repress either her nature or her art. Mr Slope had thus left her quite bewildered, and could not willingly admit into his brain any scheme, a part of which would be the necessity of abandoning all further special relationship with this lady.
And so he slowly rode along very meditative.
And here the author must beg it to be remembered that Mr Slope was not in all things a bad man. His motives, like those of most men, were mixed; and though his conduct was generally very different from that which we would wish to praise, it was actuated perhaps as often as that of the majority of the world by a desire to do his duty. He believed in the religion which he taught, harsh, unpalatable, uncharitable as that religion was. He believed those whom he wished to get under his hoof, the Grantlys and Gwynnes of the church, to be the enemies of that religion. He believed himself to be the pillar of strength, destined to do great things; and with that subtle, selfish, ambiguous sophistry to which the minds of all men are so subject, he had taught himself to think that in doing much for the promotion of his own interests he was doing much also for the promotion of religion. Mr Slope had never been an immoral man. Indeed, he had resisted temptations to immorality with a strength of purpose that was creditable to him. He had early in life devoted himself to works which were not compatible with the ordinary pleasures of youth, and he had abandoned such pleasures not without a struggle. It must therefore be conceived that he did not admit to himself that he warmly admired the beauty of a married woman without heartfelt stings of conscience; and to pacify that conscience, he had to teach himself that the nature of his admiration was innocent.
And thus he rode along meditative and ill at ease. His conscience had not a word to say against his choosing the widow and her fortune. That he looked upon as a godly work rather than otherwise; as a deed which, if carried through, would redound to his credit as a Christian. On that side lay no future remorse, no conduct which he might probably have to forget, no inward stings. If it should turn out to be really the fact that Mrs Bold had twelve hundred a year at her own disposal, Mr Slope would rather look upon it as a duty which he owed his religion to make himself the master of the wife and the money; as a duty, too, in which some amount of self-sacrifice would be necessary. He would have to give up his friendship with the signora, his resistance to Mr Harding, his antipathy - no, he found on mature self-examination, that he could not bring himself to give up his antipathy to Dr Grantly. He would marry the lady as the enemy of her brother-in-law, if such an arrangement suited her; if not, she must look elsewhere for a husband.
It was with such resolve as this that he reached Barchester. He would at once ascertain what the truth might be as to the lady's wealth, and having done this, he would be ruled by circumstances in his conduct respecting the hospital. If he found that he could turn round and secure the place for Mr Harding without much self-sacrifice, he would do so; but if not, he would woo the daughter in opposition to the father. But in no case would he succumb to the archdeacon.
He saw his horse taken round to the stable, and immediately went forth to commence his inquiries. To give Mr Slope his due, he was not a man who ever let much grass grow under his feet.
Poor Eleanor! She was doomed to be the intended victim of more schemes than one.
About the time that Mr Slope was visiting the vicar of Puddingdale, a discussion took place respecting her charms and wealth at Dr Stanhope's house in the close. There had been morning callers there, and people had told some truth and also some falsehood respecting the property which John Bold had left behind him. By degrees the visitors went, and as the doctor went with them, and as the doctor's wife had not made her appearance, Charlotte Stanhope and her brother were left together. He was sitting idly at the table, scrawling caricatures of Barchester notable, then yawning, then turning over a book or two, and evidently at a loss how kill some time without much labour.
'You haven't done much, Bertie, about getting any orders,' said his sister.
'Orders!' said he; 'who on earth is there at Barchester to give some orders? Who among the people here could possibly think it worth his while to have his head done into marble?'
'Then you mean to give up your profession,' said she.
'No, I don't,' said he, going on with some absurd portrait of the bishop. 'Look at that, Lotte; isn't it the little man all over, apron and all? I'd go on with my profession at once, as you call it, if the governor would set me up with a studio in London; but as to sculpture at Barchester - I suppose half the people here don't know what a torso means.'
'The governor will not give you a shilling to start you in London,' said Lotte. 'Indeed, he can't give you what would be sufficient, for he has not got it. But you might start yourself very well, if you pleased.'
'How the deuce am I to do it?' said he.
'To tell you the truth, Bertie, you'll never make a penny by any profession.'
'That's what I often think myself,' said he, not in the least offended. 'Some men have a great gift of making money, but they can't spend it. Others can't put two shillings together, but they have a great talent for all sorts of outlay. I begin to think that my genius is wholly in the latter line.'
'How do you mean to live then?' asked the sister.
'I suppose I must regard myself as a young raven, and look for heavenly manna; besides, we have all got something when the governor goes.'
'Yes - you'll have enough to supply yourself with gloves and boots; that is, if the Jews have not got the possession of it all. I believe they have the most of it already. I wonder, Bertie, at your indifference; that you, with your talents and personal advantages, should never try to settle yourself in life. I look forward with dread to the time when the governor must go. Mother, and Madeline, and I, - we shall be poor enough, but you will have absolutely nothing.'
'Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof,' said Bertie.
'Will you take my advice?' said the sister.
'Cela depend,' said the brother.
'Will you marry a wife with money?'
'At any rate,' said he, 'I won't marry one without; wives with money a'nt so easy to get now-a-days; the parsons pick them all up.'
'And a parson will pick up the wife I meant for you, if you do not look quickly about it; the wife I mean is Mrs Bold.'
'Whew-w-w-w!' whistled Bertie, 'a widow!'
'She is very beautiful,' said Charlotte.
'With a son and heir already to my hand,' said Bertie.
'A baby that will very likely die,' said Charlotte.
'I don't see that,' said Bertie. 'But however, he may live for me - I don't wish to kill him; only, it must be owned that a ready-made family is a drawback.'
'There is only one after all,' pleaded Charlotte.
'And that a very little one, as the maid-servant said,' rejoined Bertie.
'Beggars mustn't be choosers, Bertie; you can't have everything.'
'God knows I am not unreasonable,' said he, 'nor yet opinionated; and if you'll arrange it for me, Lotte, I'll marry the lady. Only mark this: the money must be sure, and the income at my own disposal, at any rate for the lady's life.'
Charlotte was explaining to her brother that he must make love for himself if he meant to carry on the matter, and was encouraging him to so, by warm eulogiums on Eleanor's beauty, when the signora was brought into the drawing-room. When at home, and subject to the gaze of none but her own family, she allowed herself to be dragged about by two persons, and her two bearers now deposited her on the sofa. She was not quite so grand in her apparel as she had been at the bishop's party, but yet she was dressed with much care, and though there was a look of care and pain about her eyes, she, was, even by daylight, extremely beautiful.
'Well, Madeline; so I'm going to be married,' Bertie began, as soon as the servants had withdrawn.
'There's no other foolish thing left, that you haven't done,' said Madeline, 'and therefore you are quite right to try that.'
'Oh, you think it's a foolish thing, do you?' said he. 'There's Lotte advising me to marry by all means. But on such a subject your opinion ought to be the best; you have experience to guide you.'
'Yes, I have,' said Madeline, with a sort of harsh sadness in her tone, which seemed to say - What is it to you if I am sad? I have never asked your sympathy.
Bertie was sorry when he saw that she was hurt by what he said, and he came and squatted on the floor close before her face to make his peace with her.
'Come, Mad, I was only joking; you know that. But in sober earnest, Lotte is advising me to marry. She wants me to marry Mrs Bold. She's a widow with lots of tin, a fine baby, a beautiful complexion, and the George and Dragon hotel up in High Street. By Jove, Lotte, if I marry her, I'll keep the public house myself - it's just the life that suits me.'
'What?' said Madeline, 'that vapid swarthy creature in the widow's cap, who looked as though her clothes had been stuck on her back with a pitchfork!' The signora never allowed any woman to be beautiful.
'Instead of being vapid,' said Lotte, 'I call her a very lovely woman. She was by far the loveliest woman in the rooms the other night; that is, excepting you, Madeline.'
Even the compliment did not soften the asperity of the maimed beauty. 'Every woman is charming according to Lotte,' she said; 'I never knew an eye with so little true appreciation. In the first place, what woman on earth could look well in such a thing as that she had on her head?'
'Of course she wears a widow's cap; but she'll put that off when Bertie marries her.'
'I don't see any "of course" in it,' said Madeline. 'The death of twenty husbands should not make me undergo such a penance. It is as much a relic of paganism as the sacrifice of a Hindu woman at the burning of her husband's body. If not so bloody, it is quite as barbarous, and quite as useless.'
'But you don't blame her for that,' said Bertie. 'She does it because it's the custom of the country. People would think ill of her if she didn't do it.'
'Exactly,' said Madeline. 'She is just one of those English nonentities who would tie her head up in a bag for three months every summer, if her mother and her grandmother had tied up their heads before her. It would never occur to her, to think whether there was any use in submitting to such a nuisance.'
'It's very hard, in a country like England, for a young woman to set herself in opposition to the prejudices of that sort,' said the prudent Charlotte.
'What you mean is, that it's very hard for a fool not to be a fool,' said Madeline.
Bertie Stanhope had so much knocked about the world from his earliest years, that he had not retained much respect for the gravity of English customs; but even to his mind an idea presented itself, that, perhaps in a wife, true British prejudice would not in the long run be less agreeable than Anglo-Italian freedom from restraint. He did not exactly say so, but he expressed the idea in another way.
'I fancy,' said he, 'that if I were to die, and then walk, I should think that my widow looked better in one of those caps than any other kind of head-dress.'
'Yes - and you'd fancy also that she could do nothing better than shut herself up and cry for you, or else burn herself. But she would think differently. She'd probably wear one of those horrid she-helmets, because she'd want the courage not to do so; but she'd wear it with a heart longing for the time when she might be allowed to throw it off. I hate such shallow false pretences. For my part, I would let the world say what it pleased, and show no grief if I felt none; - and perhaps not, if I did.'
'But wearing a widow's cap won't lessen her fortune,' said Charlotte.
'Or increase it,' said Madeline. 'Then why on earth does she do it?'
'But Lotte's object is to make her put it off,' said Bertie.
'If it be true that she has got twelve hundred a year quite at her own disposal, and she be not utterly vulgar in her manners, I would advise you to marry her. I dare say she is to be had for the asking; and as you are not going to marry her for love, it doesn't much matter whether she is good-looking or not. As to your really marrying a woman for love, I don't believe you are fool enough for that.'
'Oh, Madeline!' cried her sister.
'And oh, Charlotte!' said the other.
'You don't mean to say that no man can love a woman unless he is a fool?'
'I mean very much the same thing, - that any man who is willing to sacrifice his interest to get possession of a pretty face is a fool. Pretty faces are to be had cheaper than that. I hate your mawkish sentimentality, Lotte. You know as well as I do in what way husbands and wives generally live together; you know how far the warmth of conjugal affection can withstand the trial of a bad dinner, of a rainy day, or of the least privation which poverty brings with it; you know what freedom a man claims for himself, what slavery he would exact from his wife if he could! And you know also how wives generally obey. Marriage means tyranny on one side and deceit on the other. I say that a man is a fool to sacrifice his interests for such a bargain. A woman, too generally, has no other way of living.'
'But Bertie has no other way of living,' said Charlotte.
'Then, in God's name, let him marry Mrs Bold,' said Madeline. And so it was settled between them.
But let the gentle-hearted reader be under no apprehension whatsoever. It is not destined that Eleanor shall marry Mr Slope or Bertie Stanhope. And here, perhaps, it may be allowed to the novelist to explain his views on a very important point in the art of telling tales. He ventures to reprobate that system which goes so far to violate all proper confidence between the author and his readers, by maintaining nearly to the end of the third volume a mystery as to the fate of their favourite personage. Nay, more, and worse than this, is too frequently done. Have not often the profoundest efforts of genius been used to baffle the aspirations of the reader, to raise false hopes and false fears, and to give rise to expectations which are never realised? Are not promises all but made of delightful horrors, in lieu of which the writer produces nothing but commonplace realities in his final chapter? And is there not a species of deceit in this to which the honesty of the present age should lend no countenance?
And what can be the worth of that solicitude which a peep into the third volume can utterly dissipate? What the value of those literary charms which are absolutely destroyed by their enjoyment? When we have once learnt what was the picture before which was hung Mrs Radcliffe's solemn curtain, we feel no further interest about either the frame or the veil. They are to us, merely a receptacle for old bones, and inappropriate coffin, which we would wish to have decently buried out of our sight.
And then, how grievous a thing it is to have the pleasure of your novel destroyed by the ill-considered triumph of a previous reader. 'Oh, you needn't be alarmed, for Augusta, of course, she accepts Gustavus in the end.' 'How very ill-natured you are, Susan,' says Kitty, with tears in her eyes; 'I don't care a bit about it now.' Dear Kitty, if you will read my book, you may defy the ill-nature of your sister. There shall be no secret that she can tell you. Nay, take the last chapter, if you please - learn from its pages all the results of our troubled story, and the story shall have lost none of its interest, if indeed, there be any interest in it to lose.
Our doctrine is, that the author and the reader should move along together in full confidence with each other. Let the personages of the drama undergo ever so completely a comedy of errors among themselves, but let the spectator never mistake the Syracusan for the Ephesian; otherwise he is one of the dupes, and the part of a dupe is never dignified.
I would not for the value of this chapter have it believed by a single reader that my Eleanor could bring herself to marry Mr Slope, or that she should be sacrificed to a Bertie Stanhope. But among the good folk of Barchester many believed both the one and the other.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER XVI BABY WORSHIP