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CHAPTER XVIII THE WIDOW'S PERSECUTION
Early on the following morning, Mr Slope was summoned to the bishop's dressing-room, and went there fully expecting that he should find his lordship very indignant, and spirited up by his wife to repeat the rebuke which she had administered on the previous day. Mr Slope had resolved that at any rate from him he would not stand it, and entered the dressing-room in rather a combative disposition; but he found the bishop in the most placid and gentle of humours. His lordship complained of being rather unwell, had a slight headache, and was not quite the thing in his stomach; but there was nothing the matter with his temper.
'Oh, Slope,' said he, taking the chaplain's proffered hand. 'Archdeacon Grantly is to call on me this morning, and I really am not fit to see him. I fear I must trouble you to see him for me;' and then Dr Proudie proceeded to explain what it was that must be said to Dr Grantly. He was to be told in fact in the civilest words in which the tidings could be conveyed, that Mr Harding having refused the wardenship, the appointment had been offered to Mr Quiverful and accepted by him.
Mr Slope again pointed out to his patron that he thought he was perhaps not quite wise in his decision, and this he did sotto voce. But even with this precaution it was not safe to say much, and during the little that he did say, the bishop made a very slight, but still a very ominous gesture with his thumb towards the door which opened from his dressing-room to some inner sanctuary. Mr Slope at once took the hint and said no more; but he perceived that there was to be confidence between him and his patron, that the league desired by him was to be made, and that this appointment of Mr Quiverful was to be the sacrifice offered on the altar of conjugal obedience. All this Mr Slope read in the slight motion of the bishop's thumb, and he read it correctly. There was no need of parchments and seals, of attestations, explanations, and professions. The bargain was understood between them, and Mr Slope gave the bishop his hand upon it. The bishop understood the little extra squeeze, and an intelligible gleam of assent twinkled in his eye.
'Pray be civil to the archdeacon, Mr Slope,' said he out loud; 'but make him quite understand that in this matter Mr Harding has put it out of my power to oblige him.'
It would be calumny on Mrs Proudie to suggest that she was sitting in her bed-room with her ear at the keyhole during this interview. She had within her a spirit of decorum which prevented her from descending to such baseness. To put her ear to a key-hole or to listen at a chink, was a trick for a housemaid.
Mrs Proudie knew this, and therefore she did not do it; but she stationed herself as near to the door as she well could, that she might, if possible, get the advantage which the housemaid would have had, without descending to the housemaid's artifice.
It was little, however, that she heard, and that little was only sufficient to deceive her. She saw nothing of that friendly pressure, perceived nothing of that concluded bargain; she did not even dream of the treacherous resolves which those two false men had made together to upset her in the pride of her station, to dash the cup from her lip before she had drank of it, to seep away all her power before she had tasted its sweets! Traitors that they were; the husband of her bosom, and the outcast whom she had fostered and brought into the warmth of the world's brightest fireside! But neither of them had the magnanimity of this woman. Though two men have thus leagued themselves together against her, even yet the battle is not lost.
Mr Slope felt pretty sure that Dr Grantly would decline the honour of seeing him, and such turned out to be the case. The archdeacon, when the palace door was opened to him, was greeted by a note. Mr Slope presented his compliments &c, &c. The bishop was ill in his room, and very greatly regretted, &c &c. Mr Slope had been charged with the bishop's views, and if agreeable to the archdeacon, would do himself the honour &c, &c. The archdeacon, however, was not agreeable, and having read his note in the hall, crumpled it up in his hand, and muttering something about sorrow for his lordship's illness, took his leave, without sending as much as a verbal message in answer to Mr Slope's note.
'Ill!' said the archdeacon to himself as he flung himself into his brougham. 'The man is absolutely a coward. He is afraid to see me. Ill, indeed!' The archdeacon was never ill himself, and did not therefore understand that any one else could in truth be prevented by illness from keeping an appointment. He regarded all such excuses as subterfuges, and in the present instance he was not far wrong.
Dr Grantly desired to be driven to his father-in-law's lodgings in the High Street, and hearing from the servant that Mr Harding was at his daughter's, followed him to Mrs Bold's house, and there he found him. The archdeacon was fuming with rage when he got into the drawing-room, and had by this time nearly forgotten the pusillanimity of the bishop in the villainy of the chaplain.
'Look at that,' said he, throwing Mr Slope's crumpled note to Mr Harding. 'I am to be told that if I choose I may have the honour of seeing Mr Slope, and that too, after a positive engagement with the bishop.'
'But he says the bishop is ill,' said Mr Harding.
'Pshaw! You don't mean to say that you are deceived by such an excuse as that. He was well enough yesterday. Now I tell you what, I will see the bishop; and I will tell him also very plainly what I think of his conduct. I will see him, or else Barchester will soon be too hot to hold him.'
Eleanor was sitting in the room, but Dr Grantly had hardly noticed her in his anger. Eleanor now said to him, with the greatest innocence, 'I wish you had seen Mr Slope, Dr Grantly, because I think perhaps it might have done good.'
The archdeacon turned on her with almost brutal wrath. Had she at once owned that she had accepted Mr Slope for her second husband, he could hardly have felt more convinced of her belonging body and soul to the Slope and Proudie party than he now did on hearing her express such a wish as this. Poor Eleanor!
'See him,' said the archdeacon, glaring at her; 'and why am I be called on to lower myself in the world's esteem an my own by coming in contact with such a man as that? I have hitherto lived among gentlemen, and do not mean to be dragged into other company by anybody.'
Poor Mr Harding knew well what the archdeacon meant, but Eleanor was as innocent as her own baby. She could not understand how the archdeacon could consider himself to be dragged into bad company by condescending to speak to Mr Slope for a few minutes when the interests of her father might be served by doing so.
'I was talking for a full hour yesterday with Mr Slope,' said she, with some little assumption of dignity, 'and I did not find myself to be lowered by it.'
'Perhaps not,' said he. 'But if you'll be good enough to allow me, I shall judge for myself in such matters. And I tell you what, Eleanor; it will be much better for you if you will allow yourself to be guided also by the advice of those who are your friends. If you do not you will be apt to find you have no friends left who can advise you.'
Eleanor blushed up to the roots of her hair. But even now she had not the slightest idea of what was passing in the archdeacon's mind. No thought of love-making or love-receiving had yet found its way to her heart since the death of poor John Bold; and if it were possible that such a thought should spring there, the man must be far different from Mr Slope that could give it birth.
Nevertheless Eleanor blushed deeply, for she felt she was charged with improper conduct, and she did so with the more inward pain because her father did not instantly rally to her side; that father for whose sake and love she had submitted to be the receptacle of Mr Slope's confidence. She had given a detailed account of all that had passed to her father; and though he had not absolutely agreed with her about Mr Slope's views touching the hospital, yet he had said nothing to make her think that she had been wrong in talking to him.
She was far too angry to humble herself before her brother- in-law. Indeed, she had never accustomed herself to be very abject before him, and they had never been confidential allies. 'I do not in the least understand what you mean, Dr Grantly,' said she. 'I do not know that I can accuse myself of doing anything that my friends should disapprove. Mr Slope called here expressly to ask what papa's views were about the hospital; and as I believe he called with friendly intentions I told him.'
'Friendly intentions!' sneered the archdeacon.
'I believe you greatly wrong Mr Slope,' continued Eleanor; 'but I have explained this to papa already; and as you do not seem to approve of what I say, Dr Grantly, I will with your permission leave you and papa together,' and so saying she walked out of the room.
All this made Mr Harding very unhappy. It was quite clear that the archdeacon and his wife had made up their minds that Eleanor was going to marry Mr Slope. Mr Harding could not really bring himself to think that she would do so, but yet he could not deny that circumstances made it appear that the man's company was not disagreeable to her. She was now constantly seeing him, and yet she received visits from no other unmarried gentleman. She always took his part when his conduct was canvassed, although she was aware how personally objectionable he was to her friends. Then, again, Mr Harding felt that if she should choose to become Mrs Slope, he had nothing that he could justly against her doing so. She had full right to please herself, and he, as a father could not say that she would disgrace herself by marrying a clergyman who stood so well before the world as Mr Slope did. As for quarrelling with his daughter on account of such a marriage, and separating himself from her as the archdeacon had threatened to do, that, with Mr Harding, would be out of the question. If she should determine to marry this man, he must get over his aversion as best he could. His Eleanor, his own old companion in their old happy home, must still be friend of his bosom, the child of his heart. Let who would cast her off, he would not. If it were fated, that he should have to sit in his old age at the same table with a man whom of all men he disliked the most, he would meet his fate as best he might. Anything to him would be preferable to the loss of his daughter.
Such being his feelings, he hardly knew how to take part with Eleanor against the archdeacon, or with the archdeacon against Eleanor. It will be said that he should never have suspected her. Alas! he never should have done so. But Mr Harding was by no means a perfect character. His indecision, his weakness, his proneness to be led by others, his want of self-confidence, he was very far from being perfect. And then it must be remembered that such a marriage as that which the archdeacon contemplated with disgust, which we who know Mr Slope so well would regard with equal disgust, did not appear so monstrous to Mr Harding, because in his charity he did not hate the chaplain as the archdeacon did, and as we do.
He was, however, very unhappy when his daughter left the room, and he had recourse to an old trick of his that was customary to him in his times of sadness. He began playing some slow tune upon an imaginary violoncello, drawing one hand slowly backwards and forwards as though he held a bow in it, and modulating the unreal chords with the other.
'She'll marry that man as sure as two and two makes four,' said the practical archdeacon.
'I hope not, I hope not,' said the father. 'But if she does, what can I say to her? I have no right to object to him.'
'No right!' exclaimed Dr Grantly.
'No right as her father. He is in my own profession, and for aught we know a good man.'
To this the archdeacon would by no means assent. It was not well, however, to argue the case against Eleanor in her own drawing-room, and so they both walked forth and discussed the matter in all the bearings under the elm trees of the close. Mr Harding also explained to his son-in-law what had been the purport, at any rate the alleged purport, of Mr Slope's last visit to the widow. He, however, stated that he could not bring himself to believe that Mr Slope had any real anxiety such as that he had pretended. 'I cannot forget his demeanour to myself,' said Mr Harding, 'and it is not possible that his ideas should have changed so soon.'
'I see it all,' said the archdeacon. 'The sly tartufe! He thinks to buy the daughter by providing for the father. He means to show how powerful he is, how good he is, and how much he is willing to do for her beaux yeux; yes, I see it all now. But we'll be too many for him yet, Mr Harding;' he said, turning to his companion with some gravity, and pressing his hand on the other's arm. 'It would, perhaps, be better for you to lose the hospital than get it on such terms.'
'Lose it!' said Mr Harding; 'why I've lost it already. I don't want it. I've made up my mind to do without it. I'll withdraw altogether. I'll just go and write a line to the bishop and tell him that I withdraw my claim altogether.'
Nothing would have pleased him better than to be allowed to escape from the trouble and difficulty in such a manner. But he was now going too fast for the archdeacon.
'No - no - no! We'll do no such thing,' said Dr Grantly; 'we'll still have the hospital. I hardly doubt but that we'll have it. But not by Mr Slope's assistance. If that be necessary, we'll lose it; but we'll have it, spite of his teeth, if we can. Arabin will be at Plumstead to-morrow; you must come over and talk to him.'
The two now turned into the cathedral library, which was used by the clergymen of the close as a sort of ecclesiastical club-room, for writing sermons and sometimes letters; also for reading theological works, and sometimes magazines and newspapers. The theological works were not disturbed, perhaps, quite as often as from the appearance of the building the outside public might have been led to expect. Here the two allies settled on their course of action. The archdeacon wrote a letter to the bishop, strongly worded, but still respectful, in which he put forward his father-in-law's claim to the appointment, and expressed his own regret that he had not been able to see his lordship when he called. Of Mr Slope me made no mention whatsoever. It was then settled that Mr Harding should go to Plumstead on the following day; and after considerable discussion on the matter, the archdeacon proposed to ask Eleanor there also, so as to withdraw her, if possible, from Mr Slope's attentions. 'A week or two,' said he, 'may teach her what he is, and while she is there she will be out of harm's way. Mr Slope won't come there after her.'
Eleanor was not a little surprised when her brother-in-law came back and very civilly pressed her to go out to Plumstead with her father. She instantly perceived that her father had been fighting her battles for her behind her back. She felt thankful to him, and for his sake she would not show her resentment to the archdeacon by refusing his invitation. But she could not, she said, go on the morrow; she had an invitation to drink tea at the Stanhopes which she had promised to accept. She would, she added, go with her father on the next day, if he would wait; or she would follow him.
'The Stanhopes!' said Dr Grantly; 'I did not know you were so intimate with them.'
'I did not know it myself,' said she, 'till Miss Stanhope called yesterday. However, I like her very much, and I have promised to go and play chess with some of them.'
'Have they a party there?' said the archdeacon, still fearful of Mr Slope.
'Oh, no,' said Eleanor; 'Miss Stanhope said there was to be nobody at all. But she had learnt that Mary had left me for a few weeks, and she had learnt from some one that I play chess, and so she came over on purpose to ask me to go in.'
'Well, that's very friendly,' said the ex-warden. 'They certainly do look more like foreigners than English people, but I dare say they are none the worse for that.'
The archdeacon was inclined to look upon the Stanhopes with favourable eyes, and had nothing to object on the matter. It was therefore arranged that Mr Harding should postpone his visit to Plumstead for one day, and then take with him Eleanor, the baby, and the nurse.
Mr Slope is certainly becoming of some importance in Barchester.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER XIX BARCHESTER BY MOONLIGHT