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CHAPTER XXIV MR SLOPE'S MANAGES MATTERS VERY CLEVERLY AT PUDDINGDALE
The next two weeks passed pleasantly enough at Plumstead. The whole party there assembled seemed to get on well together. Eleanor made the house agreeable, and the archdeacon and Mrs Grantly seemed to have forgotten her injury as regarded Mr Slope. Mr Harding had his violoncello, and played to them while his daughters accompanied him. Johnny Bold, by the help either of Mr Rerechild or else by that of his coral and carrot-juice, got through his teething troubles. There had been gaieties too of all sorts. They had dined at Ullathorne, and the Thornes had dined at the rectory. Eleanor had been duly put to stand on her box, and in that position had found herself quite unable to express her opinion on the merits of flounces, such having been the subject given to try her elocution. Mr Arabin had of course been much in his own parish, looking to the doings at his vicarage, calling on his parishioners, and taking on himself the duties of his new calling. But still he had been every evening at Plumstead, and Mrs Grantly was partly willing to agree with her husband that he was a pleasant inmate in a house.
They had also been at a dinner party at Dr Stanhope's, of which Mr Arabin had made one. He also, moth-like, burnt his wings in the flames of the signora's candle. Mrs Bold, too, had been there, and had felt somewhat displeased with the taste, want of taste she called it, shown by Mr Arabin in paying so much attention to Madame Neroni. It was as infallible that Madeline should displease and irritate the women, as that she should charm and captivate the men. The one result followed naturally on the other. It was quite true that Mr Arabin had been charmed. He thought her a very clever and a very handsome woman; he thought also that her peculiar afflictions entitled her to the sympathy of all. He had never, he said, met so much suffering joined to such perfect beauty and so clear a mind. 'Twas thus he spoke of the signora coming home in the archdeacon's carriage; and Eleanor by no means liked to hear the praise. It was, however, exceedingly unjust of her to be angry with Mr Arabin, as she had herself spent a very pleasant evening with Bertie Stanhope, who had taken her down to dinner, and had not left her side for one moment after the gentlemen came out of the dining-room. It was unfair that she should amuse herself with Bertie and yet begrudge her new friend his licence of amusing himself with Bertie's sister. And yet she did so. She was half angry with him in the carriage, and said something about meretricious manners. Mr Arabin did not understand the ways of women very well, or else he might have flattered himself that Eleanor was in love with him.
But Eleanor was not in love with him. How many shades there are between love and indifference, and how little the graduated scale is understood! She had now been nearly three weeks in the same house with Mr Arabin, and had received much of his attention, and listened daily to his conversation. He had usually devoted at least some portion of his evening to her exclusively. At Dr Stanhope's he had devoted himself exclusively to another. It does not require that a woman should be in love to be irritated at this; it does not require that she should even acknowledge to herself that it was unpleasant to her. Eleanor had no such self-knowledge. She thought in her own heart it was only on Mr Arabin's account that she regretted that he could condescend to be amused by the signora. 'I thought he had more mind,' she said to herself, as she sat watching her baby's cradle on her return from the party. 'After all, I believe Mr Stanhope is the pleasanter man of the two.' Alas for the memory of poor John Bold! Eleanor was not in love with Bertie Stanhope, nor was she in love with Mr Arabin. But her devotion to her late husband was fast fading, when she could revolve in her mind, over the cradle of his infant, the faults and failings of other aspirants to her favour.
Will any one blame my heroine for this? Let him or her rather thank God for all His goodness, - for His mercy endureth for ever.
Eleanor, in truth, was not in love; neither was Mr Arabin. Neither indeed was Bertie Stanhope, though he had already found occasion to say nearly as much as that he was. The widow's cap had prevented him from making a positive declaration, when otherwise he would have considered himself entitled to do so on a third or fourth interview. It was, after all, but a small cap now, and had but little of the weeping-willow left in its construction. It is singular how these emblems of grief fade away by unseen gradations. Each pretends to be the counterpart of the forerunner, and yet the last little bit of crimped white crape that sits so jauntily on the back of the head, is as dissimilar to the first huge mountain of woe which disfigured the face of the weeper, as the state of the Hindoo is to the jointure of the English dowager.
But let it be clearly understood that Eleanor was in love with no one, and that no one was in love with Eleanor. Under these circumstances her anger against Mr Arabin did not last long, and before two days were over they were both as good friends as ever. She could not but like him, for every hour spent in his company was spent pleasantly. And yet she could not quite like him, for there was always apparent in his conversation a certain feeling on his part that he hardly thought it worth his while to be in earnest. It was almost as though he were playing with a child. She knew well enough that he was in truth a sober thoughtful man, who in some matters and on some occasions could endure an agony of earnestness. And yet to her he was always gently playful. Could she have seen his brow once clouded she might have learnt to love him.
So things went on at Plumstead, and on the whole not unpleasantly, till a huge storm darkened the horizon, and came down upon the inhabitants of the rectory with all the fury of a water-spout. It was astonishing how in a few minutes the whole face of the heavens was changed. The party broke up from breakfast in perfect harmony; but fierce passions had arisen before the evening, which did not admit of their sitting at the same board for dinner. To explain this, it will be necessary to go back a little.
It will be remembered that the bishop expressed to Mr Slope in his dressing-room, his determination that Mr Quiverful should be confirmed in his appointment to the hospital, and that his lordship requested Mr Slope to communicate this decision to the archdeacon. It will also be remembered that the archdeacon had indignantly declined seeing Mr Slope, and had, instead, written a strong letter to the bishop, in which he all but demanded the situation of warden for Mr Harding. To this letter the archdeacon received an immediate formal reply from Mr Slope, in which it was stated, that the bishop had received and would give his best consideration to the archdeacon's letter.
The archdeacon felt himself somewhat checkmated by this reply. What could he do with a man who would neither see him, nor argue with him by letter, and who had undoubtedly the power of appointing any clergyman he pleased? He had consulted with Mr Arabin, who had suggested the propriety of calling in the aid of the master of Lazarus. 'If,' said he, 'you and Dr Gwynne formally declare your intention of waiting upon the bishop, the bishop will not dare to refuse to see you; and if two such men as you see him together, you will probably not leave him without carrying your point.'
The archdeacon did not quite like admitting the necessity of his being backed by the master of Lazarus before he could obtain admission into the episcopal palace of Barchester; but still he felt that the advice was good, and he resolved to take it. He wrote again to the bishop, expressing a hope that nothing further would be done in the matter of the hospital, till the consideration promised by his lordship had been given, and then sent off a warm appeal to his friend the master, imploring him to come to Plumstead and assist in driving the bishop into compliance. The master had rejoined, raising some difficulty, but not declining; and the archdeacon again pressed his point, insisting on the necessity for immediate action. Dr Gwynne unfortunately had the gout, and could therefore name no immediate day, but still agreed to come, if it should be finally found necessary. So the matter stood, as regarded the party at Plumstead.
But Mr Harding had another friend fighting the battle for him, quite as powerful as the master of Lazarus, and this was Mr Slope. Though the bishop had so pertinaciously insisted on giving way to his wife in the matter of the hospital, Mr Slope did not think it necessary to abandon the object. He had, he thought, daily more and more reason to imagine that the widow would receive his overtures favourably, and he could not but feel that Mr Harding at the hospital, and placed there by his means would be more likely to receive him as a son-in-law, than Mr Harding growling in opposition and disappointment under the archdeacon's wing at Plumstead. Moreover, to give Mr Slope due credit, he was actuated by greater motives even than these. He wanted a wife, and he wanted money, but he wanted power more than either. He had fully realised the fact that he must come to blows with Mrs Proudie. He had no desire to remain in Barchester as her chaplain. Sooner than do so, he would risk the loss of his whole connection with the diocese. What! Was he to feel within him the possession of no ordinary talents; was he to know himself to be courageous, firm, and, in matters where his conscience did not interfere, unscrupulous; and yet be contented to be the working factotum of a woman-prelate? Mr Slope had higher ideas of his own destiny. Either he or Mrs Proudie must go to the wall; and now had come the time when he would try which it would be.
The bishop had declared that Mr Quiverful should be the new warden. As Mr Slope went down stairs prepared to see the archdeacon if necessary, but fully satisfied that no such necessity would arise, he declared to himself that Mr Harding should be warden. With the object of carrying this point he rode over to Puddingdale, and had a further interview with the worthy expectant of clerical good things. Mr Quiverful was on the whole a worthy man. The impossible task of bringing up as ladies and gentlemen fourteen children on an income which was insufficient to give them with decency the common necessities of life, had had an effect upon him not beneficial either to his spirit, or his keen sense of honour. Who can boast that he would have supported such a burden with a different result? Mr Quiverful was an honest, pain- staking, drudging man; anxious, indeed, for bread and meat, anxious for means to quiet his butcher and cover with returning smiles the now sour countenance of the baker's wife, but anxious also to be right with his own conscience. He was not careful, as another might be who sat on an easier worldly seat, to stand well with those around him, to shun a breath which might sully his name, or a rumour which might affect his honour. He could not afford such niceties of conduct, such moral luxuries. It must suffice for him to be ordinarily honest according the ordinary honesty of the world's ways, and to let men's tongues wag as they would.
He had felt that his brother clergymen, men whom he had known for the last twenty years, looked coldly on him from the first moment that he had shown himself willing to sit at the feet of Mr Slope; he had seen that their looks grew colder still, when it became bruited about that he was to be the bishop's new warden at Hiram's hospital. This was painful enough; but it was the cross which he was doomed to bear. He thought of his wife, whose last new silk dress was six years in wear. He thought of all his young flock, whom he could hardly take to church with him on Sundays, for there was not decent shoes and stockings for them all to wear. He thought of the well-worn sleeves of his own black coat, and of the stern face of the draper from whom he would fain ask for cloth to make another, did he not know that the credit would be refused him. Then he thought of the comfortable house in Barchester, of the comfortable income, of his boys sent to school, of the girls with books in their hands instead of darning needles, of his wife's face again covered with smiles, and of his daily board again covered with plenty. He thought of all these things; and do thou also, reader, think of them, and then wonder, if thou canst, that Mr Slope had appeared to him to possess all those good gifts which would grace a bishop's chaplain. 'How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings.'
Why, moreover, should the Barchester clergy have looked so coldly on Mr Quiverful? Had they not all shown that they regarded with complacency the loaves and fishes of their mother church? Had they not all, by some hook or crook, done better for themselves than he had done? They were not burdened as he was burdened. Dr Grantly had five children, and nearly as many thousands a year on which to feed them. It was very well for him to turn up his nose at a new bishop who could do nothing for him, and a chaplain who was beneath his notice; but it was cruel in a man so circumstanced to set the world against the father of fourteen children because he was anxious to obtain for them an honourable support! He, Mr Quiverful, had not asked for the wardenship; he had not even accepted it till he had been assured that Mr Harding had refused it. How hard then that he should be blamed for doing that which not to have done would have argued a most insane imprudence!
Thus in this matter of the hospital poor Mr Quiverful had his trials; and he had also his consolations. On the whole the consolations were the more vivid of the two. The stern draper heard of the coming promotion, and the wealth of his warehouse was at Mr Quiverful's disposal. Coming events cast their shadows before, and the coming event of Mr Quiverful's transference to Barchester produced a delicious shadow in the shape of a new outfit for Mrs Quiverful and her three elder daughters. Such consolations come home to the heart of a man, and quite home to the heart of a woman. Whatever the husband might feel, the wife cared nothing for the frowns of the dean, archdeacon, or prebendary. To her the outsides and insides of her husband and fourteen children were everything. In her bosom every other ambition had been swallowed up in that maternal ambition of seeing them and him and herself duly clad and properly fed. It had come to that with her that life had now no other purpose. She recked nothing of the imaginary rights of others. She had no patience with her husband when he declared to her that he could not accept the hospital unless he knew that Mr Harding had refused it. Her husband had no right to be Quixotic at the expense of fourteen children. The narrow escape of throwing away his good fortune which her lord had had, almost paralysed her. Now, indeed, they had received the full promise not only from Mr Slope, but also from Mrs Proudie. Now, indeed, they might reckon with safety on their good fortune. But what if it all had been lost? What if her fourteen bairns had been resteeped to the hips in poverty by the morbid sentimentality of their father? Mrs Quiverful was just at present a happy woman, but yet it nearly took her breath away when she thought of the risk they had run.
'I don't know what your father means when he talks so much of what is due to Mr Harding,' she said to her eldest daughter. 'Does he think that Mr Harding would give him L 450 out of fine feeling? And what signifies it when he offends, as long as he gets the place? He does not expect anything better. It passes me to think how your father can be so soft, while everybody around him is so griping.'
This, while the rest of the world was accusing Mr Quiverful of rapacity for promotion and disregard for his honour, the inner world of his own household was falling foul of him, with equal vehemence, for his willingness to sacrifice their interest to a false feeling of sentimental pride. It is astonishing how much difference the point of view makes in the aspect of all that we look at!
Such was the feelings of the different members of the family at Puddingdale on the occasion of Mr Slope's second visit. Mrs Quiverful, as soon as she saw his horse coming up the avenue from the vicarage gate, hastily packed up her huge basket of needlework, and hurried herself and her daughter out of the room in which she was sitting with her husband. 'It's Mr Slope,' she said. 'He's come to settle with you about the hospital. I do hope we shall now be able to move at once.' And she hastened to bid the maid of all work to go to the door, so that the welcome great man might not be kept waiting.
Mr Slope thus found Mr Quiverful alone. Mrs Quiverful went off to her kitchen and back settlements with anxious beating heart, almost dreading that there might be some slip between the cup of her happiness and the lip of her fruition, but yet comforting herself with the reflection that after what had taken place, any such slip could hardly be possible.
Mr Slope was all smiles as he shook his brother clergyman's hand, and said that he had ridden over because he thought it right at once to put Mr Quiverful in possession of the facts of the matter regarding the wardenship of the hospital. As he spoke, the poor expectant husband and father saw at a glance that his brilliant hopes were to be dashed to the ground, and that his visitor was now there for the purpose of unsaying what on his former visit he had said. There was something in the tone of the voice, something in the glance of the eye, which told the tale. Mr Quiverful knew it all at once. He maintained his self-possession, however, smiled with a slight unmeaning smile, and merely said that he was obliged to Mr Slope for the trouble he was taking.
'It has been a troublesome matter from first to last,' said Mr Slope; 'and the bishop has hardly known how to act. Between ourselves - but mind this of course must go no farther, Mr Quiverful.'
Mr Quiverful said of course that it should not. 'The truth is, that poor Mr Harding has hardly known his own mind. You remember our last conversation, no doubt.'
Mr Quiverful assured him that he remembered it very well indeed.
'You will remember that I told you that Mr Harding had refused to return to the hospital.'
Mr Quiverful declared that nothing could be more distinct in his memory.
'And acting on this refusal I suggested that you should take the hospital,' continued Mr Slope.
'I understood you to say that the bishop had authorised you to offer it to me.'
'Did I? Did I go so far as that? Well, perhaps it may be, that in my anxiety on your behalf I did commit myself further than I should have done. So far as my own memory serves me, I don't think I did go quite so far as that. But I own I was very anxious that you should get it; and I may have said more than was quite prudent.'
'But,' said Mr Quiverful, in his deep anxiety to prove his case, 'my wife received as distinct a promise from Mrs Proudie as one human being could give to another.'
Mr Slope smiled, and gently shook his head. He meant that smile for a pleasant smile, but it was diabolical in the eyes of the man he was speaking to. 'Mrs Proudie!' he said. 'If we are to go to what passes between the ladies in these matters, we shall really be in a nest of troubles from which we shall never extricate ourselves. Mrs Proudie is a most excellent lady, kind-hearted, charitable, pious, and in every way estimable. But, my dear Mr Quiverful, the patronage of the diocese is not in her hands.'
Mr Quiverful for a moment sat panic-stricken and silent. 'Am I to understand, then, that I have received no promise?' he said, as soon as he had sufficiently collected his thoughts.
'If you will allow me, I will tell you exactly how the matter rests. You certainly did receive a promise conditional on Mr Harding's refusal. I am sure you will do me the justice to remember that you yourself declared that you could accept the appointment on no other condition than the knowledge that Mr Harding had declined it.'
'Yes,' said Mr Quiverful; 'I did say that, certainly.'
'Well; it now appears that he did not refuse it.'
'But surely you told me, and repeated it more than once, that he had done so in your hearing.'
'So I understood him. But it seems I was in error. But don't for a moment, Mr Quiverful, suppose that I mean to throw you over. No. Having held out my hand to a man in your position, with your large family and pressing claims, I am not now going to draw it back again. I only want you to act with me fairly and honestly.'
'Whatever I do, I shall endeavour at any rate to act fairly,' said the poor man, feeling that he had to fall back for support on the spirit of martyrdom within him.
'I am sure you will,' said the other. 'I am sure you have no wish to obtain possession of an income which belongs by all rights to another. No man knows better than you do Mr Harding's history, or can better appreciate his character. Mr Harding is very desirous of returning to his old position, and the bishop feels that he is at the present moment somewhat hampered, though of course he is not bound, by the conversation which took place on the matter between you and me.'
'Well,' said Mr Quiverful, dreadfully doubtful as to what his conduct under such circumstances should be, and fruitlessly striving to harden his nerves with some of that instinct of self-preservation which made his wife so bold.
'The wardenship of this little hospital is not the only thing in the bishop's gift, Mr Quiverful, nor is it by many degrees the best. And his lordship is not the man to forget any one whom he has once marked with approval. If you would allow me to advise you as a friend - '
'Indeed I shall be grateful to you,' said the poor vicar of Puddingdale -
'I should advise you to withdraw from any opposition to Mr Harding's claims. If you persist in your demand, I do not think you will ultimately succeed. Mr Harding has all but a positive right to the place. But if you will allow me to inform his lordship that you decline to stand in Mr Harding's way, I think I may promise you - though, by the bye, it must not be taken as a formal promise - that the bishop will not allow you to be a poorer man than you would have been had you become warden.'
Mr Quiverful sat in his arm chair silent, gazing at vacancy. What was he to say? All this that came from Mr Slope was so true. Mr Harding had a right to the hospital. The bishop had a great many good things to give away. Both the bishop and Mr Slope would be excellent friends and terrible enemies to a man in his position. And then he had no proof of any promise; he could not force the bishop to appoint him.
'Well, Mr Quiverful, what do you say about it?'
'Oh, of course, whatever you think, Mr Slope. It's a great disappointment, a very great disappointment. I won't deny that I am a very poor man, Mr Slope.'
'In the end, Mr Quiverful, you will find that it will have been better for you.'
The interview ended in Mr Slope receiving a full renunciation from Mr Quiverful of any claim he might have to the appointment in question. It was only given verbally and without witnesses; but then the original promise was made in the same way.
Mr Slope assured him that he should not be forgotten, and then rode back to Barchester, satisfied that he would now be able to mould the bishop to his wishes.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER XXV FOURTEEN ARGUMENTS IN FAVOUR OF MR QUIVERFUL'S CLAIMS