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CHAPTER XL ULLATHORNE SPORTS - ACT II
'That which has made them drunk, has made me bold.' 'Twas thus that Mr Slope encouraged himself, as he left the dining-room in pursuit of Eleanor. He had not indeed seen in that room any person really intoxicated; but there had been a good deal of wine drunk, and Mr Slope had not hesitated to take his share, in order to screw himself up to the undertaking which he had in hand. He is not the first man who has thought it expedient to call in the assistance of Bacchus on such an occasion.
Eleanor was out through the window, and on the grass before she perceived that she was followed. Just at that moment the guests were nearly all occupied at the tables. Here and there were to be seen a constant couple or two, who preferred their own sweet discourse to the jingle of glasses, or the charms of rhetoric which fell from the mouths of the Honourable George and the bishop of Barchester; but the grounds were as nearly vacant as Mr Slope could wish them to be.
Eleanor saw that she was pursued, and as a deer, when escape is no longer possible, will turn to bay and attack the hounds, so did she turn upon Mr Slope.
'Pray don't let me take you from the room,' said she, speaking with all the stiffness which she know how to use. 'I have come out to look for a friend. I must beg of you, Mr Slope, to go back.'
But Mr Slope would not be thus entreated. He had observed all day that Mrs Bold was not cordial to him, and this had to a certain extent oppressed him. But he did not deduce from this any assurance that his aspirations were in vain. He saw that she was angry with him. Might she not be so because he had so long tampered with her feelings, - might it not arise from his having, as he knew to be the case, caused her name to be bruited about in conjunction with his own, without having given her the opportunity of confessing to the world that henceforth their names were to be the one and the same?
Poor lady! He had within him a certain Christian conscience-stricken feeling of remorse on this head. It might be that he had wronged her by his tardiness. He had, however, at the present moment imbibed too much of Mr Thorne's champagne to have any inward misgivings. He was right in repeating the boast of Lady Macbeth: he was not drunk; but he was bold enough for anything. It was a pity that in such a state he could not have encountered Mrs Proudie.
'You must permit me to attend you,' said he; 'I could not think of allowing you to go alone.'
'Indeed you must, Mr Slope,' said Eleanor still very stiffly; 'for it is my special wish to be alone.'
The time for letting the great secret escape him had already come. Mr Slope saw that it must be now or never, and he was determined that it should be now. This was not his first attempt at winning a fair lady. He had been on his knees, looked unutterable things with his eyes, and whispered honeyed words before this. Indeed he was somewhat an adept at these things, and had only to adapt to the perhaps different taste of Mrs Bold the well-remembered rhapsodies which had once so much gratified Olivia Proudie.
'Do not ask me to leave you, Mrs Bold,' said he with an impassioned look, impassioned and sanctified as well, with that sort of look which is not uncommon with gentlemen of Mr Slope's school, and which may perhaps be called the tender-pious. 'Do not ask me to leave you, till I have spoken a few words with which my heart is full; which I have come hither purposely to say.'
Eleanor saw how it was now. She knew directly what it was she was about to go through, and very miserable the knowledge made her. Of course she could refuse Mr Slope, and there would be an end of that, one might say. But there was not an end of it as far as Eleanor was concerned. The very fact of Mr Slope's making an offer to her would be a triumph for the archdeacon, and in a great measure a vindication of Mr Arabin's conduct. The widow could not bring herself to endure with patience the idea that she had been in the wrong.
She had defended Mr Slope, she had declared herself quite justified in admitting him among her acquaintance, had ridiculed the idea of his considering himself as more than an acquaintance, and had resented the archdeacon's caution in her behalf: now it was about to be proved to her in a manner sufficiently disagreeable that the archdeacon had been right, and she herself had been entirely wrong.
'I don't know what you can have to say to me, Mr Slope, that you could not have said when we were sitting at table just now;' and she closed her lips, and steadied her eyeballs and looked at him in a manner that ought to have frozen him.
But gentlemen are not easily frozen when they are full of champagne, and it would not at any time have been easy to freeze Mr Slope.
'There are things, Mrs Bold, which a man cannot well say before a crowd; which perhaps he cannot well say at any time; which indeed he may most fervently desire to get spoken, and which he may yet find it almost impossible to utter. It is such things as these, that I now wish to say to you;' and then the tender-pious look was repeated, with a little more emphasis even than before.
Eleanor had not found it practicable to stand stock still before the dining-room window, and there receive his offer in full view of Miss Thorne's guests. She had therefore in self-defence walked on, and Mr Slope had gained his object of walking with her. He now offered her his arm.
'Thank you, Mr Slope, I am much obliged to you; but for the very short time that I shall remain with you I shall prefer walking alone.'
'And must it be so short?' said he; 'must it be - '
'Yes,' said Eleanor, interrupting him; 'as short as possible, if you please, sir.'
'I had hoped, Mrs Bold - I had hoped - ' 'Pray hope nothing, Mr Slope, as far as I am concerned; pray do not; I do not know, and need not know what hope you mean. Our acquaintance is very slight, and will probably remain so. Pray, pray, let that be enough; there is at any rage no necessity for us to quarrel.'
Mrs Bold was certainly treating Mr Slope rather cavalierly, and he felt it so. She was rejecting him before he had offered himself, and informed him at the same time that he was taking a great deal too much on himself to be so familiar. She did not even make an attempt
>From such a sharp and waspish word as 'no' To pluck the string.
He was still determined to be very tender and very pious, seeing that in spite of all Mrs Bold had said to him, he not yet abandoned hope; but he was inclined to be somewhat angry. The widow was bearing herself, as he thought, with too high a hand, was speaking of herself in much too imperious a tone. She had clearly no idea that an honour was being conferred on her. Mr Slope would be tender as long as he could, but he began to think, if that failed, it would not be amiss if he also mounted himself for a while on his high horse. Mr Slope could undoubtedly be very tender, but he could be very savage also, and he knew his own abilities.
'That is cruel,' said he, 'and unchristian too. The worst of us are all still bidden to hope. What have I done that you should pass on me so severe a sentence?' and then he paused a moment, during which the widow walked steadily on with measured step, saying nothing further.
'Beautiful woman,' at last he burst forth, 'beautiful woman, you cannot pretend to be ignorant that I adore you. Yes, Eleanor, yes, I love you. I love you with the truest affection which man can bear to woman. Next to my hopes of heaven are my hopes of possessing you.' (Mr Slope's memory here played him false, or he would not have omitted the deanery) 'How sweet to walk to heaven with you by my side, with you for my guide, mutual guides. Say, Eleanor, dearest Eleanor, shall we walk that sweet path together?'
Eleanor had no intention of ever walking together with Mr Slope on any other path than the special one of Miss Thorne's which they now occupied; but as she had been unable to prevent the expression of Mr Slope's wishes and aspirations, she resolved to hear him out to the end, before she answered him.
'Ah! Eleanor,' he continued, and it seemed to be his idea, that as he had once found courage to pronounce her Christian name, he could not utter it often enough. 'Ah! Eleanor, will it not be sweet with the Lord's assistance, to travel hand in hand through this mortal valley which his mercies will make pleasant to us, till hereafter we shall dwell together at the foot of his throne?' And then a more tenderly pious glance ever beamed from the lover's eyes. 'Ah! Eleanor - '
'My name, Mr Slope, is Mrs Bold,' said Eleanor, who, though determined to hear out the tale of his love, was too much disgusted by his blasphemy to be able to bear much more of it.
'Sweetest angel, be not so cold,' said he, and as he said it the champagne broke forth, and he contrived to pass his arm around her waist. He did this with considerable cleverness, for up to this point Eleanor had contrived with tolerable success to keep her distance from him. They had got into a walk nearly enveloped by shrubs, and Mr Slope therefore no doubt considered that as they were now alone it was fitting that he should give her some outward demonstration of that affection of which he talked so much. It may perhaps be presumed that the same stamp of measures had been found to succeed with Olivia Proudie. Be this as it may, it was not successful with Eleanor Bold.
She sprang from him as she would have jumped from an adder, but she did not spring far; not, indeed, beyond arm's length; and then, quick as thought, she raised her little hand and dealt him a box on the ear with such right good will, that it sounded among the trees like a miniature thunder-clap.
And now it is to be feared that every well-bred reader of these pages will lay down the book with disgust, feeling that, after all, the heroine is unworthy of sympathy. She is a hoyden, one will say. At any rate she is not a lady, another will exclaim. I have suspected her all through, a third will declare; and she has no idea of the dignity of a matron; or of the peculiar propriety which her position demands. At one moment she is romping with young Stanhope; then she is making eyes at Mr Arabin; anon she comes to fisty-cuffs with a third lover; and all before she is yet a widow of two years' standing.
She cannot altogether be defended; and yet it may be averred that she is not a hoyden, not given to romping, nor prone to boxing. It were to be wished devoutly that she had not struck Mr Slope in the face. In doing so she derogated from her dignity and committed herself. Had she been educated in Belgravia, had she been brought up by any sterner mentor than that fond father, had she lived longer under the rule of a husband, she might, perhaps, have saved herself from this great fault. As it was, the provocation was too much for her, the temptation to instant resentment of the insult too strong. She was too keen in the feeling of independence, a feeling dangerous for a young woman, but one in which her position peculiarly tempted her to indulge. And then Mr Slope's face, tinted with a deeper dye than usual by the wine he had drunk, simpering and puckering itself with pseudo piety and tender grimaces, seemed specially to call for such punishment. She had, too, a true instinct as to the man; he was capable of rebuke in this way and in no other. To him the blow from her little hand was as much an insult as a blow from a man would have been to another. It went directly to his pride. He conceived himself lowered in his dignity, and personally outraged. He could almost have struck at her again in his rage. Even the pain was a great annoyance to him, and the feeling that his clerical character had been wholly disregarded, sorely vexed him.
There are such men; men who can endure no taint on their personal self-respect, even from a woman; - men whose bodies are to themselves such sacred temples, that a joke against them is desecration, and a rough touch downright sacrilege. Mr Slope was such a man; and, therefore, the slap on that face that he got from Eleanor was, as far as he was concerned, the fittest rebuke which could have been administered to him.
But, nevertheless, she should not have raised her hand against the man. Ladies' hands so soft, so sweet, so delicious to the touch, so grateful to the eye, so gracious in their gentle doings, were not made to belabour men's faces. The moment the deed was done, Eleanor felt that she had sinned against all propriety, and would have given little worlds to recall the blow. In her first agony of sorrow she all but begged the man's pardon. Her next impulse, however, and the one which she obeyed, was to run away.
'I never, never, will speak another word to you,' she said, gasping with emotion and the loss of breath, which her exertion and violent feelings occasioned her, and so saying she put foot to the ground and ran quickly back along the path to the house.
But how shall I sing the divine wrath of Mr Slope, or how invoke the tragic muse to describe the rage which swelled the celestial bosom of the bishop's chaplain? Such an undertaking by no means befits the low-heeled buskin of modern fiction. The painter put a veil over Agamemnon's face when called on to depict the father's grief at the early doom of his devoted daughter. The god, when he resolved to punish the rebellions winds, abstained from mouthing empty threats. The god when he resolved to punish the rebellious winds, abstained from mouthing empty threats.
We will not attempt to tell with what mighty surging of the inner heart Mr Slope swore to revenge himself on the woman who had disgraced him, nor will we vainly strive to depict the deep agony of his soul.
There he is, however, alone on the garden walk, and we must contrive to bring him out of it. He was not willing to come forth quite at once. His cheek was stinging with the weight of Eleanor's fingers, and he fancied that every one who looked at him would be able to see on his face the traces of what he had endured. He stood awhile, becoming redder and redder with rage. He stood motionless, undecided, glaring with his eyes, thinking of the pains and penalties of Hades, and meditating how he might best devote his enemy to the infernal gods with all the passion of his accustomed eloquence. He longed in his heart to be preaching at her. 'Twas thus that he was ordinarily avenged of sinning mortal men and women. Could he at once have ascended his Sunday rostrum and fulminated at her such denunciations as his spirit delighted in, his bosom would have been greatly eased.
But how preach to Mr Thorne's laurels, or how preach indeed at all in such a vanity fair as this now going on at Ullathorne? And then he began to feel a righteous disgust at the wickedness of the doings around him. He had been justly chastised for lending, by his presence, a sanction to such worldly lures. The gaiety of society, the mirth of banquets, the laughter of the young, and the eating and drinking of the elders were, for awhile, without excuse in his sight. What had he now brought down upon himself by sojourning thus in the tents of the heathen? He had consorted with idolaters round the altars of Baal; and therefore a sore punishment had come upon him. He then thought of the Signora Neroni, and his soul within him was full of sorrow. He had an inkling - a true inkling - that he was a wicked sinful man; but it led him in no right direction; he could admit no charity in his heart. He felt debasement coming on him, and he longed to take it off, to rise up in his stirrup, to mount to high places and great power, that he might get up into a mighty pulpit and preach to the world a loud sermon against Mrs Bold.
There he stood fixed to the gravel for about ten minutes. Fortune favoured him so far that no prying eyes came to look upon him in his misery. Then a shudder passed over his whole frame; he collected himself, and slowly wound his way round to the lawn, advancing along the path and not returning in the direction which Eleanor had taken. When he reached the tent he found the bishop standing there in conversation with the master of Lazarus. His lordship had come out to air himself afer the exertion of his speech.
'This is very pleasant - very pleasant, my lord, is it not?' said Mr Slope with his most gracious smile, and pointing to the tent; 'very pleasant. It is delightful to see so many persons enjoying themselves so thoroughly.'
Mr Slope thought he might force the bishop to introduce him to Dr Gwynne. A very great example had declared and practised the wisdom of being everything to everybody, and Mr Slope was desirous of following it. His maxim was never to lose a chance. The bishop, however, at the present moment was not very anxious to increase Mr Slope's circle of acquaintance among his clerical brethren. He had his own reasons for dropping any marked allusion to his domestic chaplain, and he therefore made his shoulder rather cold for the occasion.
'Very, very,' said he without turning round, or even deigning to look at Mr Slope. 'And therefore, Dr Gwynne, I really think that you will find that the hebdomadal board will exercise as wide and as general an authority as at the present moment. I, for one, Dr Gwynne - '
'Dr Gwynne,' said Mr Slope, raising his hat, and resolving not to be outwitted by such an insignificant little goose as the bishop of Barchester.
The master of Lazarus also raised his hat and bowed very politely to Mr Slope. There is not a more courteous gentleman in the queen's dominions than the master of Lazarus.
'My lord,' said Mr Slope, 'pray do me the honour of introducing me to Dr Gwynne. The opportunity is too much in my favour to be lost.'
The bishop had no help for it. 'My chaplain, Dr Gwynne,' said he; 'my present chaplain, Mr Slope.' he certainly made the introduction as unsatisfactory to the chaplain as possible, and by the use of the word present, seemed to indicate that Mr Slope might probably not long enjoy the honour which he now held. But Mr Slope cared nothing for this. He understood the innuendo, and disregarded it. It might probably come to pass that he would be in a situation to resign his chaplaincy before the bishop was in a situation to dismiss him from it. What need the future dean of Barchester care for the bishop, or for the bishop's wife? Had not Mr Slope, just as he was entering Dr Stanhope's carriage, received an important note from Tom Towers of the Jupiter? Had he not that note this moment in his pocket?
So disregarding the bishop, he began to open out a conversation with the master of Lazarus.
But suddenly and interruption came, not altogether unwelcome to Mr Slope. One of the bishop's servants came up to his master's shoulder with a long, grave face, and whispered into the bishop's ear.
'What is it, John?' said the bishop.
'The dean, my lord; he is dead.'
Mr Slope had no further desire to converse with the master of Lazarus, and was very soon on his road back to Barchester.
Eleanor, as we have said, having declared her intention of never holding further communication with Mr Slope, ran hurriedly back towards the house. The thought, however, of what she had done grieved her greatly, and she could not abstain from bursting into tears. 'Twas thus she played the second act in that day's melodrama.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER XLI MRS BOLD CONFIDES HER SORROW TO HER FRIEND MISS STANHOPE