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'Diddle, diddle, diddle, diddle, dum, dum, dum,' said, or sung Eleanor Bold.
'Diddle, diddle, diddle, diddle, dum, dum, dum,' continued Mary Bold, taking up the second part in the concerted piece.
The only audience at the concert was the baby, who however gave such vociferous applause, that the performers presuming it to amount to an encore, commenced again.
'Diddle, diddle, diddle, diddle, dum, dum, dum: hasn't he got lovely legs?' said the rapturous mother.
'H'm, 'm, 'm, 'm, 'm,' simmered Mary, burying her lips in the little fellow's fat neck, by way of kissing him.
'H'm, 'm, 'm, 'm, 'm,' simmered the mamma, burying her lips also in his fat round short legs. 'He's a dawty little bold darling, so he is; and he has the nicest little pink legs in all the world, so he has;' and the simmering and the kissing went on over again, and as though the ladies were very hungry, and determined to eat him.
'Well, then, he's his own mother's own darling: well, he shall--oh, oh,--Mary, Mary--did you ever see? What am I to do? My naughty, naughty, naughty little Johnny.' All these energetic exclamations were elicited by the delight of the mother in finding that her son was strong enough and mischievous enough, to pull all her hair out from under her cap. 'He's been and pulled down all mamma's hair, and he's the naughtiest, naughtiest, naughtiest little man that ever, ever, ever, ever, ever--'
A regular service of baby worship was going on. Mary Bold was sitting on a low easy chair, with the boy in her lap, and Eleanor was kneeling before the object of her idolatry. As she tried to cover up the little fellow's face with her long, glossy, dark brown locks, and permitted him to pull them hither and thither, as he would, she looked very beautiful in spite of the widow's cap which she still wore. There was a quiet, enduring, grateful sweetness about her face, which grew so strongly upon those who knew her, as to make the great praise of her beauty which came from her old friends, appear marvellously exaggerated to those who were only slightly acquainted with her. Her loveliness was like that of many landscapes, which require to be often seen to be fully enjoyed. There was a depth of dark clear brightness in her eyes which was lost upon a quick observer, a character about her mouth which only showed itself to those with whom she familiarly conversed, a glorious form of head the perfect symmetry of which required the eyes of an artist for its appreciation. She had none of that dazzling brilliancy, of that voluptuous Rubens beauty, of that pearly whiteness, and those vermilion tints, which immediately entranced with the power of a basilisk men who came within reach of Madeline Neroni. It was all be impossible to resist the signora, but no one was called upon for any resistance towards Eleanor. You might begin to talk to her as though she were your sister, and it would not be till your head was on your pillow, that the truth and intensity of her beauty would flash upon you; that the sweetness of her voice would come upon your ear. A sudden half-hour with the Neroni, was like falling into a pit; an evening spent with Eleanor like an unexpected ramble in some quiet fields of asphodel.
'We'll cover him up till there shan't be a morsel of his little 'ittle, 'ittle, 'ittle nose to be seen,' said the mother, stretching her streaming locks over the infant's face. The child screamed with delight, and kicked till Mary Bold was hardly able to hold him.
At this moment the door opened, and Mr Slope was announced. Up jumped Eleanor, and with a sudden quick motion of her hands pushed back her hair over her shoulders. It would have been perhaps better for her that she had not, for she thus showed more of her confusion than she would have done had she remained as she was. Mr Slope, however, immediately recognised the loveliness, and thought to himself, that irrespective of her fortune, she would be an inmate that a man might well desire for his house, a partner for his bosom's care very well qualified to make care lie easy. Eleanor hurried out of the room to re-adjust her cap, muttering some unnecessary apology about her baby. And while she was gone, we will briefly go back and state what had been hitherto the results of Mr Slope's meditations on his scheme of matrimony.
His inquiries as to the widow's income had at any rate been so far successful as to induce him to determine to go on with the speculation. As regarded Mr Harding, he had also resolved to do what he could without injury to himself. To Mrs Proudie he determined not to speak on the matter, at least not at present. His object was to instigate a little rebellion on the part of the bishop. He thought that such a state of things would be advisable, not only in respect to Messrs Harding and Quiverful, but also in the affairs of the diocese generally. Mr Slope was by no means of the opinion that Dr Proudie was fit to rule, but he conscientiously thought it wrong that his brother clergy should be subjected to petticoat government. He therefore made up his mind to infuse a little of his spirit into the bishop, sufficient to induce him to oppose his wife, though not enough to make him altogether insubordinate.
He had therefore taken the opportunity of again speaking to his lordship about the hospital, and had endeavoured to make it appear that after all it would be unwise to exclude Mr Harding from the appointment. Mr Slope, however, had a harder task than he had imagined. Mrs Proudie, anxious to assume to herself as much as possible of the merit of patronage, had written to Mrs Quiverful, requesting her to call at the palace; and had then explained to that matron, with much mystery, condescension, and dignity, the good that was in store for her and her progeny. Indeed Mrs Proudie had been so engaged at the very time that Mr Slope had been doing the same with her husband at Puddingdale Vicarage, and had thus in a measure committed herself. The thanks, the humility, the gratitude, the surprise of Mrs Quiverful had been very overpowering; she had all but embraced the knees of her patroness; and had promised that the prayers of fourteen unprovided babes (so Mrs Quiverful had described her own family, the eldest of which was a stout young woman of three-and-twenty) should be put up to heaven morning and evening for the munificent friend whom God had sent to them. Such incense as this was not unpleasing to Mrs Proudie, and she made the most of it. She offered her general assistance to the fourteen unprovided babes, if, as she had no doubt, she should find them worthy; expressed a hope that the eldest of them would be fit to undertake tuition in her Sabbath schools, and altogether made herself a very great lady in the estimation of Mrs Quiverful.
Having done this, she thought it prudent to drop a few words before the bishop, letting him know that she had acquainted the Puddingdale family with their good fortune; so that he might perceive that he stood committed to the appointment. The husband well understood the rule of his wife, but he did not resent it. He knew that she was taking the patronage out of his hands; he was resolved to put an end to her interference, and re-assume his powers. But then he thought this was not the best time to do it. He put off the evil hour, as many a man in similar circumstances has done before him.
Such having been the case, Mr Slope, naturally encountered a difficulty in talking over the bishop, a difficulty indeed which he found could not be overcome except at the cost of a general outbreak at the palace. A general outbreak at the present moment might be good policy, but it also might not. It was at any rate not a step to be lightly taken. He began by whispering to the bishop that he feared the public opinion would be against him if Mr Harding did not reappear at the hospital. The bishop answered with some warmth that Mr Quiverful had been promised the appointment on Mr Slope's advice. 'Not promised!' said Mr Slope. 'Yes, promised,' replied the bishop, 'and Mrs Proudie has seen Mrs Quiverful on the subject.' This was quite unexpected on the part of Mr Slope, but his presence of mind did not fail him, and he turned the statement to his own account.
'Ah, my lord,' said he, 'we shall all be in scrapes if the ladies interfere.'
This was too much in unison with his lordship's feelings to be altogether unpalatable, and yet such an allusion to interference demanded a rebuke. My lord was somewhat astounded also, though not altogether made miserable, by finding that there was a point of difference between his wife and his chaplain.
'I don't know what you mean by interference,' said the bishop mildly. 'When Mrs Proudie heard that Mr Quiverful was to be appointed, it was not unnatural that she should wish to see Mrs Quiverful about the schools. I really cannot say that I see any interference.'
'I only speak, my lord, for your own comfort,' said Slope; 'for your own comfort and dignity in the diocese. I can have no other motive. As far as personal feelings go, Mrs Proudie is the best friend I have. I must always remember that. But still, in my present position, my first duty is to your lordship.'
'I am sure of that, Mr Slope, I am quite sure of that;' said the bishop mollified: 'and I really think that Mr Harding should have the hospital.'
'Upon my word, I am inclined to think so. I am quite prepared to take upon myself the blame of first suggesting Mr Quiverful's name. But since doing so, I have found that there is so strong a feeling in the diocese in favour of Mr Harding, that I think your lordship should give way. I hear also that Mr Harding has modified his objections he first felt to your lordship's propositions. And as to what has passed between Mrs Proudie and Mrs Quiverful, the circumstance may be a little inconvenient, but I really do not think that that should weigh in a matter of so much moment.'
And thus the poor bishop was left in a dreadfully undecided state as to what he should do. His mind, however, slightly inclined itself to the appointment of Mr Harding, seeing that by such a step, he should have the assistance of Mr Slope in opposing Mrs Proudie.
Such was the state of affairs at the palace, when Mr Slope called at Mrs Bold's house, and found her playing with her baby. When she ran out of the room, Mr Slope began praising the weather to Mary Bold, then he praised the baby and kissed him, and then he praised the mother, and then he praised Miss Bold herself. Mrs Bold, however, was not long before she came back.
'I have to apologise for calling at so very early an hour,' began Mr Slope, 'but I was really so anxious to speak to you that I hope you and Miss Bold will excuse me.'
Eleanor muttered something in which the words 'certainly', and 'of course', and 'not early at all', were just audible, and then apologised for her own appearance, declaring with a smile, that her baby was becoming such a big boy that he was quite unmanageable.
'He's a great bit naughty boy,' said she to the child; 'and we must sent him away to a great big rough romping school, where they have great big rods, and do terrible things to naughty boys who don't do what their own mammas tell them;' and she then commenced another course of kissing, being actuated thereto by the terrible idea of sending her child away which her own imagination had depicted.
'And where the masters don't have such beautiful long hair to be dishevelled,' said Mr Slope, taking up the joke and paying a compliment at the same time.
Eleanor thought he might as well have left the compliment alone; but she said nothing and looked nothing, being occupied as she was with the baby.
'Let me take him,' said Mary. 'His clothes are nearly off his back with his romping,' and so saying she left the room with the child. Miss Bold had heard Mr Slope say he had something pressing to say to Eleanor, and thinking that she might be de trop, took the opportunity of getting herself out of the room.
'Don't be long, Mary,' said Eleanor, as Miss Bold shut the door.
'I am glad, Mrs Bold, to have the opportunity of having ten minutes' conversation with you alone,' began Mr Slope. 'Will you let me openly ask you a plain question?'
'Certainly,' said she.
'And I am sure you will give me a plain and open answer.'
'Either that or none at all,' said she, laughing.
'My question is this, Mrs Bold; is your father really anxious to get back to the hospital?'
'Why do you ask me?' said she. 'Why don't you ask himself?'
'My dear Mrs Bold, I'll tell you why. There are wheels within wheels, all of which I would explain to you, only I fear there is not time. It is essentially necessary that I should have an answer to this question, otherwise I cannot know how to advance your father's wishes; and it is quite impossible that I should ask himself. No one can esteem your father more than I do, but I doubt if this feeling is reciprocal.' It certainly was not. 'I must be candid with you as the only means of avoiding ultimate consequences, which may be most injurious to Mr Harding. I fear there is a feeling, I will not even call it a prejudice, with regard to myself in Barchester, which is not in my favour. You remember the sermon--'
'Oh! Mr Slope, we need not go back to that,' said Eleanor.
'For one moment, Mrs Bold. It is not that I may talk of myself, but because it is so essential that you should understand how matters stand. That sermon may have been ill-judged,--it was certainly misunderstood; but I will say nothing about that now; only this, that it did give rise to a feeling against myself which your father shares with others. It may be that he has proper cause, but the result is that he is not inclined to meet me on friendly terms. I put it to yourself whether you do not know this to be the case.'
Eleanor made no answer, and Mr Slope, in the eagerness of his address, edged his chair a little nearer to the widow's seat, unperceived by her.
'Such being so,' continued Mr Slope, 'I cannot ask him this question as I can ask it of you. In spite of my delinquencies since I came to Barchester you have allowed me to regard you as a friend.' Eleanor made a little motion with her head which was hardly confirmatory, but Mr Slope if he noticed it, did not appear to do so. 'To you I can speak openly, and explain the feelings of my heart. This your father would not allow. Unfortunately the bishop has thought it right that this matter of the hospital should pass through my hands. There have been some details to get up with which he would not trouble himself, and thus it has come to pass that I was forced to have an interview with your father on the matter.'
'I am aware of that,' said Eleanor.
'Of course,' said he. 'In that interview Mr Harding left the impression on my mind that he did not wish to return to the hospital.'
'How could that be?' said Eleanor, at last stirred up to forget the cold propriety of demeanour which she had determined to maintain.
'My dear Mrs Bold, I give you my word that such was the case,' said he, again getting a little nearer to her. 'And what is more than that, before my interview with Mr Harding, certain persons at the palace, I do not mean the bishop, had told me that such was the fact. I own, I hardly believed it; I own, I thought that your father would wish on every account, for conscience' sake, for the sake of those old men, for old association, and the memory of dear days gone by, on every account I thought that he would wish to resume his duties. But I was told that such was not his wish; and he certainly left me with the impression that I had been told the truth.'
'Well!' said Eleanor, now sufficiently roused on the matter.
'I fear Miss Bold's step,' said Mr Slope, 'would it be asking too great a favour to beg you to--I know you can manage anything with Miss Bold.'
Eleanor did not like the word manage, but still she went out, and asked Mary to leave them alone for another quarter of an hour.
'Thank you, Mrs Bold,--I am so very grateful for this confidence. Well, I left your father with this impression. Indeed, I may say that he made me understand that he declined the appointment.'
'Not the appointment,' said Eleanor. 'I am sure he did not decline the appointment. But he said that he would not agree,--that is, that he did not like the scheme about the schools, and the services, and all that. I am quite sure he never said he wished to refuse the place.'
'Oh, Mrs Bold!' said Mr Slope, in a manner almost impassioned. 'I would not, for the world, say to so good a daughter a word against so good a father. But you must, for his sake, let me show you exactly how the matter stands at present. Mr Harding was a little flurried when I told him of the bishop's wishes about the school. I did so, perhaps, with less caution because you yourself had so perfectly agreed with me on the same subject. He was a little put out and spoke warmly. "Tell the bishop," said he, "that I quite disagree with him,--and shall not return to the hospital as such conditions are attached to it." What he said was to that effect; indeed, his words were, if anything, stronger than those. I had no alternative but to repeat them to his lordship, who said that he could look on them in no other light than a refusal. He also had heard the report that your father did not wish for the appointment, and putting all these things together, he thought he had not choice but to look for some one else. He has consequently offered the place to Mr Quiverful.'
'Offered the place to Mr Quiverful!' repeated Eleanor, her eyes suffused with tears. 'Then, Mr Slope, there is an end of it.'
'No, my friend--not so,' said he. 'It is to prevent such being the end of it that I am now here. I may at any rate presume that I have got an answer to my question, and that Mr Harding is desirous of returning.'
'Desirous of returning--of course he is,' said Eleanor; 'of course he wishes to have back his house and his income, and his place in the world; to have back what he gave up with such self-denying honesty, if he can have them without restraints on his conduct to what at his age it would be impossible that he should submit. How can the bishop ask a man of his age to turn schoolmaster to a pack of children?'
'Out of the question,' said Mr Slope, laughing slightly; 'of course no such demand shall be made on your father. I can at any rate promise you that I will not be the medium of any so absurd a requisition. We wished your father to preach in the hospital, as the inmates may naturally be too old to leave it; but even that shall not be insisted on. We wished also to attach a Sabbath-day school to the hospital, thinking that such an establishment could not but be useful under the surveillance of so good a clergyman as Mr Harding, and also under your own. But, dear Mrs Bold; we won't talk of those things now. One thing is clear; we mustdo what we can to annul this rash offer the bishop made to Mr Quiverful. Your father wouldn't see Quiverful, would he? Quiverful is an honourable man, and would not, for a moment, stand in your father's way.'
'What?' said Eleanor; 'ask a man with fourteen children to give up his preferment! I am quite sure he will do no such thing.'
'I suppose not,' said Slope; and he again drew near to Mrs Bold, so that now they were very close to each other. Eleanor did not think much about it, but instinctively moved away a little. How greatly would she have increased the distance could he have guessed what had been said about her at Plumstead! 'I suppose not. But it is out of the question that Quiverful should supersede your father--quite out of the question. The bishop has been too rash. An idea occurs to me, which may, perhaps, with God's blessing, put us right. My dear Mrs Bold, would you object to seeing the bishop yourself?'
'Why should not my father see him?' said Eleanor. She had once before in her life interfered with her father's affairs, and then not to much advantage. She was older now, and felt that she should take no step in a matter so vital to him without his consent.
'Why, to tell the truth,' said Mr Slope, with a look of sorrow, as though he greatly bewailed the want of charity in his patron, 'the bishop fancies he has cause of anger against your father. I fear an interview would lead to further ill will.'
'Why,' said Eleanor, 'my father is the mildest, the gentlest man living.'
'I only know,' said Slope, 'that he has the best of daughters. So you would not see the bishop? As to getting an interview, I could manage that for you without the slightest annoyance to yourself.'
'I could do nothing, Mr Slope, without consulting my father.'
'Ah!' said he, 'that would be useless; you would then only be your father's messenger. Does anything occur to yourself? Something must be done. Your father shall not be ruined by so ridiculous a misunderstanding.'
Eleanor said that nothing occurred to her, but that it was very hard; and the tears came to her eyes and rolled down her cheeks. Mr Slope would have given much to have had the privilege of drying them; but he had tact enough to know that he had still a great deal to do before he could even hope for any privilege with Mrs Bold.
'It cuts me to the heart to see you so grieved,' said he. 'But pray let me assure you that your father's interests shall not be sacrificed if it be possible for me to protect them. I will tell the bishop openly what are the facts. I will explain to him that he has hardly the right to appoint any other than your father, and will show him that if he does so he will be guilty of great injustice--and you, Mrs Bold, you will have the charity at any rate to believe this of me, that I am truly anxious for your father's welfare,--for his and for your own.'
The widow hardly knew what answer to make. She was quite aware that her father would not be at all thankful to Mr Slope; she had a strong wish to share her father's feelings; and yet she could not but acknowledge that Mr Slope was very kind. Her father, who was generally charitable to all men, who seldom spoke ill of any one, had warned against Mr Slope, and yet she did not know how to abstain from thanking him. What interest could he have in the matter but that which he professed? Nevertheless there was that in his manner which even she distrusted. She felt, and she did not know why, that there was something about him which ought to put her on her guard.
Mr Slope read all this in her hesitating manner just as plainly as though she had opened her heart to him. It was the talent of the man that he could so read the inward feelings of women with whom he conversed. He knew that Eleanor was doubting him, and that if she thanked him she would only do so because she could not help it; but yet this did not make him angry or even annoy him. Rome was not built in a day.
'I did not come for thanks,' continued he, seeing her hesitation; 'and do not want them--at any rate before they are merited. But this I do want, Mrs Bold, that I may make myself friends in this fold to which it has pleased God to call me as one of the humblest of his shepherds. If I cannot do so, my task here must indeed be a sad one. I will at any rate endeavour to deserve them.'
'I'm sure,' said she, 'you will soon make plenty of friends.' She felt herself obliged to say something.
'That will be nothing unless they are such as will sympathise with my feelings; unless they are such as I can reverence and admire--and love. If the best and purest turn away from me, I cannot bring myself to be satisfied with the friendship of the less estimable. In such case I must live alone.'
'Oh! I'm sure you will not do that, Mr Slope.' Eleanor meant nothing, but it suited him to appear that some special allusion had been intended.
'Indeed, Mrs Bold, I shall live alone, quite alone as far as the heart is concerned, if those with whom I yearn to ally myself turn away from me. But enough of this; I have called you my friend, and I hope you will not contradict me. I trust the time may come when I may also call your father so. My God bless you, Mrs Bold, you and your darling boy. And tell your father from me that what can be done for his interest shall be done.'
And so he took his leave, pressing the widow's hand rather more closely than usual. Circumstances, however, seemed just then to make this intelligible, and the lady did not feel called on to resent it.
'I cannot understand him,' said Eleanor to Mary Bold, a few minutes afterwards. 'I do not know whether he is a good man or a bad man--whether he is true or false.'
'Then give him the benefit of the doubt,' said Mary, 'and believe the best.'
'On the whole I think I do,' said Eleanor. 'I think I do believe that he means well--and if so, it is a shame that we should revile him, and make him miserable while he is among us. But, oh Mary, I fear papa will be disappointed in the hospital.'
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