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We have most of us heard of the terrible anger of a lioness when, surrounded by her cubs, she guards her prey. Few of us wish to disturb the mother of a litter of puppies when mouthing a bone in the midst of her young family. Medea and her children are familiar to us, and so is the grief of Constance. Mrs Quiverful, when she first heard from her husband the news which he had to impart, felt within her bosom all the rage of a lioness, the rapacity of the hound, the fury of the tragic queen, and the deep despair of a bereaved mother.
Doubting, but yet hardly fearing, what might have been the tenor of Mr Slope's discourse, she rushed back to her husband as soon as the front door was closed behind the visitor. It was well for Mr Slope that he had so escaped,--the anger of such a woman, at such a moment, would have cowed even him. As a general rule, it is highly desirable that ladies should keep their temper; a woman when she storms always makes herself ugly, and usually ridiculous also. There is nothing so odious to man as a virago. Though Theseus loved an Amazon, he showed his love but roughly; and from the time of Theseus downward, no man ever wished to have his wife remarkable rather for forward prowess than retiring gentleness.
Such may be laid down as a general rule; and few women should allow themselves to deviate from it, and then only on rare occasions. But if there be a time when a woman may let her hair to the winds, when she may loose her arms, and scream out trumpet-tongued to the ears of men, it is when nature calls out within her not for her own wants, but for the wants of those whom her womb has borne, whom her breasts have suckled, for those who look to her for their daily bread as naturally as man looks to his Creator.
There was nothing poetic in the nature of Mrs Quiverful. She was neither a Medea nor a Constance. When angry, she spoke out her anger in plain words, and in a tone which might have been modulated with advantage; but she did so, at any rate, without affectation. Now, without knowing it, she rose to a tragic vein.
'Well, my dear; we are not to have it.' Such were the words with which her ears were greeted when she entered the parlour, still hot from the kitchen fire. And the face of her husband spoke even more plainly than his words:--"E'en such a man, so faint, so spiritless, So dull, so dead in look, so woe-begone, Drew Priam's curtain in the dead of night."
'What!' said she,--and Mrs Siddons could not have put more passion into a single syllable,--'What! Not have it? Who says so?' And she sat opposite to her husband, with her elbows on the table, her hands clasped together, and her coarse, solid, but once handsome face stretched over it towards him.
She sat as silent as death while he told his story, and very dreadful to him her silence was. He told it very lamely and badly, but still in such a manner that she soon understood the whole of it.
'And so you have resigned it?' said she.
'I have had no opportunity of accepting it,' he replied. 'I had no witnesses to Mr Slope's offer, even if that offer would bind the bishop. It was better for me, on the whole, to keep on good terms with such men than to fight for what I should never get!'
'Witnesses!' she screamed, rising quickly to her feet, and walking up and down the room. 'Do clergymen require witnesses to their words? He made the promise in the bishop's name, and if it is to be broken I'll know the reason why. Did he not positively say that the bishop had sent him to offer you the place?'
'He did, my dear. But that is now nothing to the purpose.'
'It is everything to the purpose, Mr Quiverful. Witnesses indeed! And then to talk of your honour being questioned because you wish to provide for fourteen children. It is everything to the purpose; and so they shall know, if I scream it into their ears from the town cross of Barchester.'
'You forget, Letitia, that the bishop has so many things in his gift. We must wait a little longer. That is all.'
'Wait! Shall we feed the children by waiting? Will waiting put George and Tom, and Sam, out into the world? Will it enable my poor girls to give up some of their drudgery? Will waiting make Bessy and Jane fit even to be governesses? Will waiting pay for the things we got in Barchester last week?'
'It is all we can do, my dear. The disappointment is as much to me as to you; and yet, God knows, I feel it more for your sake than my own.'
Mrs Quiverful was looking full into her husband's face, and saw a small hot tear appear on each of those furrowed cheeks. This was too much for her woman's heart. He also had risen, and was standing with his back to the empty grate. She rushed towards him, and seizing him in her arms, sobbed aloud upon his bosom.
'Yes, you are too good, too soft, too yielding,' she said at last. 'These men, when they want you, they use you like a cat's-paw; and when they want you no longer, they throw you aside like an old shoe. This is twice they have treated you so.'
'In one way this will be for the better,' argued he. 'It will make the bishop feel that he is bound to do something for me.'
'At any rate, he shall hear of it,' said the lady, again reverting to her more angry mood. 'At any rate he shall hear of it, and that loudly; and so shall she. She little knows Letitia Quiverful, if she thinks I will sit down quietly with the loss after all that passed between us at the palace. If there's any feeling within her, I'll make her ashamed of herself,'--and she paced the room again, stamping the floor as she went with her fat heavy foot.
'Good heavens! What a heart she must have within her to treat in such a way as this the father of fourteen unprovided children!'
Mr Quiverful proceeded to explain that he didn't think that Mrs Proudie had anything to do with it.
'Don't tell me,' said Mrs Quiverful; 'I know more about it than that. Doesn't all the world know that Mrs Proudie is bishop of Barchester, and that Mr Slope is merely her creature? Wasn't it she that made me the promise just as though the thing was in her own particular gift? I tell you, it was that woman who sent him over here to-day because, for some reason of her own, she wants to go back on her word.'
'My dear, you're wrong--'
'Now, Q, don't be so soft,' she continued. 'Take my word for it, the bishop knows no more about it than Jemima does.' Jemima was the two-year old. 'And if you'll take my advice, you'll lose no time in going over and seeing him yourself.'
Soft, however, as Mr Quiverful might be, he would not allow himself to be talked out of his opinion on this occasion; and proceeded with much minuteness to explain to his wife the tone in which Mr Slope had spoken of Mrs Proudie's interference in diocesan matters. As he did so, a new idea gradually instilled itself into the matron's head, and a new course of action presented itself to her judgement. What if, after all, Mrs Proudie knew nothing of this visit of Mr Slope's? In that case, might it not be possible that that lady would still be staunch to her in this matter, still stand her friend, and, perhaps, possibly carry her through in opposition to Mr Slope? Mrs Quiverful said nothing as this vague hope occurred to her, but listened with more than ordinary patience to what her husband had to say. While he was still explaining that in all probability the world was wrong in its estimation of Mrs Proudie's power and authority, she had fully made up her mind as to her course of action. She did not, however, proclaim her intention. She shook her head continuously, as he continued his narration; and when he had completed she rose to go, merely observing that it was cruel, cruel treatment. She then asked if he would mind waiting for a late dinner instead of dining at their usual hour of three, and, having received from him a concession on this point, she proceeded to carry her purpose into execution.
She determined that she would at once go to the palace; that she would do so, if possible, before Mrs Proudie could have had an interview with Mr Slope; and that she would be either submissive, piteous and pathetic, or indignant violent and exacting, according to the manner in which she was received.
She was quite confident in her own power. Strengthened as she was by the pressing wants of fourteen children, she felt that she could make her way through legions of episcopal servants, and force herself, if need be, into the presence of the lady who had so wronged her. She had no shame about it, no mauvaise honte, no dread of archdeacons. She would, as she declared to her husband, make her wail heard in the market-place if she did not get redress and justice. It might be very well for an unmarried young curate to be shamefaced in such matters; it might be all right that a smug rector, really in want of nothing, but still looking for better preferment, should carry out his affairs decently under the rose. But Mrs Quiverful, with fourteen children, had given over being shamefaced, and, in some things, had given over being decent. If it were intended that she should be ill used in the manner proposed by Mr Slope, it should not be done under the rose. All the world would know of it.
In her present mood, Mrs Quiverful was not over careful about her attire. She tied her bonnet under her chin, threw her shawl over her shoulders, armed herself with the old family cotton umbrella, and started for Barchester. A journey to the palace was not quite so easy a thing for Mrs Quiverful as for our friend at Plumstead. Plumstead is nine miles from Barchester, and Puddingdale is but four. But the archdeacon could order round his brougham, and his high-trotting fast bay gelding would take him into the city within the hour. There was no brougham in the coach-house of Puddingdale Vicarage, no bay horse in the stables. There was no method of locomotion for its inhabitants but that which nature had assigned to man.
Mrs Quiverful was a broad heavy woman, not young, nor given to walking. In her kitchen, and in the family dormitories, she was active enough; but her pace and gait were not adapted for the road. A walk into Barchester and back in the middle of an August day would be to her a terrible task, if not altogether impracticable. There was living in the parish about half a mile from the vicarage on the road to the city, a decent, kindly farmer, well to do as regards this world, and so far mindful of the next that he attended his parish church with decent regularity. To him Mrs Quiverful had before now appealed in some of her more pressing family troubles, and had not appealed in vain. At his door she now presented herself, and, having explained to his wife that most urgent business required her to go at once to Barchester, begged that Farmer Subsoil would take her thither in his tax-cart. The farmer did not reject her plan; and, as soon as Prince could be got into his collar, they started on their journey.
Mrs Quiverful did not mention the purpose of her business, nor did the farmer alloy his kindness by any unseemly questions. She merely begged to be put down at the bridge going into the city, and to be taken up again at the same place in the course of two hours. The farmer promised to be punctual to his appointment, and the lady, supported by her umbrella, took the short cut to the close, and in a few minutes was at the bishop's door.
Hitherto she had felt no dread with regard to the coming interview. She had felt nothing but an indignant longing to pour forth her claims, and declare her wrongs, if those claims were not fully admitted. But now the difficulty of her situation touched her a little. She had been at the palace once before, but then she went to give grateful thanks. Those who have thanks to return for favours received find easy admittance to the halls of the great. Such is not always the case with men, or even women, who have favours to beg. Still less easy is access for those who demand the fulfilment of promises already made.
Mrs Quiverful had not been slow to learn the ways of the world. She knew all this, and she knew also that her cotton umbrella and all but ragged shawl would not command respect in the eyes of the palace servants. If she were too humble, she knew well that she would never succeed. To overcome by imperious overbearing with such a shawl as hers upon her shoulders, and such a bonnet on her head, would have required a personal bearing very superior to that which nature had endowed her. Of this also Mrs Quiverful was aware. She must make it known she was the wife of a gentleman and a clergyman, and must yet condescend to conciliate.
The poor lady knew but one way to overcome these difficulties at the very threshold of her enterprise, and to this she resorted. Low as were the domestic funds at Puddingdale, she still retained possession of a half-crown, and this she sacrificed to the avarice of Mrs Proudie's metropolitan sesquipedalian serving-man. She was, she said, Mrs Quiverful of Puddingdale, the wife of the Rev. Mr Quiverful. She wished to see Mrs Proudie. It was indeed quite indispensible that she should see Mrs Proudie. James Fitzplush looked worse than dubious, did not know whether his lady were out, or engaged, or in her bed-room; thought it most probable that she was subject to one of these or to some cause that would make her invisible; but Mrs Quiverful could sit down in the waiting-room, while inquiry was being made of Mrs Proudie.
'Look here, man,' said Mrs Quiverful; 'I must see her;' and she put her card and half-crown--think of it, my reader, think of it; her last half-crown--into the man's hand, and sat herself down on a chair in the waiting-room.
Whether the bribe carried the day, or whether the bishop's wife really chose to see the vicar's wife, it boots not now to inquire. The man returned, and begging Mrs Quiverful to follow him, ushered her into the presence of the mistress of the diocese.
Mrs Quiverful at once saw that her patroness was in a smiling humour. Triumph sat throned upon her brow, and all the joys of dominion hovered about her curls. Her lord had that morning contested with her a great point. He had received an invitation to spend a couple of days with the archbishop. His soul longed for the gratification. Not a word, however, in his grace's note alluded to the fact that he was a married man; and, if he went at all, he must go alone. This necessity would have presented an insurmountable bar to the visit, or have militated against the pleasure, had he been able to go without reference to Mrs Proudie. But this he could not do. He could not order his portmanteau to be packed, and start with his own man, merely telling the lady of his heart that he would probably be back on Saturday. There are men--may we not rather say monsters?--who do such things; and there are wives--may we not rather say slaves?--who put up with such usage. But Dr and Mrs Proudie were not among the number.
The bishop with some beating about the bush, made the lady understand that he very much wished to go. The lady, without any beating about the bush, made the bishop understand that she wouldn't hear of it. It would be useless here to repeat the arguments that were used on each side, and needless to record the result. Those who are married will understand very well how the battle was lost and won; and those who are single will never understand it till they learn the lesson which experience alone can give. When Mrs Quiverful was shown into Mrs Proudie's room, that lady had only returned a few minutes from her lord. But before she left him she had seen the answer to the archbishop's note written and sealed. No wonder that her face was wreathed with smiles as she received Mrs Quiverful.
She instantly spoke of the subject which was so near the heart of her visitor. 'Well, Mrs Quiverful,' said she, 'is it decided yet when you are to move to Barchester?'
'That woman', as she had an hour or two since been called, became instantly re-endowed with all the graces that can adorn a bishop's wife. Mrs Quiverful immediately saw that her business was to be piteous, and that nothing was to be gained by indignation; nothing, indeed, unless she could be indignant in company with her patroness.
'Oh, Mrs Proudie,' she began, 'I fear we are not to move to Barchester at all.'
'Why not?' said the lady sharply, dropping at a moment's notice her smiles and condescension, and turning with her sharp quick way to business which she saw at a glance was important.
And then Mrs Quiverful told her tale. As she progressed in the history of her wrongs she perceived that the heavier she leant upon Mr Slope the blacker became Mrs Proudie's brow, but that such blackness was not injurious to her own cause. When Mr Slope was at Puddingdale vicarage that morning she had regarded him as the creature of the lady-bishop; now she perceived that they were enemies. She admitted her mistake to herself without any pain or humiliation. She had but one feeling, and that was confined to her family. She cared little how she twisted and turned among these new-comers at the bishop's palace as long as she could twist her husband into the warden's house. She cared not which was her friend or which was her enemy, if only she could get this preference which she so sorely wanted.
She told her tale, and Mrs Proudie listened to it almost in silence. She told how Mr Slope had cozened her husband into resigning his claim, and had declared that it was the bishop's will that none but Mr Harding should be warden. Mrs Proudie's brow became blacker and blacker. At last she started from her chair, and begging Mrs Quiverful to sit and wait for her return, marched out of the room.
'Oh, Mrs Proudie, it's for fourteen children--for fourteen children.' Such was the burden that fell on her ear as she closed the door behind her.
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