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It will be remembered that Mr Slope, when leaving his billet doux with Mrs Bold, had been informed that it would be sent out to her at Plumstead that afternoon. The archdeacon and Mr Harding had in fact come into town together in the brougham, and it had been arranged that they should call for Eleanor's parcels as they left on their way home. Accordingly they did so call, and the maid, as she handed to the coachman a small basket and large bundle carefully and neatly packec, gave in at the carriage window Mr Slope's epistle. The archdeacon, who was sitting next to the window, took it, and immediately recognised the hand-writing of his enemy.
'Who left this?' said he.
'Mr Slope called with it himself, your reverence,' said the girl; ' and was very anxious that missus should have it to-day.'
So the brougham drove off, and the letter was left in the archdeacon's hand. He looked at it as though he held a basket of adders. He could not have thought worse of the document had he read it and discovered it to be licentious and atheistical. He did, moreover, what so many wise people are accustomed to do in similar circumstances; he immediately condemned the person to whom the letter was written, as though she were necessarily a particeps criminis.
Poor Mr Harding, though by no means inclined to forward Mr Slope's intimacy with his daughter, would have given anything to have kept the letter from his son-in-law. But that was now impossible. There it was in his hand; and he looked as thoroughly disgusted as though he were quite sure that it contained all the rhapsodies of a favoured lover.
'It's very hard on me,' said he, after a while, 'that this should go on under my roof.'
Now here the archdeacon was certainly the most unreasonable. Having invited his sister-in-law to his house, it was a natural consequence of that she should receive her letters there. And if Mr Slope chose to write to her, his letter would, as a matter of course, be sent after her. Moreover, the very fact of an invitation to one's house implies confidence on the part of the inviter. He had shown that he thought Mrs Bold to be a fit person to stay with him by his making her to do so, and it was most cruel to her that he should complain of her violating the sanctity of his roof-tree, when the laches committed were none of her committing.
Mr Harding felt this; and felt also that when the archdeacon talked thus about his roof, what he said was most offensive to himself as Eleanor's father. If Eleanor did receive a letter from Mr Slope, what was there in that to pollute the purity of Dr Grantly's household. He was indignant that his daughter should be so judged and so spoken of; and, he made up his mind that even as Mrs Slope she must be dearer to him than any other creature on God's earth. He almost broke out, and said as much; but for the moment he restrained himself.
'Here,' said the archdeacon, handing the offensive missile to his father-in-law; 'I am not going to be the bearer of his love letters. You are her father, and may do as you think fit with it.'
By doing as he thought fit with it, the archdeacon certainly meant that Mr Harding would be justified in opening and reading the letter, and taking any steps which might in consequence be necessary. To tell the truth, Dr Grantly did feel rather a stronger curiosity than was justified by his outraged virtue, to see the contents of the letter. Of course he could not open it himself, but he wished to make Mr Harding understand that he, as Eleanor's father, would be fully justified in doing so. The idea of such a proceeding never occurred to Mr Harding. His authority over Eleanor ceased when she became the wife of John Bold. He had not the slightest wish to pry into her correspondence. He consequently put the letter into his pocket, and only wished that he had been able to do so without the archdeacon's knowledge. They both sat silent during the journey home, and then Dr Grantly said, 'Perhaps Susan had better give it to her. She can explain to her sister, better than you or I can do, how deep is the disgrace of such an acquaintance.'
'I think you are very hard upon Eleanor,' replied Mr Harding. 'I will not allow that she has disgraced herself, nor do I think it likely that she will do so. She has a right to correspond with whom she pleases, and I shall not take upon myself to blame her because she gets a letter from Slope.'
'I suppose,' said Dr Grantly, 'you don't wish her to marry this man. I suppose you'll admit that she would disgrace herself if she did so.'
'I do not wish her to marry him,' said the perplexed father; 'I do not like him, and do not think he would make a good husband. But if Eleanor decides to do so, I shall certainly not think that she has disgraced herself.'
'Good heavens!' exclaimed Dr Grantly, and threw himself back into the corner of his brougham. Mr Harding said nothing more, but commenced playing a dirge, with an imaginary fiddle bow upon an imaginary violoncello, for which there did not appear to be quite room enough in the carriage; and he continued the tune, with sundry variations, till he arrived at the rectory door.
The archdeacon had been meditating sad things in his mind. Hitherto he had always looked on his father-in-law as a true partisan, though he knew him to be a man devoid of all the combative qualifications for that character. He had felt no fear that Mr Harding would go over to the enemy, though he had never counted much on the ex-warden's prowess in breaking the battle ranks. Now, however, it seemed that Eleanor, with her wiles, had completely trepanned and bewildered her father, cheated him out of his judgement, robbed him of the predilections and tastes of life, and caused him to be tolerant of a man whose arrogance and vulgarity would, in a few years since, have been unendurable to him. That the whole thing was as good as arranged between Eleanor and Mr Slope there was no longer any room to doubt. That Mr Harding knew that such was the case, even this could hardly be doubted. It was too manifest that he at any rate suspected it, and was prepared to sanction it.
And to tell the truth, such was the case. Mr Harding disliked Mr Slope as much as it was in his nature to dislike any man. Had his daughter wished to do her worst to displease him by a second marriage, she could hardly have succeeded better than by marrying Mr Slope. But, as he said to himself now very often, what right had he to condemn her if she did nothing that was really wrong? If she liked Mr Slope it was her affair. It was indeed miraculous to him, that a woman with such a mind, so educated, so refined, so nice in her tastes, should like such a man. Then he asked himself whether it was possible that she did so.
Ah, thou weak man; most charitable, most Christian, but weakest of men! Why couldst thou not have asked herself? Was she not the daughter of thy loins, the child of thy heart, the most beloved of thee of all humanity? Had she not proved to thee, by years of closest affection, her truth and goodness and filial obedience? And yet, groping in darkness, hearing her name in strains which wounded thy loving heart, and being unable to defend her as thou shouldst have done!
Mr Harding had not believed, did not believe, that his daughter meant to marry this man; but he feared to commit himself to such an opinion. If she did do it there would be then no means of retreat. The wishes of his heart were--First, that there should be no truth in the archdeacon's surmises; and in this wish he would have fain trusted entirely, had he dared to do so; Secondly, that the match might be prevented, if unfortunately, it had been contemplated by Eleanor; Thirdly, that should she be so infatuated as to marry this man, he might justify his conduct, and declare that no cause existed for his separating himself from her.
He wanted to believe her incapable of such a marriage; he wanted to show that he so believed of her; but he wanted also to be able to say hereafter, that she had done nothing amiss, if she could unfortunately prove herself to be different from what he thought her to be.
Nothing but affection could justify such fickleness; but affection did justify it. There was but little of the Roman about Mr Harding. He could not sacrifice his Lucretia even though she should be polluted by the accepted addresses of the clerical Tarquin at the palace. If Tarquin could be prevented, well and good; but if not, the father would still open his heart to his daughter, and accept her as she present herself, Tarquin and all.
Dr Grantly's mind was of a stronger calibre, and he was by no means deficient in heart. He loved with an honest genuine love his wife and children and friends. He loved his father-in-law; and he was quite prepared to love Eleanor too, if she would be one of his party, if she would be on his side, if she would regard the Slopes and the Proudies as the enemies of mankind, and acknowledge and feel the comfortable merits of the Gwynnes and Arabins. He wished to be what he called "safe" with all those whom he had admitted to the penetralia of his house and heart. He could luxuriate in no society that was deficient in a certain feeling of faithful staunch high-churchism, which to him was tantamount to freemasonry. He was not strict in his lines of definition. He endured without impatience many different shades of Anglo-church conservatism; but with the Slopes and Proudies he could not go on all fours.
He was wanting in, moreover, or perhaps it would be more correct to say, he was not troubled by that womanly tenderness which was so peculiar to Mr Harding. His feelings towards his friends were, that while they stuck to him he would stick to them; that he would work with them shoulder to shoulder; that he would be faithful to the faithful. He knew nothing of that beautiful love which can be true to a false friend.
And thus these two men, each miserable enough in his own way, returned to Plumstead.
It was getting late when they arrived there, and the ladies had already gone up to dress. Nothing more was said as the two parted in the hall. As Mr Harding passed to his own room, he knocked at Eleanor's door and handed in the letter. The archdeacon hurried to his own territory, there to unburden his heart to his faithful partner.
What colloquy took place between the marital chamber and the adjoining dressing-room shall not be detailed. The reader, now intimate with the persons concerned, can well imagine it. The whole tenor of it also might be read in Mrs Grantly's brow as she came down to dinner.
Eleanor, when she received the letter from her father's hand, had no idea from whom it came. She had never seen Mr Slope's handwriting, or if so, had forgotten it; and did not think of him as she twisted the letter as people do twist letters when they do not immediately recognise their correspondents either by the writing or the seal. She was sitting at her glass brushing her hair, and rising every other minute to play with her boy who was sprawling on the bed, and who engaged pretty nearly the whole attention of the maid as well as of the mother.
At last, sitting before her toilet table, she broke the seal, and turning over the leaf saw Mr Slope's name. She first felt surprised, and then annoyed, and then anxious. As she read it she became interested. She was so delighted to find that all obstacles to her father's return to the hospital were apparently removed that she did not observe the fulsome language in which the tidings were conveyed. She merely perceived that she was commissioned to tell her father that such was the case, and she did not realise the fact that such a commission should not have been made, in the first instance, to her by an unmarried young clergyman. She felt, on the whole, grateful to Mr Slope, and anxious to get on her dress that she might run with the news to her father. Then she came to the allusion to her own pious labours, and she said in her heart that Mr Slope was an affected ass. Then she went on again and was offended by her boy being called Mr Slope's darling--he was nobody's darling but her own; or at any rate not the darling of a disagreeable stranger like Mr Slope. Lastly she arrived at the tresses and felt a qualm of disgust. She looked up in the glass, and there they were before her, long and silken, certainly, and very beautiful. I will not say but that she knew them to be so, but she felt angry with them and brushed them roughly and carelessly. She crumpled the letter with angry violence, and resolved, almost without thinking of it, that she would not show it to her father. She would merely tell him the contents of it. She then comforted herself again with her boy, and her dress fastened, she went down to dinner.
As she tripped down the stairs she began to ascertain that there was some difficulty in her situation. She could not keep from her father the news about the hospital, nor could she comfortably confess the letter from Mr Slope before the Grantlys. Her father had already gone down. She had heard his step upon the lobby. She resolved therefore to take him aside, and tell him her little bit of news. Poor girl! She had no idea how severely the unfortunate letter had already been discussed.
When she entered the drawing-room the whole party were there, including Mr Arabin, and the whole party looked glum and sour. The two girls sat silent and apart as though they were aware that something was wrong. Even Mr Arabin was solemn and silent. Eleanor had not seen him since breakfast. He had been the whole day at St Ewold's, and such having been the case it was natural that he should tell how matters were going on there. He did nothing of the kind, however, but remained solemn and silent. They were all solemn and silent. Eleanor knew in her heart that they had been talking about her, and her heart misgave her as she thought of Mr Slope and his letter. At any rate she felt it to be quite impossible to speak to her father alone while matters were in this state.
Dinner was soon announced, and Dr Grantly, as was his wont, gave Eleanor his arm. But he did so as though the doing it were an outrage on his feelings rendered necessary by sternest necessity. With quick sympathy Eleanor felt this, and hardly put her fingers on his coat sleeve. It may be guessed in what way the dinner-hour was passed. Dr Grantly said a few words to Mr Arabin, Mr Arabin said a few words to Mrs Grantly, she said a few words to her father, and he tried to say a few words to Eleanor. She felt that she had been tried and found guilty of something, though she knew not what. She longed to say out to them all, 'Well, what is it that I have done; out with it; and let me know my crime; for heaven's sake let me hear the worst of it;' but she could not. She could say nothing, but sat there silent, half feeling that she was guilty, and trying in vain to pretend even to eat her dinner.
At last the cloth was drawn, and the ladies were not long following it. When they were gone the gentlemen were somewhat more sociable but not much so. They could not of course talk over Eleanor's sins. The archdeacon had indeed so far betrayed his sister-in-law as to whisper into Mr Arabin's ear in the study, as they met there before dinner, a hint of what he feared. He did so with the gravest and saddest of fears, and Mr Arabin became grave and apparently sad enough as he heard it. He opened his eyes and his mouth and said in a sort of whisper, 'Mr Slope!' in the same way as he might have said, The Cholera!' had his friend told him that that horrid disease was in his nursery. 'I fear so, I fear so,' said the archdeacon, and then together they left the room.
We will not accurately analyse Mr Arabin's feelings on receipt of such astounding tidings. It will suffice to say that he was surprised, vexed, sorrowful, and ill at ease. He had not perhaps thought very much about Eleanor, but he had appreciated her influence, and had felt that close intimacy with her in a country house was pleasant to him, and also beneficial. He had spoken highly of her intelligence to the archdeacon, and had walked about the shrubberies with her, carrying her boy on his back. When Mr Arabin had called Johnny his darling, Eleanor was not angry.
Thus the three men sat over their wine, all thinking of the same subject, but unable to speak of it to each other. So we will leave them, and follow the ladies into the drawing-room.
Mrs Grantly had received a commission from her husband, and had undertaken it with some unwillingness. He had desired her to speak gravely to Eleanor, and to tell her that, if she persisted in her adherence to Mr Slope, she could no longer look for the countenance of her present friends. Mrs Grantly probably knew her sister better than the doctor did, and assured him that it would be in vain to talk to her. The only course likely to be of any service in her opinion was to keep Eleanor away from Barchester. Perhaps she might have added, for she had a very keen eye in such things, that there might be some ground for hope in keeping Eleanor near Mr Arabin. Of this, however, she said nothing. But the archdeacon would not be talked over; he spoke much of his conscience, and declared that if Mrs Grantly would not do it he would. So instigated, the lady undertook the task, stating, however, her full conviction that her interference would be worse than useless. And so it proved.
As soon as they were in the drawing-room Mrs Grantly found some excuse for sending her girls away, and then began her task. She knew well that she could exercise but very slight authority over her sister. Their various modes of life, and the distance between their residences, had prevented very close confidence. They had hardly lived together since Eleanor was a child. Eleanor had moreover, especially in latter years, resented in a quiet sort of way, the dictatorial authority which the archdeacon seemed to exercise over her father, and on this account had been unwilling to allow the archdeacon's wife to exercise authority over herself.
'You got a letter just before dinner, I believe,' began the eldest sister.
Eleanor acknowledged that she had done so, and felt that she turned red as she acknowledged it. She would have given anything to have kept her colour, but the more she tried to do so, the more she signally failed.
'Was it not from Mr Slope?'
Eleanor said that the letter was from Mr Slope.
'Is he a regular correspondent of yours, Eleanor?'
'Not exactly,' said she, already beginning to feel angry at the cross-examination. She determined, and why it would be difficult to say, that nothing would induce her to tell her sister Susan what was the subject of the letter. Mrs Grantly, she knew, was instigated by the archdeacon, and she would not plead to any arraignment made against her by him.
'But, Eleanor dear, why do you get letters from Mr Slope at all, knowing, as you do, he is a person so distasteful to papa, and to the archdeacon, and indeed to all your friends?'
'In the first place, Susan, I don't get letters from him; and in the next place, as Mr Slope wrote the one letter which I have got, and as I only received it, which I could not very well help doing, as papa handed it to me, I think you had better ask Mr Slope instead of me.'
'What was the letter about, Eleanor?'
'I cannot tell you,' said she, 'because it was confidential. It was on business respecting a third person.'
'It was in no way personal to yourself, then?'
'I won't exactly say that, Susan,' said she, getting more and more angry at her sister's questions.
'Well I must say it's rather singular,' said Mrs Grantly, affecting to laugh, 'that a young lady in your position should receive a letter from an unmarried gentleman of which she will not tell the contents, and which she is ashamed to show her sister.'
'I am not ashamed,' said Eleanor, blazing up; 'I am not ashamed of anything in the matter; only I do not choose to be cross-examined as to my letters by any one.'
'Well, dear,' said the other, 'I cannot tell you that I do not think that Mr Slope a proper correspondent for you.'
'If he be ever so improper, how can I help his having written to me? But you are all prejudiced against him to such an extent, that that which would be kind and generous in another man is odious and impudent in him. I hate a religion that teaches one to be so onesided to one's charity.'
'I am sorry, Eleanor, that you hate the religion you find here; but surely you should remember that in such matters the archdeacon must know more of the world than you do. I don't ask you to respect or comply with me, although I am, unfortunately, so many years your senior; but surely, in such a matter as this, you might consent to be guided by the archdeacon. He is most anxious to be your friend if you will let him.'
'In such a matter as what?' said Eleanor very testily. 'Upon my word I don't know what this is all about.'
'We all want you to drop Mr Slope.'
'You all want me to be illiberal as yourselves. That I shall never be. I see no harm in Mr Slope's acquaintance, and I shall not insult the man by telling him that I do. He has thought it necessary to write to me, and I do not want the archdeacon's advice about the letter. If I did I would ask it.'
'Then, Eleanor, it is my duty to tell you,' and now she spoke with a tremendous gravity, 'that the archdeacon thinks that such a correspondence is disgraceful, and that he cannot allow it to go on in this house.'
Eleanor's eyes flashed fire as she answered her sister, jumping up from her seat as she did so. 'You may tell the archdeacon that wherever I am I shall receive what letters I please and from whom I please. And as for the word disgraceful, if Dr Grantly has used it of me he has been unmanly and inhospitable,' and she walked off to the door. 'When papa comes from the dining-room I will thank you to ask him to step up to my bed-room. I will show him Mr Slope's letter, but I will show it to no one else.' And so saying she retreated to her baby.
She had no conception of the crime with which she was charged. The idea that she could be thought by her friends to regard Mr Slope as a lover, had never flashed upon her. She conceived that they were all prejudiced and illiberal in their persecution of him, and therefore she would not join in the persecution, even though she greatly disliked the man.
Eleanor was very angry as she seated herself in a low chair by her open window at the foot of her child's bed. 'To dare to say that I have disgraced myself,' she repeated to herself more than once. 'How papa can put up with that man's arrogance! I will certainly not sit down to dinner in this house again unless he begs my pardon for that word.' And then a thought struck her that Mr Arabin might perchance hear of her 'disgraceful' correspondence with Mr Slope, and she turned crimson with pure vexation. Oh, if she had known the truth! If she could have conceived that Mr Arabin had been informed as a fact that she was going to marry Mr Slope!
She had not been long in her room before her father joined her. As he left the drawing-room Mrs Grantly took her husband into the recess of the window, and told him how signally she had failed.
'I will speak to her myself before I go to bed,' said the archdeacon.
'Pray do no such thing,' said she; 'you can do no good and will only make an unseemly quarrel in the house. You have no idea how headstrong she can be.'
The archdeacon declared that as to that he was quite indifferent. He knew his duty and he would do it. Mr Harding was weak in the extreme in such matters. He would not have it hereafter on his conscience that he had not done all that in him lay to prevent so disgraceful an alliance. It was in vain that Mrs Grantly assured him that speaking to Eleanor angrily would only hasten such a crisis, and render it certain if at present there were any doubt. He was angry, self-willed, and sore. The fact that a lady in his household had received a letter from Mr Slope had wounded his pride in the sorest place, and nothing could control him.
Mr Harding looked worn and woebegone as he entered his daughter's room. These sorrows worried him sadly. He felt that if they were continued he must go to the wall in a manner so kindly prophesied to him by the chaplain. He knocked gently at his daughter's door, waited till he was distinctly bade to enter, and then appeared as though he and not she was the suspected criminal.
Eleanor's arm was soon within his, and she had soon kissed his forehead and caressed him, not with joyous but with eager love. 'Oh, papa,' she said, 'I do so want to speak to you. They have been talking about me downstairs to-night; don't you know they have, papa?'
Mr Harding confessed with a sort of murmur that the archdeacon had been speaking of her.
'I shall hate Dr Grantly soon--'
'Oh, my dear!'
'Well; I shall. I cannot help it. He is so uncharitable, so unkind, so suspicious of everyone that does not worship himself: and then he is so monstrously arrogant to other people who have a right to their opinions as well as he has to his own.'
'He is an earnest, eager man, my dear: but he never means to be unkind.'
'He is unkind, papa, most unkind. There, I got that letter from Mr Slope before dinner. It was you yourself who gave it to me. There; pray read it. It is all for you. It should have been addressed to you. You know how they have been talking about it downstairs. You know how they behaved to me at dinner. And since dinner Susan has been preaching to me, till I could not remain in the room with her. Read it, papa; and then say whether that is a letter that need make Dr Grantly so outrageous.'
Mr Harding took his arm from his daughter's waist, and slowly read the letter. She expected to see his countenance lit up with joy as he learnt that his path back to the hospital was made so smooth; but she was doomed to disappointment, as had once been the case before on a somewhat similar occasion. His first feeling was one of unmitigated disgust that Mr Slope should have chosen to interfere in his behalf. He had been anxious to get back to the hospital, but he would have infinitely sooner resigned all pretensions to the place, than have owned in any manner to Mr Slope's influence in his favour. Then he thoroughly disliked the tone of Mr Slope's letter; it was unctuous, false, and unwholesome, like the man. He saw, which Eleanor had failed to see, that much more had been intended than was expressed. The appeal to Eleanor's pious labours as separate from his own grated sadly against his feelings as a father. And then, when he came to the 'darling boy,' and the 'silken tresses,' he slowly closed and folded the letter in despair. It was impossible that Mr Slope should so write unless he had been encouraged. It was impossible that Eleanor should have received such a letter, and received it without annoyance, unless she were willing to encourage him. So at least, Mr Harding argued to himself.
How hard it is to judge accurately of the feelings of others. Mr Harding, as he came to close the letter, in his heart condemned his daughter for indelicacy, and it made him miserable to do so. She was not responsible for what Mr Slope might write. True. But then she expressed no disgust at it. She had rather expressed approval of the letter as a whole. She had given it to him to read, as a vindication for herself and also for him. The father's spirits sank within him as he felt that he could not acquit her.
And yet it was the true feminine delicacy of Eleanor's mind which brought her on this condemnation. Listen to me, ladies, and I beseech you to acquit her. She thought of this man, this lover of whom she was so unconscious, exactly as her father did, exactly as the Grantlys did. At least she esteemed him personally as they did. But she believed him to be in the main an honest man, and one truly inclined to assist her father. She felt herself bound, after what had passed, to show the letter to Mr Harding. She thought it necessary that he should know what Mr Slope had to say. But she did not think it necessary to apologise for, or condemn, or even allude to the vulgarity of the man's tone, which arose, as does all vulgarity, from ignorance. It was nauseous to her to have such a man like Mr Slope commenting on her personal attractions; and she did not think it necessary to dilate with her father upon what was nauseous. She never supposed they could disagree on such a subject. It would have been painful for to point it out, painful to her to speak strongly against a man of whom, on the whole she was anxious to think and speak well. In encountering such a man she had encountered what was disagreeable, as she might do in walking the streets. But in such encounters she never thought it necessary to dwell on what disgusted her.
Mr Harding slowly folded the letter, handed it back to her, kissed her forehead and bade God bless her. He then crept slowly away to his own room.
As soon as he had left the passage another knock was given at Eleanor's door, and Mrs Grantly's very demure own maid, entering on tiptoe, wanted to know would Mrs Bold be so kind as to speak to the archdeacon for two minutes in the archdeacon's study, if not disagreeable. The archdeacon's compliments, and he wouldn't detain her two minutes.
Eleanor thought it was very disagreeable; she was tired and fagged and sick at heart; her present feelings towards Dr Grantly were anything but those of affection. She was, however, no coward, and therefore promised to be in the study in five minutes. So she arranged her hair, tied on her cap, and went down with a palpitating heart.
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