Chapter XXIX. A Serious Interview




There are people who delight in serious interviews, especially when to them appertain the part of offering advice or administering rebuke, and perhaps the archdeacon was one of these. Yet on this occasion he did not prepare himself for the coming conversation with much anticipation of pleasure. Whatever might be his faults he was not an inhospitable man, and he almost felt that he was sinning against hospitality in upbraiding Eleanor in his own house. Then, also he was not quite sure that he would get the best of it. His wife had told him that he decidedly would not, and he usually gave credit to what his wife said. He was, however, so convinced of what he considered to be the impropriety of Eleanor's conduct, and so assured also of his own duty in trying to check it, that his conscience would not allow him to take his wife's advice and go to bed quietly.

Eleanor's face as she entered the room was not much as to reassure him. As a rule she was always mild in manner and gentle in conduct; but there was that in her eye which made it not an easy task to scold her. In truth she had been little used to scolding. No one since her childhood had tried it but the archdeacon, and he had generally failed when he did try it. He had never done so since her marriage; and now, when he saw her quiet easy step, as she entered the room, he almost wished he had taken his wife's advice.

He began by apologising for the trouble he was giving her. She begged him not to mention it, assured him that walking down the stairs was no trouble to her at all, and then took a seat and waited patiently for him to begin his attack.

'My dear Eleanor,' he said, 'I hope you believe me when I assure you that you have no sincerer friend than I am.' To this Eleanor answered nothing, and therefore he proceeded. 'If you had a brother of your own I should not probably trouble you with what I am going to say. But as it is I cannot but think that it must be a comfort to you to know that you have near you one who is as anxious for your welfare as any brother of your own could be.'

'I never had a brother,' said she.

'I know you never had, and it is therefore that I speak to you.'

'I never had a brother,' she repeated; 'but I have hardly felt the want. Papa has been to me both father and brother.'

'Your father is the fondest and most affectionate of men. But--'

'He is--the fondest and most affectionate of men, and the best of counsellors. While he lives I can never want advice.'

This rather put the archdeacon out. He could not exactly contradict what his sister-in-law said about her father; and yet he did not at all agree with her. He wanted her to understand that he tendered his assistance because her father was a soft good-natured gentleman, not sufficiently knowing in the ways of the world; but he could not say this to her. So he had to rush into the subject-matter of his proffered counsel without any acknowledgement on her part that she could need it, or would be grateful for it.

'Susan tells me that you received a letter this evening from Mr Slope.'

'Yes; papa brought it in the brougham. Did he not tell you?'

'And Susan says that you objected to let her know what it was about.'

'I don't think she asked me. But had she done so I should not have told her. I don't think it nice to be asked about one's letters. If one wishes to show them one does so without being asked.'

'True. Quite so. What you say is quite true. But is not the fact of your receiving letters from Mr Slope, which you do not wish to show to your friends, a circumstance which must excite some--some surprise--some suspicion--'

'Suspicion!' said she, not speaking above her usual voice, speaking still in a soft womanly tone, but yet with indignation; 'suspicion! and who suspects me, and of what?'

And then there was a pause, for the archdeacon was not quite ready to explain the ground of his suspicion. 'No, Dr Grantly, I did not choose to show Mr Slope's letter to Susan. I could not show it to any one till papa had seen it. If you have any wish to read it now, you can do so,' and she handed the letter to him over the table.

This was an amount of compliance which he had not at all expected, and which rather upset him in his tactics. However, he took the letter, perused it carefully, and then refolding it, kept it on the table under his hand. To him it appeared to be in almost every respect the letter of a declared lover; it seemed to corroborate his worst suspicions; and the fact of Eleanor's showing it to him was all but tantamount to a declaration on her part, that it was her pleasure to receive love-letters from Mr Slope. He almost entirely overlooked the real subject-matter of the epistle; so intent was he on the forthcoming courtship and marriage.

'I'll thank you to give it back, please, Dr Grantly.'

He took his hand and held it up, but made no immediate overture to return it. 'And Mr Harding has seen this?' said he.

'Of course he has,' said she; 'it was written that he might see it. It refers solely to his business--of course I showed it to him.'

'And Eleanor, do you think that that is a proper letter for you--for a person in your condition--to receive from Mr Slope?'

'Quite a proper letter,' said she, speaking, perhaps, a little out of obstinacy; probably forgetting at the moment the objectionable mention of her silken curls.

'Then, Eleanor, it is my duty to tell you that I wholly differ from you.'

'So I suppose,' said she, instigated now by sheer opposition and determination not to succumb. 'You think Mr Slope is a messenger direct from Satan. I think he is an industrious, well-meaning clergyman. It's a pity that we differ as we do. But, as we do differ, we had probably better not talk about it.'

Here undoubtedly Eleanor put herself in the wrong. She might probably have refused to talk to Dr Grantly on the matter in dispute without any impropriety; but having consented to listen to him, she had no business to tell him that regarded Mr Slope as an emissary from the evil one; nor was she justified in praising Mr Slope, seeing that in her heart of hearts she did not think well of him. She was, however, wounded in spirit, and very angry and bitter. She had been subjected to contumely and cross-questioning and ill-usage through the whole evening. No one, not even Mr Arabin, not even her father, had been kind to her. All this she attributed to the prejudice and conceit of the archdeacon, and therefore she resolved to set no bounds to her antagonism to him. She would neither give nor take quarter. He had greatly presumed in daring to question her about her correspondence, and she was determined to show that she thought so.

'Eleanor, you are forgetting yourself,' said he, looking very sternly at her. 'Otherwise you would never tell me that I conceive any man to be a messenger from Satan.'

'But you do,' said she. 'Nothing is too bad for him. Give me that letter, if you please;' and she stretched out her hand and took it from him. 'He has been doing his best to serve papa, doing more than any of papa's friends could do; and yet, because he is the chaplain of a bishop whom you don't like, you speak of him as though he had no right to the usage of a gentleman.'

'He has done nothing for your father.'

'I believe that he has done a great deal; and, as far as I am concerned, I am grateful to him. I judge people by their acts, and his, as far as I can see them, are good.' She then paused for a moment. 'If you have nothing further to say, I shall be obliged by being permitted to say good night--I am very tired.'

Dr Grantly had, as he thought, done his best to be gracious to his sister-in-law. He had endeavoured not to be harsh with her, and had striven to pluck the sting from his rebuke. But he did not intend that she should leave him without hearing him.

'I have something to say, Eleanor; and I fear I must trouble you to hear it. You profess that it is quite proper that you should receive from Mr Slope such letters as that you have in your hand. Susan and I think very differently. You are, of course, your own mistress, and much as we both must grieve should anything separate you from us, we have no power to prevent you from taking steps which may lead to such a separation. If you are so wilful as to reject the counsel of your friends, you must be allowed to cater for yourself. Is it worth you while to break away from all those you have loved--from all who love you--for the sake of Mr Slope?'

'I don't know what you mean, Dr Grantly; I don't know what you are talking about. I don't want to break away from anybody.'

'But you will do so if you connect yourself with Mr Slope. Eleanor, I must speak out to you. You must choose between your sister and myself and our friends, and Mr Slope and his friends. I say nothing of your father, as you may probably understand his feelings better than I do.'

'What do you mean, Dr Grantly? What am I to understand? I never heard such wicked prejudice in my life.'

'It is no prejudice, Eleanor. I have known the world longer than you have done. Mr Slope is altogether beneath you. You ought to know and feel that he is so. Pray--pray think of this before it is too late.'

'Too late!'

'Or if you will not believe me, ask Susan; you cannot think she is prejudiced against you. Or even consult your father, he is not prejudiced against you. Ask Mr Arabin--'

'You haven't spoken to Mr Arabin about this!' said she, jumping up and standing before him.

'Eleanor, all the world in and about Barchester will be speaking of it soon.'

'But you have spoken to Mr Arabin about me and Mr Slope?'

'Certainly I have, and he quite agrees with me.'

'Agree with what?' said she. 'I think you are trying to drive me mad.'

'He agrees with me and Susan that it is quite impossible you should be received at Plumstead as Mrs Slope.'

Not being favourites with the tragic muse we do not dare to attempt any description of Eleanor's face when she first heard the name of Mrs Slope pronounced as that which would or should or might at some time appertain to herself. The look, such as it was, Dr Grantly did not soon forget. For a moment or two she could find no words to express her deep anger and deep disgust; and, indeed, at this conjuncture, words did not come to her very freely.

'How dare you be so impertinent?' at last she said; and then hurried out of the room, without giving the archdeacon the opportunity of uttering another word. It was with difficulty that she contained herself till she reached her own room; and then, locking the door, she threw herself on her bed and sobbed as though her heart would break.

But even yet she had no conception of the truth. She had no idea that her father and sister had for days past conceived in sober earnest the idea that she was going to marry the man. She did not even then believe that the archdeacon thought that she would do so. By some manoeuvre of her brain, she attributed the origin of the accusation to Mr Arabin, and as she did so her anger against him was excessive, and the vexation of her spirit almost unendurable. She could not bring herself to think the charge was made seriously. It appeared to her most probable that the archdeacon and Mr Arabin had talked over her objectionable acquaintance with Mr Slope; that Mr Arabin, in his jeering sarcastic way, had suggested the odious match as being the severest way of treating with contumely her acquaintance with his enemy; and that the archdeacon, taking the idea from him, thought proper to punish her by the allusion. The whole night she lay awake thinking of what had been said, and this appeared to be the most probable solution.

But the reflection that Mr Arabin should have in any way mentioned her name in connection with that of Mr Slope was overpowering; and the spiteful ill-nature of the archdeacon, in repeating the charge to her, made her wish to leave his house almost before the day had broken. One thing was certain: nothing should make her stay there beyond the following morning, and nothing should make her sit down in company with Dr Grantly. When she thought of the man whose name had been linked with her own, she cried from sheer disgust. It was only because she would be thus disgusted, thus pained, and shocked and cut to the quick, that the archdeacon had spoken the horrid word. He wanted her to make her quarrel with Mr Slope, and therefore he had outraged her by his abominable vulgarity. She determined that at any rate he should know that she appreciated it.

Nor was the archdeacon a bit better satisfied with the result of his serious interview than was Eleanor. He gathered from it, as indeed he could hardly fail to do, that she was very angry with him; but he thought that she was thus angry, not because she was suspected of an intention to marry Mr Slope, but because such an intention was imputed to her as a crime. Dr Grantly regarded this supposed union with disgust; but it never occurred to him that Eleanor was outraged, because she looked at it exactly in the same light.

He returned to his wife vexed and somewhat disconsolate, but, nevertheless, confirmed in his wrath against his sister-in-law. 'Her whole behaviour,' said he, 'has been most objectionable. She handed me his love letter to read as though she were proud of it. And she is proud of it. She is proud of having this slavering, greedy man at her feet. She will throw herself and John Bold's money into his lap; she will ruin her boy, disgrace her father and you, and be a wretched miserable woman.'

His spouse who was sitting at her toilet table, continued her avocations, making no answer to all this. She had known that the archdeacon would gain nothing be interfering; but she was too charitable to provoke him by saying so while he was in such deep sorrow.

'This comes of a man making a will as that of Bold's' he continued. 'Eleanor is no more fitted to be trusted with such an amount of money in her own hands than is a charity-school girl.' Still Mrs Grantly made no reply. 'But I have done my duty; I can do nothing further. I have told her plainly that she cannot be allowed to form a link of connection between me and that man. From henceforward it will not be in my power to make her welcome at Plumstead. I cannot have Mr Slope's love letters coming here. I think you have better let her understand that as her mind on this subject seems to be irrevocably fixed, it will be better for all parties that she should return to Barchester.

Now Mrs Grantly was angry with Eleanor, nearly as angry as her husband; but she had no idea of turning her sister out of the house. She, therefore, at length spoke out, and explained to the archdeacon in her own mild seducing way, that he was fuming and fussing and fretting himself very unnecessarily. She declared that things, if left alone, would arrange themselves much better than he could arrange them; and at last succeeded in inducing him to go to bed in a somewhat less inhospitable state of mind.

On the following morning Eleanor's maid was commissioned to send word into the dining-room that her mistress was not well enough to attend prayers, and that she would breakfast in her own room. Here she was visited by her father and declared to him her intention of returning immediately to Barchester. He was hardly surprised by the announcement. All the household seemed to be aware that something had gone wrong. Every one walked about with subdued feet, and people's shoes seemed to creak more than usual. There was a look of conscious intelligence on the faces of the women; and the men attempted, but in vain, to converse as though nothing were the matter. All this had weighed heavily on the heart of Mr Harding; and when Eleanor told him that her immediate return to Barchester was a necessity, he merely sighed piteously, and said that he would be ready to accompany her.

But here she objected strenuously. She had a great wish, she said, to go alone; a great desire that it might be seen that her father was not implicated in her quarrel with Dr Grantly. To this at last he gave way; but not a word passed between them about Mr Slope--not a word was said, not a question asked as to the serious interview on the preceding evening. There was, indeed, very little confidence between them, though neither of them knew why it should be so. Eleanor once asked him whether he would not call upon the bishop; but he answered rather tartly that he did not know--he did not think he should, but he could not say just at present. And so they parted. Each was miserably anxious for some show of affection, for some return of confidence, for some sign of the feeling that usually bound them together. But none was given. The father could not bring himself to question his daughter about her supposed lover; and the daughter would not sully her mouth by repeating the odious word with which Dr Grantly had aroused her wrath. And so they parted.

There was some trouble in arranging the method of Eleanor's return. She begged her father to send for a postchaise; but when Mrs Grantly heard of this, she objected strongly. If Eleanor would go away in dudgeon with the archdeacon, why should she let all the servants and all the neighbourhood know that she had done so? So at last Eleanor consented to make use of the Plumstead carriage; and as the archdeacon had gone out immediately after breakfast and was not to return till dinner-time, she also consented to postpone her journey till after lunch, and to join the family at that time. As to the subject of the quarrel not a word was said by any one. The affair of the carriage was arranged by Mr Harding, who acted as Mercury between the two ladies; they, when they met, kissed each other very lovingly, and then sat down each to her crochet work as though nothing was amiss in all the world.



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