The bishop of Barchester said grace over the well-spread board in the Ullathorne dining-room; and while he did so the last breath was flying from the dean of Barchester as he lay in his sick-room in the deanery. When the bishop of Barchester raised his first glass of champagne to his lips, the deanship of Barchester was a good thing in the gift of the prime minister. Before the bishop of Barchester had left the table, the minister of the day was made aware of the fact at his country seat in Hampshire, and had already turned over in his mind the names of five very respectable aspirants for the preferment. It is at present only necessary to say that Mr Slope's name was not among the five.
''Twas merry in the hall when the beards wagged all;' and the clerical beards wagged merrily in the hall of Ullathorne that day. It was not till after the last cork had been drawn, the last speech made, the last nut cracked, that tidings reached and were whispered about that the poor dean was no more. It was well for the happiness of the clerical beards that this little delay took place, as otherwise decency would have forbidden them to wag at all.
But there was one sad man among them that day. Mr Arabin's beard did not wag as it should have done. He had come there hoping the best, striving to think the best about Eleanor; turning over in his mind all the words he remembered to have fallen from her about Mr Slope, and trying to gather from them a conviction unfavourable to his rival. He had not exactly resolved to come that day to some decisive proof as to the widow's intention; but he had meant, if possible, to re-cultivate his friendship with Eleanor; and in his present frame of mind any such re-cultivation must have ended in a declaration of love.
He had passed the previous night alone at his new parsonage, and it was the first night that he had so passed. It had been dull and sombre enough. Mrs Grantly had been right in saying that a priestess would be wanting at St Ewold's. He had sat there alone with his glass before him, and then with his teapot, thinking about Eleanor Bold. As is usual in such meditations, he did little but blame her; blame her for liking Mr Slope, and blame her for not liking him; blame her for her cordiality to himself, and blame her for her want of cordiality; blame her for being stubborn, headstrong, and passionate; and yet the more he thought of her the higher she rose in his affection. If only it should turn out, if only it could be made to turn out, that she had defended Mr Slope, not from love, but on principle, all would be right. Such principle in itself would be admirable, loveable, womanly; he felt that he could be pleased to allow Mr Slope just so much favour as that. But if--And then Mr Arabin poked his fire most unnecessarily, spoke crossly to his new parlour-maid who came in for the tea-things, and threw himself back in his chair determined to go to sleep. Why had she been so stiff-necked when asked a plain question? She could not but have known in what light he regarded her. Why had she not answered a plain question, and so put an end to his misery? Then, instead of going to sleep in his arm-chair, Mr Arabin walked about the room as though he had been possessed.
On the following morning, when he attended Miss Thorne's behests, he was still in a somewhat confused state. His first duty had been to converse with Mrs Clantantram, and that lady had found it impossible to elicit the slightest sympathy from him on the subject of hr roquelaure. Miss Thorne had asked him whether Mrs Bold was coming with the Grantlys; and the two names of Bold and Grantly together had nearly made him jump from his seat.
He was in this state of confused uncertainty, hope, and doubt, when he saw Mr Slope, with his most polished smile, handing Eleanor out of her carriage. He thought of nothing more. He never considered whether the carriage belonged to her or to Mr Slope, or to any one else to whom they might both be mutually obliged without any concert between themselves. The sight in his present state of mind was quite enough to upset him and his resolves. It was clear as noonday. Had he seen her handed into a carriage by Mr Slope at a church door with a white veil over her head, the truth could not be more manifest. He went into the house, and, as we have seen, soon found himself walking with Mr Harding. Shortly afterwards Eleanor came up; and then he had to leave his companion, and either go about alone or find another. While in this state he was encountered by the archdeacon.
'I wonder,' said Dr Grantly, 'if it be true that Mr Slope and Mrs Bold come here together. Susan says she is almost sure she saw their faces in the same carriage as she got out of her own.'
Mr Arabin had nothing for it but to bear his testimony to the correctness of Mrs Grantly's eyesight.
'It is perfectly shameful,' said the archdeacon; 'or I should rather say, shameless. She was asked her as my guest; and if she be determined to disgrace herself, she should have feeling enough not to do so before my immediate friends. I wonder how that man got himself invited. I wonder whether she had the face to bring him.'
To this Mr Arabin could answer nothing, nor did he wish to answer anything. Though he abused Eleanor to himself, he did not choose to abuse to any one else, nor was he well pleased to hear any one else speak ill of her. Dr Grantly, however, was very angry, and did not spare his sister-in-law. Mr Arabin therefore left him as soon as he could, and wandered back into the house.
It is impossible to say how the knowledge had been acquired, but the signora had a sort of instinctive knowledge that Mr Arabin was an admirer of Mrs Bold. Men hunt foxes by the aid of dogs, and are aware that they do so by the strong organ of smell with which the dog is endowed. They do not, however, in the least comprehend how such a sense can work with such acuteness. The organ by which woman instinctively, as it were, know and feel how other women are regarded by men, and how also men are regarded by other women, is equally strong, and equally incomprehensible. A glance, a word, a motion, suffices: by some such acute exercise of her feminine senses the signora was aware that Mr Arabin loved Eleanor Bold; and therefore, by a further exercise of her peculiar feminine propensities, it was quite natural for her to entrap Mr Arabin into her net.
The work was half done before she came to Ullathorne, and when could she have a better opportunity of completing it? She had had almost enough of Mr Slope, though she could not quite resist the fun of driving a very sanctimonious clergyman to madness by a desperate and ruinous passion. Mr Thorne had fallen too easily to give much pleasure in the chase. His position as a man of wealth might make his alliance of value, but as a lover he was very second-rate. We may say that she regarded him somewhat as a sportsman does a pheasant. The bird is so easily shot, that he would not be worth the shooting were it not for the very respectable appearance that he makes in a larder. The signora would not waste much time in shooting Mr Thorne, but still he was worth bagging for family uses.
But Mr Arabin was game of another sort. The signora was herself possessed of quite sufficient intelligence to know that Mr Arabin was a man more than usually intellectual. She knew also, that as a clergyman he was of a much higher stamp than Mr Slope, and that as gentleman he was better educated than Mr Thorne. She would never have attempted to drive Mr Arabin into ridiculous misery as she did Mr Slope, nor would she think it possible to dispose of him in ten minutes as she had done with Mr Thorne.
Such were her reflections about Mr Arabin. As to Mr Arabin, it cannot be said that he reflected at all about the signora.
He knew that she was beautiful, and he felt that she was able to charm him. He required charming in his present misery, and therefore he went and stood at the head of her couch. She knew all about it. Such were her peculiar gifts.
It was her nature to see that he required charming, and it was her province to charm him. As the Easter idler swallows his dose of opium, as the London reprobate swallows his dose of gin, so with similar desire and for similar reasons did Mr Arabin prepare to swallow the charms of the Signora Neroni.
'Why aren't you shooting with bows and arrows, Mr Arabin?' said she, when they were nearly alone together in the sitting-room; 'or talking with young ladies in shady bowers, or turning your talents to account in some way? What was a bachelor like you asked here for? Don't you mean to earn your cold chicken and champagne? Were I you, I should be ashamed to be so idle.'
Mr Arabin murmured some sort of answer. Though he wished to be charmed, he as hardly yet in a mood to be playful in return.
'Why, what ails you, Mr Arabin?' said she, 'here you are in your own parish; Miss Thorne tells me that her party is given expressly in your honour; and yet you are the only dull man in it. Your friend Mr Slope was with me a few minutes since, full of life and spirits' why don't you rival him?'
It was not difficult for so acute an observer as Madeline Neroni to see that she had hit the nail on the head and driven the bolt home. Mr Arabin winced visibly before her attack, and she knew at once that he was jealous of Mr Slope.
'But I look on you and Mr Slope as the very antipodes of men,' said she. 'There is nothing in which you are not each the reverse of the other, except in belonging to the same profession; and even in that you are so unlike as perfectly to maintain the rule. He is gregarious, you are given to solitude. He is active, you are passive. He works, you think. He likes women, you despise them. He is fond of position and power, and so are you, but for directly different reasons. He loves to be praised, you very foolishly abhor it. He will gain his rewards, which will be an insipid useful wife, a comfortable income, and a reputation for sanctimony. You will also gain yours.'
'Well, and what will they be?' said Mr Arabin, who knew that he was being flattered, and yet suffered himself to put up with it. 'What will be my rewards?'
'The heart of some woman whom you will be too austere to own that you love, and the respect of some few friends which you will be too proud to own that you value.'
'Rich rewards,' said he; 'but of little worth if they are to be so treated.'
'Oh, you are not to look for such success as awaits Mr Slope. He is born to be a successful man. He suggests to himself an object, and then starts for it with eager intention. Nothing will deter him from his pursuit. He will have no scruples, no fears, no hesitation. His desire is to be a bishop with a rising family, the wife will come first, and in due time the apron. You will see all this, and then--'
'Well, and what then?'
'Then you will begin to wish that you had done the same.'
Mr Arabin look placidly out at the lawn, and resting his shoulder on the head of the sofa, rubbed his chin with his hand. It was a trick he had when he was thinking deeply; and what the signora said made him think. Was it not all true? Would he not hereafter look back, if not at Mr Slope, at some others, people not equally gifted with himself, who had risen in the world while he had lagged behind, and then wish that he had done the same?
'Is not such the doom of all speculative men of talent?' said she. 'Do they not all sit rapt as you now are, cutting imaginary silken cords with their fine edges, while those not so highly tempered sever the every-day Gordian knots of the world's struggle, and win wealth and renown? Steel too highly polished, edges too sharp, do not do for this world's work, Mr Arabin.'
Who was this woman that thus read the secrets of his heart, and re-uttered to him the unwelcome bodings of his own soul? He looked full into her face when she had done speaking, and said, 'Am I one of those foolish blades, too sharp and too fine to do a useful day's work?'
'Why do you let the Slopes of the world out-distance you?' said she. 'It not the blood in your veins as warm as his? does not your pulse beat as fast? Has not God made you a man, and intended you to do a man's work here, ay, and to take a man's wages also?'
Mr Arabin sat ruminating and rubbing his face, and wondering why these things were said to him; but he replied nothing. The signora went on--
'The greatest mistake any man ever made is to suppose that the good things of the world are not worth the winning. And it is a mistake so opposed to the religion which you preach! Why does God permit his bishops one after the other to have their five thousands and ten thousands a year if such wealth be bad and not worth having? Why are beautiful things given to us, and luxuries and pleasant enjoyments, if they be not intended to be used? They must be meant for some one, and what is good for a layman cannot surely be bad for a clerk. You try to despise these good things, but you only try; you don't succeed.'
'Don't I,' said Mr Arabin, still musing, and not knowing what he said.
'I ask you the question: do you succeed?'
Mr Arabin looked at her piteously. It seemed to him as though he were being interrogated by some inner spirit of his own, to whom he could not refuse an answer, and to whom he did not dare to give a false reply.
'Come, Mr Arabin, confess; do you succeed? Is money so contemptible? Is worldly power so worthless? Is feminine beauty a trifle to be so slightly regarded by a wise man?'
'Feminine beauty!' said he, gazing into her face, as though all the feminine beauty in the world was concentrated there. 'Why do you say I do not regard it?'
'If you look at me like that, Mr Arabin, I shall alter my opinion--or should do so, were I not of course aware that I have no beauty of my own worth regarding.'
The gentleman blushed crimson, but the lady did not blush at all. A slightly increased colour animated her face, just so much so as to give her an air of special interest. She expected a compliment from her admirer, but she was rather grateful than otherwise by finding that he did not pay it to her. Messrs Slope and Thorne, Messrs Brown, Jones and Robinson, they all paid her compliments. She was rather in hopes that she would ultimately succeed in inducing Mr Arabin to abuse her.
'But your gaze,' said she, 'is one of wonder, and not of admiration. You wonder at my audacity in asking you such questions about yourself.'
'Well, I do rather,' said he.
'Nevertheless I expect an answer, Mr Arabin. Why were women made beautiful if men are not to regard them?'
'But men do regard them,' he replied.
'And why not you?'
'You are begging the question, Madame Neroni.'
'I am sure that I shall beg nothing, Mr Arabin, which you will not grant, and I do beg for an answer. Do you not as a rule think women below your notice as companions? Let us see. There is the widow Bold looking round at you from her chair this minute. What would you say to her as a companion for life?'
Mr Arabin, rising from his position, leaned over the sofa and looked through the drawing-room door to the place where Eleanor was seated between Bertie Stanhope and Mr Slope. She at once caught his glance, and averted her own. She was not pleasantly placed in her present position. Mr Slope was doing his best to attract her attention; and she was striving to prevent his doing so by talking to Mr Stanhope, while her mind was intently fixed on Mr Arabin and Madame Neroni. Bertie Stanhope endeavoured to take advantage of her favours, but he was thinking more of the manner in which he would by-and-by throw himself at her feet, than of amusing her at the present moment.
'There,' said the signora. 'She was stretching her beautiful neck to look at you, and now you have disturbed her. Well I declare, I believe I am wrong about you; I believe that you do think Mrs Bold a charming woman. Your looks seem to say so; and by her looks I should say that she is jealous of me. Come, Mr Arabin, confide in me, and if it is so, I'll do all in my power to make up the match.'
It is needless to say that the signora was not very sincere in her offer. She was never sincere on such subjects. She never expected others to be so, nor did she expect others to think her so. Such matters were her playthings, her billiard table, her hounds and hunters, her waltzes and polkas, her picnics and summer-day excursions. She had little else to amuse her, and therefore played at love-making in all its forms. She was now playing at it with Mr Arabin, and did not at all expect the earnestness and truth of his answer.
'All in your power would be nothing,' said he; 'for Mrs Bold is, I imagine, already engaged to another.'
'Then you own the impeachment yourself.'
'You cross-question me rather unfairly,' he replied, 'and I do not know why I answer you at all. Mrs Bold is a very beautiful woman, and as intelligent as beautiful. It is impossible to know her without admiring her.'
'So you think the widow a very beautiful woman?'
'Indeed I do.'
'And one that would grace the parsonage at St Ewold's.'
'One that would grace any man's house.'
'And you really have the effrontery to tell me this,' said she; 'to tell me, who, as you very well know, set up to be a beauty myself, and who am at this very moment taking such an interest in your affairs, you really have the effrontery to tell me that Mrs Bold is the most beautiful woman you know.'
'I did not say so,' said Mr Arabin; 'you are more beautiful--'
'Ah, come now, that is something like. I thought you would not be so unfeeling.'
'You are more beautiful, perhaps more clever.'
'Thank you, thank you, Mr Arabin. I knew that you and I should be friends.'
'Not a word further. I will not hear a word further. If you talk till midnight, you cannot improve what you have said.'
'But Madame Neroni, Mrs Bold--'
'I will not hear a word about Mrs Bold. Dread thoughts of strychnine did pass across my brain, but she is welcome to the second place.'
'I won't hear anything about her or her place. I am satisfied and that is enough. But, Mr Arabin, I am dying with hunger; beautiful and clever as I am, you know I cannot go to my food, and yet you do not bring it to me.'
This at any rate was so true as to make it unnecessary that Mr Arabin should not act upon it, and he accordingly went into the dining-room and supplied the signora's wants.
'And yourself,' said she.
'Oh,' said he, 'I am not hungry; I never eat at this hour.'
'Come, come, Mr Arabin, don't let love interfere with your appetite. It never does with mine. Give me half a glass more champagne, and then go to the table. Mrs Bold will do me an injury if you stay talking to me any longer.'
Mr Arabin did as he was bid. He took her plate and glass from her, and going into the dining-room, helped himself to a sandwich from the crowded table and began munching it in a corner.
As he was doing so, Miss Thorne, who had hardly sat down for a moment, came into the room, and seeing him standing, was greatly distressed.
'Oh, my dear Mr Arabin,' said she, 'have you never sat down yet? I am so distressed. You of all men too.'
Mr Arabin assured her that he had only just come into the room.
'That is the very reason why you should lose no more time. Come I'll make room for you. Thank'ee my dear,' she said, seeing that Mrs Bold was making an attempt to move from her chair, 'but I would not for the world see you stir, for all the ladies would think it necessary to follow. But, perhaps, if Mr Stanhope has done--just for a minute, Mr Stanhope--till I can get another chair.'
And so Bertie had to rise to make way for his rival. This he did, as he did everything, with an air of good-humoured pleasantry, which made it impossible for Mr Arabin to refuse the proffered seat.
'His bishopric let another take,' said Bertie; the quotation being certainly not very appropriate, either for the occasion, or the person spoken to. 'I have eaten and am satisfied; Mr Arabin, pray take my chair. I wish for your sake, it really was a bishop's seat.'
Mr Arabin did sit down, and as he did so, Mrs Bold got up as though to follow her neighbour.
'Pray, pray don't move,' said Miss Thorne, almost forcing Eleanor back into her chair. 'Mr Stanhope is not going to leave us. He will stand behind you like a true knight as he is. And now I think of it, Mr Arabin, let me introduce you to Mr Slope. Mr Slope, Mr Arabin.' And the two gentlemen bowed stiffly to each other across the lady they both intended to marry, while the other gentleman who also intended to marry her stood behind, watching them.
The two had never met each other before, and the present was certainly not a good opportunity for much cordial conversation, even if cordial conversation between them had been possible. As it was, the whole four who formed the party seemed as though their tongues were tied. Mr Slope, who was wide awake to what he hoped was his coming opportunity, was not much concerned in the interest of the moment. His wish was to see Eleanor move, that he might pursue her. Bertie was not exactly in the same frame of mind; the evil of the day was near enough; there was no reason why he should precipitate it. He had made up his mind to marry Eleanor Bold if he could, and was resolved to-day to take the first preliminary step towards doing so. But there was time enough before him. He was not going to make an offer of marriage over the table-cloth. Having thus good-naturedly made way for Mr Arabin, he was willing also to let him talk to the future Mrs Stanhope as long as they remained in their present position.
Mr Arabin bowed to Mr Slope, began eating his food, without saying a word further. He was full of thoughts, and though he ate he did so unconsciously.
But poor Eleanor was the most to be pitied. The only friend on whom she thought she could rely, was Bertie Stanhope, and he, it seemed, was determined to desert her. Mr Arabin did not attempt to address her. She said a few words in reply to some remarks from Mr Slope, and then feeling the situation too much for her, started from her chair in spite of Miss Thorne, and hurried from the room. Mr Slope followed her, and young Stanhope lost the occasion.
Madame Neroni, when she was left alone, could not help pondering much on the singular interview she had had with this singular man. Not a word that she had spoken to him had been intended by her to be received as true, and yet he had answered her in the very spirit of truth. He had done so, and she had been aware that he had done so. She had wormed from him his secret; and he, debarred as it would seem from man's usual privilege of lying, had innocently laid bare his whole soul to her. He loved Eleanor Bold, but Eleanor was not in his eyes so beautiful as herself. He would fain have Eleanor for his wife, but yet he had acknowledged that she was the less gifted of the two. The man had literally been unable to falsify his thoughts when questioned, and had been compelled to be true malgre lui, even when truth must have been disagreeable to him.
This teacher of men, this Oxford pundit, this double-distilled quintessence of university perfection, this writer of religious treatises, this speaker of ecclesiastical speeches, had been like a little child in her hands; she had turned him inside out, and read his very heart as she might have done that of a young girl. She could not but despise him for his facile openness, and yet she liked him too. It was a novelty to her, a new trait in a man's character. She felt also that she could never so completely make a fool of him as she did of the Slopes and the Thornes. She felt that she could never induce Mr Arabin to make protestations to her that were not true, or to listen to nonsense that was mere nonsense.
It was quite clear that Mr Arabin was heartily in love with Mrs Bold, and the signora, with very unwonted good nature, began to turn it over in her mind whether she could not do him a good turn. Of course Bertie was to have the first chance. It was an understood family arrangement that her brother was, if possible, to marry the widow Bold. Madeline knew too well the necessities and what was due to her sister to interfere with so excellent a plan, as long as it might be feasible. But she had strong suspicion that it was not feasible. She did not think it likely that Mrs Bold would accept a man in her brother's position, and she had frequently said so to Charlotte. She was inclined to believe that Mr Slope had more chance of success; and with her it would be a labour of love to rob Mr Slope of his wife.
And so the signora resolved, should Bertie fail, to do a good-natured act for once in her life, and give up Mr Arabin to the woman whom he loved.
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