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When Mrs Bold came to the end of the walk and faced the lawn, she began to bethink herself what she should do. Was she to wait there till Mr Slope caught her, or was she to go in among the crowd with tears in her eyes and passion in her face? She might in truth have stood there long enough without any reasonable fear of further immediate persecution from Mr Slope; but we are all inclined to magnify the bugbears which frighten us. In her present state of dread she did not know of what atrocity he might venture to be guilty. Had any one told her a week ago that he would have put his arm around her waist at the party of Miss Thorne's she would have been utterly incredulous. Had she been informed that he would be seen on the following Sunday walking down the High Street in a scarlet coat and top-boots, she would not have thought such a phenomenon more improbable.
But this improbable iniquity he had committed; and now there was nothing she could not believe of him. In the first place it was quite manifest that he was tipsy; in the next place, it was to be taken as proved that all his religion was sheer hypocrisy; and finally the man was utterly shameless. She therefore stood watching for the sound of his footfall, not without some fear that he might creep out at her suddenly from among the bushes.
As she thus stood, she saw Charlotte Stanhope at a little distance from her walking quickly across the grass. Eleanor's handkerchief was in her hand, and putting it to her face so as to conceal her tears, she ran across the lawn and joined her friend.
'Oh, Charlotte,' she said, almost too much out of breath to speak very plainly; 'I am so glad I have found you.'
'Glad you have found me!' said Charlotte, laughing, 'that's a good joke. Why Bertie and I have been looking for you everywhere. He swears that you have gone off with Mr Slope, and is now on the point of hanging himself.'
'Oh, Charlotte, don't,' said Mrs Bold.
'Why, my child, what on earth is the matter with you!' said Miss Stanhope, perceiving that Eleanor's hand trembled on her own arm, and finding also that her companion was still half choked with tears. 'Goodness heaven! Something has distressed you. What is it? What can I do for you?'
Eleanor answered her only by a sort of spasmodic gurgle in her throat. She was a good deal upset, as people say, and could not at the moment collect herself.
'Come here, this way, Mrs Bold; come this way, and we shall not be seen. What has happened to vex you so? What can I do for you? Can Bertie do anything?'
'On, no, no, no, no,' said Eleanor. 'There is nothing to be done. Only that horrid man--'
'What horrid man?' asked Charlotte.
There are some moments in life in which both men and women feel themselves called on to make a confidence; in which not to do so requires a disagreeable resolution and also a disagreeable suspicion. There are people of both sexes who never make confidences; who are never tempted by momentary circumstances to disclose their secrets. But such are generally dull, close, unimpassioned spirits, 'gloomy gnomes who live in cold dark mines.' There was nothing of the gnome about Eleanor; and she therefore resolved to tell Charlotte Stanhope the whole story about Mr Slope.
'That horrid man; that Mr Slope,' said she, 'did you not see that he followed me out of the dining-room?'
'Of course I did and was sorry enough; but I could not help it. I knew you would be annoyed. But you and Bertie managed it badly between you.'
'It was not his fault nor mine either. You know how I dislike the idea of coming in the carriage with that man.'
'I am sure I am very sorry if that has led to it.'
'I don't know what has led to it,' said Eleanor, almost crying again. 'But it has not been my fault.'
'But what has he done, my dear?'
'He's an abominable, horrid, hypocritical man, and it would serve him right to tell the bishop about it.'
'Believe me, if you want to do him an injury, you had far better tell Mrs Proudie. But what did he do, Mrs Bold?'
'Ugh!' exclaimed Eleanor.
'Well, I must confess he's not very nice,' said Charlotte Stanhope.
'Nice!' said Eleanor. 'He is the most fulsome, fawning, abominable man I ever saw. What business had he to come to me?--I that never gave him the slightest tittle of encouragement--I that always hated him, though I did take his part when others ran him down.'
'That's just where it is, my dear. He has heard that, and therefore fancied that of course you were in love with him.'
This was wormwood to Eleanor. It was in fact the very thing which all her friends had been saying for the last month past; and which experience now proved to be true. Eleanor resolved within herself that she would never again take any man's part. The world with all its villainy, and all its ill-nature, might wag as it like; she would not again attempt to set crooked things straight.
'But what did he do, my dear?' said Charlotte, who was really rather interested in the subject.
'Well--come, it can't have been anything so very horrid, for the man was not tipsy.'
'Oh, I am sure he was,' said Eleanor. 'I am sure he must have been tipsy.'
'Well, I declare I didn't observe it. But what was it, my love?'
'Why, I believe I can hardly tell you. He talked such horrid stuff that you never heard the like; about religion, and heaven, and love--Oh dear,--he is such a nasty man.'
'I can really imagine the sort of stuff he would talk. Well--and then?'
'And then--he took hold of me.'
'Took hold of you?'
'Yes--he somehow got close to me, and took hold of me--'
'By the waist?'
'Yes,' said Eleanor shuddering.
'Then I jumped away from him, and gave him a slap on the face; and ran away along the path, till I saw you.'
'Ha, ha, ha!' Charlotte Stanhope laughed heartily at the finale of the tragedy. It was delightful to her to think that Mr Slope had had his ears boxed. She did not quite appreciate the feeling which made her friend so unhappy at the result of the interview. To her thinking, the matter had ended happily enough as regarded the widow, who indeed was entitled to some sort of triumph among her friends. Whereas Mr Slope would be due all those jibes and jeers which would naturally follow such an affair. His friends would ask him whether his ears tingled whenever he saw a widow; and he would be cautioned that beautiful things were made to be looked at, and not to be touched.
Such were Charlotte Stanhope's views on such matters; but she did not at the present moment clearly explain them to Mrs Bold. Her object was to endear herself to her friend; and therefore, having had her laugh, she was ready enough to offer sympathy. Could Bertie do anything? Should Bertie speak to the man, and warn him that in future he must behave with more decorum? Bertie, indeed, she declared, would be more angry than any one else when he heard to what insult Mrs Bold had been subjected.
'But you won't tell him?' said Mrs Bold with a look of horror.
'Not if you don't like it,' said Charlotte; 'but considering everything, I would strongly advise it. If you had a brother, you know, it would be unnecessary. But it is very right that Mr Slope should know that you have somebody by you that will, and can protect you.'
'But my father is here.'
'Yes, but it is so disagreeable for clergymen to have to quarrel with each other; and circumstanced as your father is just at this moment, it would be very inexpedient that there should be anything unpleasant between him and Mr Slope. Surely you and Bertie are intimate enough for you to permit him to take your part.'
Charlotte Stanhope was very anxious that her brother should at once on that very day settle matters with his future wife.
Things had now come to that point between him and his father, and between him and his creditors, that he must either do so, or leave Barchester; either do that, or go back to his unwashed associates, dirty lodgings, and poor living at Carrara. Unless he could provide himself with an income, he must go to Carrara or to -. His father the prebendary had not said this in so many words, but had he done so, he could not have signified it more plainly.
Such being the state of the case, it was very necessary that no more time should be lost. Charlotte had seen her brother's apathy, when he neglected to follow Mrs Bold out of the room, with anger which she could hardly suppress. It was grievous to think that Mr Slope should have so distanced him.
Charlotte felt that she had played her part with sufficient skill. She had brought them together and induced such a degree of intimacy, that her brother was really relieved from all trouble and labour in the matter. And moreover, it was quite plain that Mrs Bold was very fond of Bertie. And now it was plain enough also that he had nothing to fear from his rival Mr Slope.
There was certainly an awkwardness in subjecting Mrs Bold to a second offer on the same day. It would have been well, perhaps, to have put the matter off for a week, could a week have been spared. But circumstances are frequently too peremptory to be arranged as we would wish to arrange them; and such was the case now. This being so, could not this affair of Mr Slope's be turned to advantage? Could it not be made the excuse for bringing Bertie and Mrs Bold into still closer connection; into such close connection that they could not fail to throw themselves into each other's arms? Such was the game which Miss Stanhope now at a moment's notice resolved to play.
And very well she played it. In the first place, it was arranged that Mr Slope should not return in the Stanhope's carriage to Barchester. It so happened that Mr Slope was already gone, but of that of course they knew nothing. The signora should be induced to go first, with only the servants and her sister, and Bertie should take Mr Slope's place in the second journey. Bertie was to be told in confidence of the whole affair, and when the carriage was gone off with the first load, Eleanor was to be left under Bertie's special protection, so as to insure her from any further aggression from Mr Slope. While the carriage was getting ready, Bertie was to seek out that gentleman and make him understand that he must provide himself with another conveyance back to Barchester. Their immediate object should be to walk about together in search of Bertie. Bertie, in short, was to be the Pegasus on whose wings they were to ride out of their present dilemma.
There was a warmth of friendship and cordial kindness in all this, that was very soothing to the widow; but yet, though she gave way to it, she was hardly reconciled to doing so. It never occurred to her, that now that she had killed one dragon, another was about to spring up in her path; she had no remote idea that she would have to encounter another suitor in her proposed protector, but she hardly liked the idea of putting herself so much into the hands of young Stanhope. She felt that if she wanted protection, she should go to her father. She felt that she should ask him to provide a carriage for her back to Barchester. Mrs Clantantram she knew would give her a seat. She knew that she should not throw herself entirely upon friends whose friendship dated as it were but from yesterday. But yet she could not say, 'no,' to one who was so sisterly in her kindness, so eager in her good nature, so comfortably sympathetic as Charlotte Stanhope.
They first went into the dining-room, looking for their champion, and from thence to the drawing-room. Here they found Mr Arabin, still hanging over the signora's sofa; or, rather, they found him sitting near her head, as a physician might have sat, had the lady been his patient. There was no other person in the room. The guests were some in the tent, some few still in the dining-room, some at the bows and arrows, but most of them walking with Miss Thorne through the park, and looking at the games that were going on.
All that had passed, and was passing between Mr Arabin and the lady, it is unnecessary to give in detail. She was doing with him as she did with all others. It was her mission to make fools of men, and she was pursuing her mission with Mr Arabin. She had almost got him to own his love for Mrs Bold, and had subsequently almost induced him to acknowledge a passion for herself. He, poor man, was hardly aware what he was doing or saying, hardly conscious whether he was in heaven or hell. So little had he known of female attractions of that peculiar class which the signora owned, that he became affected with a temporary delirium, when first subjected to its power. He lost his head rather than his heart, and toppled about mentally, reeling in his ideas as a drunken man does on his legs. She had whispered to him words that really meant nothing, but which coming from such beautiful lips, and accompanied by such lustrous glances, seemed to have a mysterious significance, which he felt though he could not understand.
In being thus be-sirened, Mr Arabin behaved himself very differently from Mr Slope. The signora had said truly, that the two men were the contrasts of each other; that the one was all for action, the other all for thought. Mr Slope, when this lady laid upon his senses the overpowering breath of her charms, immediately attempted to obtain some fruition, to achieve some mighty triumph. He began by catching at her hand, and progressed by kissing it. He made vows of love, and asked for vows in return. He promised everlasting devotion, knelt before her, and swore that had she been on Mount Ida, Juno would have no cause to hate the offspring of Venus. But Mr Arabin uttered no oaths, kept his hand mostly in his trousers pocket, and had no more thought of kissing Madam Neroni than of kissing the Countess De Courcy.
As soon as Mr Arabin saw Mrs Bold enter the room, he blushed and rose from his chair; then he sat down again, and then again got up. The signora saw the blush at once, and smiled at the poor victim, but Eleanor was too much confused to see anything.
'Oh, Madeline,' said Charlotte, 'I want to speak to you particularly; we must arrange about the carriage, you know,' and she stooped down to whisper to her sister. Mr Arabin immediately withdrew to a little distance, and as Charlotte had in fact much to explain before she could make the new arrangement intelligible, he had nothing to do but to talk to Mrs Bold.
'We have had a very pleasant party,' said he, using the tone he would have used had he declared that the sun was shining very brightly, or the rain was falling very fast.
'Very,' said Eleanor, who never in her life had passed a more unpleasant day.
'I hope Mr Harding has enjoyed himself.'
'Oh, yes, very much,' said Eleanor, who had not seen her father since she parted from him soon after her arrival.
'He returns to Barchester to-night, I suppose.'
'Yes, I believe so; that is, I think he is staying at Plumstead.'
'Oh, staying at Plumstead,' said Mr Arabin.
'He came from there this morning. I believe he is going back; he didn't exactly say, however.'
'I hope Mrs Grantly is quite well.'
'She seemed to be quite well. She is here; that is, unless she has gone away.'
'Oh, yes, to be sure. I was talking to her. Looking very well indeed.' Then there was a considerable pause: for Charlotte could not at once make Madeline understand why she was to be sent home in a hurry without her brother.
'Are you returning to Plumstead, Mrs Bold?' Mr Arabin merely asked this by way of making conversation, but he immediately perceived that he was approaching dangerous ground.
'No,' said Mrs Bold, very quietly; 'I am going home to Barchester.'
'Oh, ah, yes. I had forgotten that you had returned.' And then Mr Arabin, finding it impossible to say anything further, stood silent till Charlotte had completed her plans, and Mrs Bold stood equally silent, intently occupied as it appeared in the arrangement of her rings.
And yet these two people were thoroughly in love with each other; and though one was a middle-aged clergyman, and the other a lady at any rate past the wishy-washy bread-and-butter period of life, they were as unable to tell their own minds to each other as any Damon and Phillis, whose united ages would not make up that to which Mr Arabin had already attained.
Madeline Neroni consented to her sister's proposal, and then the two ladies again went off in quest of Bertie Stanhope.
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