Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope

CHAPTER XXVI

Mrs. Proudie Wrestles and Gets a Fall

It was hardly an hour since Mrs. Proudie had left her husband’s apartment victorious, and yet so indomitable was her courage that she now returned thither panting for another combat. She was greatly angry with what she thought was his duplicity. He had so clearly given her a promise on this matter of the hospital. He had been already so absolutely vanquished on that point. Mrs. Proudie began to feel that if every affair was to be thus discussed and battled about twice and even thrice, the work of the diocese would be too much even for her.

Without knocking at the door, she walked quickly into her husband’s room and found him seated at his office table, with Mr. Slope opposite to him. Between his fingers was the very note which he had written to the archbishop in her presence — and it was open! Yes, he had absolutely violated the seal which had been made sacred by her approval. They were sitting in deep conclave, and it was too clear that the purport of the archbishop’s invitation had been absolutely canvassed again, after it had been already debated and decided on in obedience to her behests! Mr. Slope rose from his chair and bowed slightly. The two opposing spirits looked each other fully in the face, and they knew that they were looking each at an enemy.

“What is this, Bishop, about Mr. Quiverful?” said she, coming to the end of the table and standing there.

Mr. Slope did not allow the bishop to answer but replied himself. “I have been out to Puddingdale this morning, ma’am, and have seen Mr. Quiverful. Mr. Quiverful has abandoned his claim to the hospital because he is now aware that Mr. Harding is desirous to fill his old place. Under these circumstances I have strongly advised his lordship to nominate Mr. Harding.”

“Mr. Quiverful has not abandoned anything,” said the lady, with a very imperious voice. “His lordship’s word has been pledged to him, and it must be respected.”

The bishop still remained silent. He was anxiously desirous of making his old enemy bite the dust beneath his feet. His new ally had told him that nothing was more easy for him than to do so. The ally was there now at his elbow to help him, and yet his courage failed him. It is so hard to conquer when the prestige of former victories is all against one. It is so hard for the cock who has once been beaten out of his yard to resume his courage and again take a proud place upon a dunghill.

“Perhaps I ought not to interfere,” said Mr. Slope, “but yet —”

“Certainly you ought not,” said the infuriated dame

“But yet,” continued Mr. Slope, not regarding the interruption, “I have thought it my imperative duty to recommend the bishop not to slight Mr. Harding’s claims.”

“Mr. Harding should have known his own mind,” said the lady.

“If Mr. Harding be not replaced at the hospital, his lordship will have to encounter much ill-will, not only in the diocese, but in the world at large. Besides, taking a higher ground, his lordship, as I understand, feels it to be his duty to gratify, in this matter, so very worthy a man and so good a clergyman as Mr. Harding.”

“And what is to become of the Sabbath-day school and of the Sunday services in the hospital?” said Mrs. Proudie, with something very nearly approaching to a sneer on her face.

“I understand that Mr. Harding makes no objection to the Sabbath-day school,” said Mr. Slope. “And as to the hospital services, that matter will be best discussed after his appointment. If he has any permanent objection, then, I fear, the matter must rest.”

“You have a very easy conscience in such matters, Mr. Slope,” said she.

“I should not have an easy conscience,” he rejoined, “but a conscience very far from being easy, if anything said or done by me should lead the bishop to act unadvisedly in this matter. It is clear that in the interview I had with Mr. Harding I misunderstood him —”

“And it is equally clear that you have misunderstood Mr. Quiverful,” said she, now at the top of her wrath. “What business have you at all with these interviews? Who desired you to go to Mr. Quiverful this morning? Who commissioned you to manage this affair? Will you answer me, sir? Who sent you to Mr. Quiverful this morning?”

There was a dead pause in the room. Mr. Slope had risen from his chair, and was standing with his hand on the back of it, looking at first very solemn and now very black. Mrs. Proudie was standing as she had at first placed herself, at the end of the table, and as she interrogated her foe she struck her hand upon it with almost more than feminine vigour. The bishop was sitting in his easy chair twiddling his thumbs, turning his eyes now to his wife, and now to his chaplain, as each took up the cudgels. How comfortable it would be if they could fight it out between them without the necessity of any interference on his part; fight it out so that one should kill the other utterly, as far as diocesan life was concerned, so that he, the bishop, might know clearly by whom it behoved him to be led. There would be the comfort of quiet in either case; but if the bishop had a wish as to which might prove the victor, that wish was certainly not antagonistic to Mr. Slope.

“Better the d —— you know than the d —— you don’t know,” is an old saying, and perhaps a true one, but the bishop had not yet realized the truth of it.

“Will you answer me, sir?” she repeated. “Who instructed you to call on Mr. Quiverful this morning?” There was another pause. “Do you intend to answer me, sir?”

“I think, Mrs. Proudie, that under all the circumstances it will be better for me not to answer such a question,” said Mr. Slope. Mr. Slope had many tones in his voice, all duly under his command; among them was a sanctified low tone and a sanctified loud tone — he now used the former.

“Did anyone send you, sir?”

“Mrs. Proudie,” said Mr. Slope, “I am quite aware how much I owe to your kindness. I am aware also what is due by courtesy from a gentleman to a lady. But there are higher considerations than either of those, and I hope I shall be forgiven if I now allow myself to be actuated solely by them. My duty in this matter is to his lordship, and I can admit of no questioning but from him. He has approved of what I have done, and you must excuse me if I say that, having that approval and my own, I want none other.”

What horrid words were these which greeted the ear of Mrs. Proudie? The matter was indeed too clear. There was premeditated mutiny in the camp. Not only had ill-conditioned minds become insubordinate by the fruition of a little power, but sedition had been overtly taught and preached. The bishop had not yet been twelve months in his chair and rebellion had already reared her hideous head within the palace. Anarchy and misrule would quickly follow unless she took immediate and strong measures to put down the conspiracy which she had detected.

“Mr. Slope,” she said with slow and dignified voice, differing much from that which she had hitherto used, “Mr. Slope, I will trouble you, if you please, to leave the apartment. I wish to speak to my lord alone.”

Mr. Slope also felt that everything depended on the present interview. Should the bishop now be re-petticoated, his thraldom would be complete and forever. The present moment was peculiarly propitious for rebellion. The bishop had clearly committed himself by breaking the seal of the answer to the archbishop; he had therefore fear to influence him. Mr. Slope had told him that no consideration ought to induce him to refuse the archbishop’s invitation; he had therefore hope to influence him. He had accepted Mr. Quiverful’s resignation and therefore dreaded having to renew that matter with his wife. He had been screwed up to the pitch of asserting a will of his own, and might possibly be carried on till by an absolute success he should have been taught how possible it was to succeed. Now was the moment for victory or rout. It was now that Mr. Slope must make himself master of the diocese, or else resign his place and begin his search for fortune again. He saw all this plainly. After what had taken place any compromise between him and the lady was impossible. Let him once leave the room at her bidding and leave the bishop in her hands, and he might at once pack up his portmanteau and bid adieu to episcopal honours, Mrs. Bold, and the Signora Neroni.

And yet it was not so easy to keep his ground when he was bidden by a lady to go, or to continue to make a third in a party between a husband and wife when the wife expressed a wish for a tête-à-tête with her husband.

“Mr. Slope,” she repeated, “I wish to be alone with my lord.”

“His lordship has summoned me on most important diocesan business,” said Mr. Slope, glancing with uneasy eye at Dr. Proudie. He felt that he must trust something to the bishop, and yet that that trust was so woefully ill-placed. “My leaving him at the present moment is, I fear, impossible.”

“Do you bandy words with me, you ungrateful man?” said she. “My lord, will you do me the favour to beg Mr. Slope to leave the room?”

My lord scratched his head but for the moment said nothing. This was as much as Mr. Slope expected from him and was on the whole, for him, an active exercise of marital rights.

“My lord,” said the lady, “is Mr. Slope to leave this room, or am I?”

Here Mrs. Proudie made a false step. She should not have alluded to the possibility of retreat on her part. She should not have expressed the idea that her order for Mr. Slope’s expulsion could be treated otherwise than by immediate obedience. In answer to such a question the bishop naturally said in his own mind that, as it was necessary that one should leave the room, perhaps it might be as well that Mrs. Proudie did so. He did say so in his own mind, but externally he again scratched his head and again twiddled his thumbs.

Mrs. Proudie was boiling over with wrath. Alas, alas! Could she but have kept her temper as her enemy did, she would have conquered as she had ever conquered. But divine anger got the better of her, as it has done of other heroines, and she fell.

“My lord,” said she, “am I to be vouchsafed an answer or am I not?”

At last he broke his deep silence and proclaimed himself a Slopeite. “Why, my dear,” said he, “Mr. Slope and I are very busy.

That was all. There was nothing more necessary. He had gone to the battlefield, stood the dust and heat of the day, encountered the fury of the foe, and won the victory. How easy is success to those who will only be true to themselves!

Mr. Slope saw at once the full amount of his gain and turned on the vanquished lady a look of triumph which she never forgot and never forgave. Here he was wrong. He should have looked humbly at her and, with meek entreating eye, have deprecated her anger. He should have said by his glance that he asked pardon for his success and that he hoped forgiveness for the stand which he had been forced to make in the cause of duty. So might he perchance have somewhat mollified that imperious bosom and prepared the way for future terms. But Mr. Slope meant to rule without terms. Ah, forgetful, inexperienced man! Can you cause that little trembling victim to be divorced from the woman that possesses him? Can you provide that they shall be separated at bed and board? Is he not flesh of her flesh and bone of her bone, and must he not so continue? It is very well now for you to stand your ground and triumph as she is driven ignominiously from the room, but can you be present when those curtains are drawn, when that awful helmet of proof has been tied beneath the chin, when the small remnants of the bishop’s prowess shall be cowed by the tassel above his head? Can you then intrude yourself when the wife wishes “to speak to my lord alone?”

But for the moment Mr. Slope’s triumph was complete, for Mrs. Proudie without further parley left the room and did not forget to shut the door after her. Then followed a close conference between the new allies, in which was said much which it astonished Mr. Slope to say and the bishop to hear. And yet the one said it and the other heard it without ill-will. There was no mincing of matters now. The chaplain plainly told the bishop that the world gave him credit for being under the governance of his wife; that his credit and character in the diocese were suffering; that he would surely get himself in hot water if he allowed Mrs. Proudie to interfere in matters which were not suitable for a woman’s powers; and in fact that he would become contemptible if he did not throw off the yoke under which he groaned. The bishop at first hummed and hawed and affected to deny the truth of what was said. But his denial was not stout and quickly broke down. He soon admitted by silence his state of vassalage and pledged himself, with Mr. Slope’s assistance, to change his courses. Mr. Slope also did not make out a bad case for himself. He explained how it grieved him to run counter to a lady who had always been his patroness, who had befriended him in so many ways, who had, in fact, recommended him to the bishop’s notice; but, as he stated, his duty was now imperative; he held a situation of peculiar confidence and was immediately and especially attached to the bishop’s person. In such a situation his conscience required that he should regard solely the bishop’s interests, and therefore he had ventured to speak out.

The bishop took this for what it was worth, and Mr. Slope only intended that he should do so. It gilded the pill which Mr. Slope had to administer, and which the bishop thought would be less bitter than that other pill which he had so long been taking.

“My lord,” had his immediate reward, like a good child. He was instructed to write and at once did write another note to the archbishop accepting his grace’s invitation. This note Mr. Slope, more prudent than the lady, himself took away and posted with his own hands. Thus he made sure that this act of self-jurisdiction should be as nearly as possible a fait accompli. He begged, and coaxed, and threatened the bishop with a view of making him also write at once to Mr. Harding, but the bishop, though temporally emancipated from his wife, was not yet enthralled to Mr. Slope. He said, and probably said truly, that such an offer must be made in some official form; that he was not yet prepared to sign the form; and that he should prefer seeing Mr. Harding before he did so. Mr. Slope might, however, beg Mr. Harding to call upon him. Not disappointed with his achievement Mr. Slope went his way. He first posted the precious note which he had in his pocket and then pursued other enterprises in which we must follow him in other chapters.

Mrs. Proudie, having received such satisfaction as was to be derived from slamming her husband’s door, did not at once betake herself to Mrs. Quiverful. Indeed, for the first few moments after her repulse she felt that she could not again see that lady. She would have to own that she had been beaten, to confess that the diadem had passed from her brow and the sceptre from her hand! No, she would send a message to her with a promise of a letter on the next day or the day after. Thus resolving, she betook herself to her bedroom, but here she again changed her mind. The air of that sacred enclosure somewhat restored her courage and gave her more heart. As Achilles warmed at the sight of his armour, as Don Quixote’s heart grew strong when he grasped his lance, so did Mrs. Proudie look forward to fresh laurels, as her eye fell on her husband’s pillow. She would not despair. Having so resolved, she descended with dignified mien and refreshed countenance to Mrs. Quiverful.

This scene in the bishop’s study took longer in the acting than in the telling. We have not, perhaps, had the whole of the conversation. At any rate Mrs. Quiverful was beginning to be very impatient and was thinking that Farmer Subsoil would be tired of waiting for her when Mrs. Proudie returned. Oh, who can tell the palpitations of that maternal heart, as the suppliant looked into the face of the great lady to see written there either a promise of house, income, comfort and future competence, or else the doom of continued and ever-increasing poverty! Poor mother! Poor wife! There was little there to comfort you!

“Mrs. Quiverful,” thus spoke the lady with considerable austerity and without sitting down herself, “I find that your husband has behaved in this matter in a very weak and foolish manner.”

Mrs. Quiverful immediately rose upon her feet, thinking it disrespectful to remain sitting while the wife of the bishop stood. But she was desired to sit down again, and made to do so, so that Mrs. Proudie might stand and preach over her. It is generally considered an offensive thing for a gentleman to keep his seat while another is kept standing before him, and we presume the same law holds with regard to ladies. It often is so felt, but we are inclined to say that it never produces half the discomfort or half the feeling of implied inferiority that is shown by a great man who desires his visitor to be seated while be himself speaks from his legs. Such a solecism in good breeding, when construed into English, means this: “The accepted rules of courtesy in the world require that I should offer you a seat; if I did not do so, you would bring a charge against me in the world of being arrogant and ill-mannered; I will obey the world, but, nevertheless, I will not put myself on an equality with you. You may sit down, but I won’t sit with you. Sit, therefore, at my bidding, and I’ll stand and talk at you!”

This was just what Mrs. Proudie meant to say, and Mrs. Quiverful, though she was too anxious and too flurried thus to translate the full meaning of the manoeuvre, did not fail to feel its effect. She was cowed and uncomfortable and a second time essayed to rise from her chair.

“Pray be seated, Mrs. Quiverful, pray keep your seat. Your husband, I say, has been most weak and most foolish. It is impossible, Mrs. Quiverful, to help people who will not help themselves. I much fear that I can now do nothing for you in this matter.”

“Oh, Mrs. Proudie, don’t say so,” said the poor woman, again jumping up.

“Pray be seated, Mrs. Quiverful. I must fear that I can do nothing further for you in this matter. Your husband has, in a most unaccountable manner, taken upon himself to resign that which I was empowered to offer him. As a matter of course, the bishop expects that his clergy shall know their own minds. What he may ultimately do — what we may finally decide on doing — I cannot now say. Knowing the extent of your family —”

“Fourteen children, Mrs. Proudie, fourteen of them! And barely bread — barely bread? It’s hard for the children of a clergyman, it’s hard for one who has always done his duty respectably!” Not a word fell from her about herself, but the tears came streaming down her big, coarse cheeks, on which the dust of the August road had left its traces.

Mrs. Proudie has not been portrayed in these pages as an agreeable or an amiable lady. There has been no intention to impress the reader much in her favour. It is ordained that all novels should have a male and a female angel and a male and a female devil. If it be considered that this rule is obeyed in these pages, the latter character must be supposed to have fallen to the lot of Mrs. Proudie. But she was not all devil. There was a heart inside that stiff-ribbed bodice, though not, perhaps, of large dimensions and certainly not easily accessible. Mrs. Quiverful, however, did gain access, and Mrs. Proudie proved herself a woman. ‘Whether it was the fourteen children with their probable bare bread and their possible bare backs, or the respectability of the father’s work, or the mingled dust and tears on the mother’s face, we will not pretend to say. But Mrs. Proudie was touched.

She did not show it as other women might have done. She did not give Mrs. Quiverful eau-de-Cologne, or order her a glass of wine. She did not take her to her toilet table and offer her the use of brushes and combs, towels and water. She did not say soft little speeches and coax her kindly back to equanimity. Mrs. Quiverful, despite her rough appearance, would have been as amenable to such little tender cares as any lady in the land. But none such were forthcoming. Instead of this, Mrs. Proudie slapped one hand upon the other and declared — not with an oath, for, as a lady and a Sabbatarian and a she-bishop, she could not swear, but with an adjuration — that she “wouldn’t have it done.”

The meaning of this was that she wouldn’t have Mr. Quiverful’s promised appointment cozened away by the treachery of Mr. Slope and the weakness of her husband. This meaning she very soon explained to Mrs. Quiverful.

“Why was your husband such a fool,” said she, now dismounted from her high horse and sitting confidentially down close to her visitor, “as to take the bait which that man threw to him? If he had not been so utterly foolish, nothing could have prevented your going to the hospital.”

Poor Mrs. Quiverful was ready enough with her own tongue in accusing her husband to his face of being soft, and perhaps did not always speak of him to her children quite so respectfully as she might have done. But she did not at all like to hear him abused by others and began to vindicate him and to explain that of course he had taken Mr. Slope to be an emissary from Mrs. Proudie herself; that Mr. Slope was thought to be peculiarly her friend; and that, therefore, Mr. Quiverful would have been failing in respect to her had he assumed to doubt what Mr. Slope had said.

Thus mollified, Mrs. Proudie again declared that she “would not have it done,” and at last sent Mrs. Quiverful home with an assurance that, to the furthest stretch of her power and influence in the palace, the appointment of Mr. Quiverful should be insisted on. As she repeated the word “insisted,” she thought of the bishop in his night-cap and, with compressed lips, slightly shook her head. Oh, my aspiring pastors, divines to whose ears nolo episcopari are the sweetest of words, which of you would be a bishop on such terms as these?

Mrs. Quiverful got home in the farmer’s cart, not indeed with a light heart, but satisfied that she had done right in making her visit.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:43