Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope

CHAPTER XLVI

Mr. Slope’s Parting Interview with the Signora

On the following day the signora was in her pride. She was dressed in her brightest of morning dresses, and had quite a levée round her couch. It was a beautifully bright October afternoon; all the gentlemen of the neighbourhood were in Barchester, and those who had the entry of Dr. Stanhope’s house were in the signora’s back drawing-room. Charlotte and Mrs. Stanhope were in the front room, and such of the lady’s squires as could not for the moment get near the centre of attraction had to waste their fragrance on the mother and sister.

The first who came and the last to leave was Mr. Arabin. This was the second visit he had paid to Madame Neroni since he had met her at Ullathorne. He came, he knew not why, to talk about, he knew not what. But, in truth, the feelings which now troubled him were new to him, and he could not analyse them. It may seem strange that he should thus come dangling about Madame Neroni because he was in love with Mrs. Bold; but it was nevertheless the fact; and though he could not understand why he did so, Madame Neroni understood it well enough.

She had been gentle and kind to him and had encouraged his staying. Therefore he stayed on. She pressed his hand when he first greeted her; she made him remain near her and whispered to him little nothings. And then her eye, brilliant and bright, now mirthful, now melancholy, and invincible in either way! What man with warm feelings, blood unchilled, and a heart not guarded by a triple steel of experience could have withstood those eyes! The lady, it is true, intended to do him no mortal injury; she merely chose to inhale a slight breath of incense before she handed the casket over to another. Whether Mrs. Bold would willingly have spared even so much is another question.

And then came Mr. Slope. All the world now knew that Mr. Slope was a candidate for the deanery and that he was generally considered to be the favourite. Mr. Slope, therefore, walked rather largely upon the earth. He gave to himself a portly air, such as might become a dean, spoke but little to other clergymen, and shunned the bishop as much as possible. How the meagre little prebendary, and the burly chancellor, and all the minor canons and vicars choral, ay, and all the choristers, too, cowered and shook and walked about with long faces when they read or heard of that article in The Jupiter. Now were coming the days when nothing would avail to keep the impure spirit from the cathedral pulpit. That pulpit would indeed be his own. Precentors, vicars, and choristers might hang up their harps on the willows. Ichabod! Ichabod! The glory of their house was departing from them.

Mr. Slope, great as he was with embryo grandeur, still came to see the signora. Indeed, he could not keep himself away. He dreamed of that soft hand which he had kissed so often and of that imperial brow which his lips had once pressed, and he then dreamed also of further favours.

And Mr. Thorne was there also. It was the first visit he had ever paid to the signora, and he made it not without due preparation. Mr. Thorne was a gentleman usually precise in his dress and prone to make the most of himself in an unpretending way. The grey hairs in his whiskers were eliminated perhaps once a month; those on his head were softened by a mixture which we will not call a dye — it was only a wash. His tailor lived in St. James’s Street, and his bootmaker at the corner of that street and Piccadilly. He was particular in the article of gloves, and the getting up of his shirts was a matter not lightly thought of in the Ullathorne laundry. On the occasion of the present visit he had rather overdone his usual efforts and caused some little uneasiness to his sister, who had not hitherto received very cordially the proposition for a lengthened visit from the signora at Ullathorne.

There were others also there — young men about the city who had not much to do and who were induced by the lady’s charms to neglect that little — but all gave way to Mr. Thorne, who was somewhat of a grand signor, as a country gentleman always is in a provincial city.

“Oh, Mr. Thorne, this is so kind of you!” said the signora. ‘“You promised to come, but I really did not expect it. I thought you country gentlemen never kept your pledges.”

“Oh, yes, sometimes,” said Mr. Thorne, looking rather sheepish and making his salutations a little too much in the style of the last century.

“You deceive none but your consti — stit — stit — what do you call the people that carry you about in chairs and pelt you with eggs and apples when they make you a member of Parliament?”

“One another also, sometimes, signora,” said Mr. Slope, with a very deanish sort of smirk on his face. “Country gentlemen do deceive one another sometimes, don’t they, Mr. Thorne?”

Mr. Thorne gave him a look which undeaned him completely for the moment, but he soon remembered his high hopes and, recovering himself quickly, sustained his probable coming dignity by a laugh at Mr. Thorne’s expense.

“I never deceive a lady, at any rate,” said Mr. Thorne, “especially when the gratification of my own wishes is so strong an inducement to keep me true, as it now is.”

Mr. Thorne went on thus awhile with antediluvian grimaces and compliments which he had picked up from Sir Charles Grandison, and the signora at every grimace and at every bow smiled a little smile and bowed a little bow. Mr. Thorne, however, was kept standing at the foot of the couch, for the new dean sat in the seat of honour near the table. Mr. Arabin the while was standing with his back to the fire, his coat-tails under his arms, gazing at her with all his eyes — not quite in vain, for every now and again a glance came up at him, bright as a meteor out of heaven.

“Oh, Mr. Thorne, you promised to let me introduce my little girl to you. Can you spare a moment — will you see her now?”

Mr. Thorne assured her that he could and would see the young lady with the greatest pleasure in life. “Mr. Slope, might I trouble you to ring the bell?” said she, and when Mr. Slope got up, she looked at Mr. Thorne and pointed to the chair. Mr. Thorne, however, was much too slow to understand her, and Mr. Slope would have recovered his seat had not the signora, who never chose to be unsuccessful, somewhat summarily ordered him out of it.

“Oh, Mr. Slope, I must ask you to let Mr. Thorne sit here just for a moment or two. I am sure you will pardon me. We can take a liberty with you this week. Next week, you know, when you move into the dean’s house, we shall all be afraid of you.”

Mr. Slope, with an air of much indifference, rose from his seat and, walking into the next room, became greatly interested in Mrs. Stanhope’s worsted work.

And then the child was brought in. She was a little girl, about eight years of age, like her mother, only that her enormous eyes were black, and her hair quite jet. Her complexion, too, was very dark and bespoke her foreign blood. She was dressed in the most outlandish and extravagant way in which clothes could be put on a child’s back. She had great bracelets on her naked little arms, a crimson fillet braided with gold round her head, and scarlet shoes with high heels. Her dress was all flounces and stuck out from her as though the object were to make it lie off horizontally from her little hips. It did not nearly cover her knees, but this was atoned for by a loose pair of drawers, which seemed made throughout of lace; then she had on pink silk stockings. It was thus that the last of the Neros was habitually dressed at the hour when visitors were wont to call.

“Julia, my love,” said the mother — Julia was ever a favourite name with the ladies of that family. “Julia, my love, come here. I was telling you about the beautiful party poor Mamma went to. This is Mr. Thorne; will you give him a kiss, dearest?”

Julia put up her face to be kissed, as she did to all her mother’s visitors, and then Mr. Thorne found that he had got her and, what was much more terrific to him, all her finery, into his arms. The lace and starch crumpled against his waistcoat and trousers, the greasy black curls hung upon his cheek, and one of the bracelet clasps scratched his ear. He did not at all know how to hold so magnificent a lady, nor holding her what to do with her. However, he had on other occasions been compelled to fondle little nieces and nephews, and now set about the task in the mode he always had used.

“Diddle, diddle, diddle, diddle,” said he, putting the child on one knee and working away with it as though he were turning a knife-grinder’s wheel with his foot.

“Mamma, Mamma,” said Julia crossly, “I don’t want to be diddle diddled. Let me go, you naughty old man, you.”

Poor Mr. Thorne put the child down quietly on the ground and drew back his chair; Mr. Slope, who had returned to the pole star that attracted him, laughed aloud; Mr. Arabin winced and shut his eyes; and the signora pretended not to hear her daughter.

“Go to Aunt Charlotte, lovey,” said the mamma, “and ask her if it is not time for you to go out.”

But little Miss Julia, though she had not exactly liked the nature of Mr. Thorne’s attention, was accustomed to be played with by gentlemen, and did not relish the idea of being sent so soon to her aunt.

“Julia, go when I tell you, my dear.” But Julia still went pouting about the room. “Charlotte, do come and take her,” said the signora. “She must go out, and the days get so short now.” And thus ended the much-talked-of interview between Mr. Thorne and the last of the Neros.

Mr. Thorne recovered from the child’s crossness sooner than from Mr. Slope’s laughter. He could put up with being called an old man by an infant, but he did not like to be laughed at by the bishop’s chaplain, even though that chaplain was about to become a dean. He said nothing, but he showed plainly enough that he was angry.

The signora was ready enough to avenge him. “Mr. Slope,” said she, “I hear that you are triumphing on all sides.”

“How so?” said he, smiling. He did not dislike being talked to about the deanery, though, of course, he strongly denied the imputation.

“You carry the day both in love and war.” Mr. Slope hereupon did not look quite so satisfied as he had done.

“Mr. Arabin,” continued the signora, “don’t you think Mr. Slope is a very lucky man?”

“Not more so than he deserves, I am sure,” said Mr. Arabin.

“Only think, Mr. Thorne, he is to be our new dean; of course we all know that.”

“Indeed, signora,” said Mr. Slope, “we all know nothing about it. I can assure you I myself —”

“He is to be the new dean — there is no manner of doubt of it, Mr. Thorne.”

“Hum!” said Mr. Thorne.

“Passing over the heads of old men like my father and Archdeacon Grantly —”

“Oh — oh!” said Mr. Slope.

“The archdeacon would not accept it,” said Mr. Arabin, whereupon Mr. Slope smiled abominably and said, as plainly as a look could speak, that the grapes were sour.

“Going over all our heads,” continued the signora, “for of course I consider myself one of the chapter.”

“If I am ever dean,” said Mr. Slope, “that is, were I ever to become so, I should glory in such a canoness.”

“Oh, Mr. Slope, stop; I haven’t half done. There is another canoness for you to glory in. Mr. Slope is not only to have the deanery but a wife to put in it.”

Mr. Slope again looked disconcerted.

“A wife with a large fortune, too. It never rains but it pours, does it, Mr. Thorne?”

“No, never,” said Mr. Thorne, who did not quite relish talking about Mr. Slope and his affairs.

“When will it be, Mr. Slope?”

“When will what be?” said he.

“Oh, we know when the affair of the dean will be: a week will settle that. The new hat, I have no doubt, has been already ordered. But when will the marriage come off?”

“Do you mean mine or Mr. Arabin’s?” said he, striving to be facetious.

“Well, just then I meant yours, though, perhaps, after all, Mr. Arabin’s may be first. But we know nothing of him. He is too close for any of us. Now all is open and above board with you — which, by the by, Mr. Arabin, I beg to tell you I like much the best. He who runs can read that Mr. Slope is a favoured lover. Come, Mr. Slope, when is the widow to be made Mrs. Dean?”

To Mr. Arabin this badinage was peculiarly painful, and yet he could not tear himself away and leave it. He believed, still believed with that sort of belief which the fear of a thing engenders, that Mrs. Bold would probably become the wife of Mr. Slope. Of Mr. Slope’s little adventure in the garden he knew nothing. For aught he knew, Mr. Slope might have had an adventure of quite a different character. He might have thrown himself at the widow’s feet, been accepted, and then returned to town a jolly, thriving wooer. The signora’s jokes were bitter enough to Mr. Slope, but they were quite as bitter to Mr. Arabin. He still stood leaning against the fire-place, fumbling with his hands in his trousers pockets.

“Come, come, Mr. Slope, don’t be so bashful,” continued the signora. “We all know that you proposed to the lady the other day at Ullathorne. Tell us with what words she accepted you. Was it with a simple ‘yes,’ or with the two ‘no no’s’ which make an affirmative? Or did silence give consent? Or did she speak out with that spirit which so well becomes a widow and say openly, ‘By my troth, sir, you shall make me Mrs. Slope as soon as it is your pleasure to do so.’ ”

Mr. Slope had seldom in his life felt himself less at his ease. There sat Mr. Thorne, laughing silently. There stood his old antagonist, Mr. Arabin, gazing at him with all his eyes. There round the door between the two rooms were clustered a little group of people, including Miss Stanhope and the Revs. Messrs. Grey and Green, all listening to his discomfiture. He knew that it depended solely on his own wit whether or no he could throw the joke back upon the lady. He knew that it stood him to do so if he possibly could, but he had not a word. “ ’Tis conscience that makes cowards of us all.” He felt on his cheek the sharp points of Eleanor’s fingers and did not know who might have seen the blow, who might have told the tale to this pestilent woman who took such delight in jeering him. He stood there, therefore, red as a carbuncle and mute as a fish; grinning sufficiently to show his teeth; an object of pity.

But the signora had no pity; she knew nothing of mercy. Her present object was to put Mr. Slope down, and she was determined to do it thoroughly, now that she had him in her power.

“What, Mr. Slope, no answer? Why it can’t possibly be that the woman has been fool enough to refuse you? She can’t surely be looking out after a bishop. But I see how it is, Mr. Slope. Widows are proverbially cautious. You should have let her alone till the new hat was on your head, till you could show her the key of the deanery.”

“Signora,” said he at last, trying to speak in a tone of dignified reproach, “you really permit yourself to talk on solemn subjects in a very improper way.”

“Solemn subjects — what solemn subject? Surely a dean’s hat is not such a solemn subject.”

“I have no aspirations such as those you impute to me. Perhaps you will drop the subject.”

“Oh, certainly, Mr. Slope; but one word first. Go to her again with the prime minister’s letter in your pocket. I’ll wager my shawl to your shovel she does not refuse you then.”

“I must say, signora, that I think you are speaking of the lady in a very unjustifiable manner.”

“And one other piece of advice, Mr. Slope; I’ll only offer you one other;” and then she commenced singing

It’s gude to be merry and wise, Mr. Slope; It’s gude to be honest and true; It’s gude to be off with the old love — Mr. Slope, Before you are on with the new.

“Ha, ha, ha!” And the signora, throwing herself back on her sofa, laughed merrily. She little recked how those who heard her would, in their own imaginations, fill up the little history of Mr. Slope’s first love. She little cared that some among them might attribute to her the honour of his earlier admiration. She was tired of Mr. Slope and wanted to get rid of him; she had ground for anger with him, and she chose to be revenged.

How Mr. Slope got out of that room he never himself knew. He did succeed ultimately, and probably with some assistance, in getting his hat and escaping into the air. At last his love for the signora was cured. Whenever he again thought of her in his dreams, it was not as of an angel with azure wings. He connected her rather with fire and brimstone, and though he could still believe her to be a spirit, he banished her entirely out of heaven and found a place for her among the infernal gods. When he weighed in the balance, as he not seldom did, the two women to whom he had attached himself in Barchester, the pre-eminent place in his soul’s hatred was usually allotted to the signora.

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