Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope

CHAPTER VIII

The Ex-warden Rejoices in His Probable Return to the Hospital

Among the ladies in Barchester who have hitherto acknowledged Mr, Slope as their spiritual director must not be reckoned either the Widow Bold or her sister-inlaw. On the first outbreak of the wrath of the denizens of the close, none had been more animated against the intruder than these two ladies. And this was natural. Who could he so proud of the musical distinction of their own cathedral as the favourite daughter of the precentor? Who would be so likely to resent an insult offered to the old choir? And in such matters Miss Bold and her sister-inlaw had but one opinion.

This wrath, however, has in some degree been mitigated, and I regret to say that these ladies allowed Mr. Slope to he his own apologist. About a fortnight after the sermon had been preached, they were both of them not a little surprised by hearing Mr. Slope announced, as the page in buttons opened Mrs. Bold’s drawing-room door. Indeed, what living man could, by a mere morning visit, have surprised them more? Here was the great enemy of all that was good in Barchester coming into their own drawing-room, and they had no strong arm, no ready tongue, near at hand for their protection. The widow snatched her baby out of its cradle into her lap, and Mary Bold stood up ready to die manfully in that baby’s behalf, should, under any circumstances, such a sacrifice become necessary.

In this manner was Mr. Slope received. But when he left, he was allowed by each lady to take her hand and to make his adieux as gentlemen do who have been graciously entertained! Yes, he shook hands with them, and was curtseyed out courteously, the buttoned page opening the door as he would have done for the best canon of them all. He had touched the baby’s little hand and blessed him with a fervid blessing; he had spoken to the widow of her early sorrows, and Eleanor’s silent tears had not rebuked him; he had told Mary Bold that her devotion would he rewarded, and Mary Bold had heard the praise without disgust. And how had he done all this? How had he so quickly turned aversion into, at any rate, acquaintance? How had he over-come the enmity with which these ladies had been ready to receive him, and made his peace with them so easily?

My readers will guess from what I have written that I myself do not like Mr. Slope, but I am constrained to admit that he is a man of parts. He knows how to say a soft word in the proper place; he knows how to adapt his flattery to the ears of his hearers; he knows the wiles of the serpent, and he uses them. Could Mr. Slope have adapted his manners to men as well as to women, could he ever have learnt the ways of a gentleman, he might have risen to great things.

He commenced his acquaintance with Eleanor by praising her father. He had, he said, become aware that he had unfortunately offended the feelings of a man of whom he could not speak too highly; he would not now allude to a subject which was probably too serious for drawing-room conversation, but he would say that it had been very far from him to utter a word in disparagement of a man of whom all the world, at least the clerical world, spoke so highly as it did of Mr. Harding. And so he went on, unsaying a great deal of his sermon, expressing his highest admiration for the precentor’s musical talents, eulogizing the father and the daughter and the sister-inlaw, speaking in that low silky whisper which he always had specially prepared for feminine ears, and, ultimately, gaining his object. When he left, he expressed a hope that he might again he allowed to call; and though Eleanor gave no verbal assent to this, she did not express dissent: and so Mr. Slope’s right to visit at the widow’s house was established.

The day after this visit Eleanor told her father of it and expressed an opinion that Mr. Slope was not quite so black as he had been painted. Mr. Harding opened his eyes rather wider than usual when he heard what had occurred, but he said little; he could not agree in any praise of Mr. Slope, and it was not his practice to say much evil of anyone. He did not, however, like the visit, and simple-minded as he was, he felt sure that Mr. Slope had some deeper motive than the mere pleasure of making soft speeches to two ladies.

Mr. Harding, however, had come to see his daughter with other purpose than that of speaking either good or evil of Mr. Slope. He had come to tell her that the place of warden in Hiram’s Hospital was again to be filled up and that in all probability he would once more return to his old home and his twelve bedesmen.

“But,” said he, laughing, “I shall be greatly shorn of my ancient glory.”

“Why so, Papa?”

“This new act of Parliament that is to put us all on our feet again,” continued he, “settles my income at four hundred and fifty pounds per annum.”

“Four hundred and fifty,” said she, “instead of eight hundred! Well, that is rather shabby. But still, Papa, you’ll have the dear old house and the garden?”

“My dear,” said he, “it’s worth twice the money;” and as he spoke he showed a jaunty kind of satisfaction in his tone and manner and in the quick, pleasant way in which he paced Eleanor’s drawing-room. “It’s worth twice the money. I shall have the house and the garden and a larger income than I can possibly want.”

“At any rate, you’ll have no extravagant daughter to provide for;” and as she spoke, the young widow put her arm within his, and made him sit on the sofa beside her; “at any rate, you’ll not have that expense.”

“No, my dear, and I shall be rather lonely without her; but we won’t think of that now. As regards income, I shall have plenty for all I want. I shall have my old house, and I don’t mind owning now that I have felt sometimes the inconvenience of living in a lodging. Lodgings are very nice for young men, but at my time of life there is a want of — I hardly know what to call it, perhaps not respect-ability —”

“Oh, Papa! I’m sure there’s been nothing like that. Nobody has thought it; nobody in all Barchester has been more respected than you have been since you took those rooms in High Street. Nobody! Not the dean in his deanery, or the archdeacon out at Plumstead.”

“The archdeacon would not be much obliged to you if he heard you,” said he, smiling somewhat at the exclusive manner in which his daughter confined her illustration to the church dignitaries of the chapter of Barchester; “but at any rate I shall be glad to get back to the old house. Since I heard that it was all settled, I have begun to fancy that I can’t be comfortable without my two sitting-rooms.”

“Come and stay with me, Papa, till it is settled — there’s a dear Papa.”

“Thank ye, Nelly. But no, I won’t do that. It would make two movings. I shall be very glad to get back to my old men again. Alas! alas! There have six of them gone in these few last years. Six out of twelve! And the others I fear have had but a sorry life of it there. Poor Bunce, poor old Bunce!”

Bunce was one of the surviving recipients of Hiram’s charity, an old man, now over ninety, who had long been a favourite of Mr. Harding’s.

“How happy old Bunce will be,” said Mrs. Bold, clapping her soft hands softly. “How happy they all will be to have you back again. You may be sure there will soon be friendship among them again when you are there.”

“But,” said he, half-laughing, “I am to have new troubles, which will be terrible to me. There are to be twelve old women and a matron. How shall I manage twelve women and a matron!”

“The matron will manage the women, of course.”

“And who’ll manage the matron?” said he.

“She won’t want to be managed. She’ll be a great lady herself, I suppose. But, Papa, where will the matron live? She is not to live in the warden’s house with you, is she?”

“Well, I hope not, my dear.”

“Oh, Papa, I tell you fairly, I won’t have a matron for a new stepmother.”

“You shan’t, my dear; that is, if I can help it. But they are going to build another house for the matron and the women, and I believe they haven’t even fixed yet on the site of the building.”

“And have they appointed the matron?” said Eleanor.

“They haven’t appointed the warden yet,” replied he.

“But there’s no doubt about that, I suppose,” said his daughter.

Mr. Harding explained that he thought there was no doubt; that the archdeacon had declared as much, saying that the bishop and his chaplain between them had not the power to appoint anyone else, even if they had the will to do so and sufficient impudence to carry out such a will. The archdeacon was of opinion that though Mr. Harding had resigned his wardenship, and had done so unconditionally, he had done so under circumstances which left the bishop no choice as to his reappointment, now that the affair of the hospital had been settled on a new basis by act of Parliament. Such was the archdeacon’s opinion, and his father-inlaw received it without a shadow of doubt.

Dr. Grantly had always been strongly opposed to Mr. Harding’s resignation of the place. He had done all in his power to dissuade him from it. He had considered that Mr. Harding was bound to withstand the popular clamour with which he was attacked for receiving so large an income as eight hundred a year from such a charity, and was not even yet satisfied that his father-inlaw’s conduct had not been pusillanimous and undignified. He looked also on this reduction of the warden’s income as a shabby, paltry scheme on the part of government for escaping from a difficulty into which it had been brought by the public press. Dr. Grantly observed that the government had no more right to dispose of a sum of four hundred and fifty pounds a year out of the income of Hiram’s legacy than of nine hundred; whereas, as he said, the bishop, dean, and chapter clearly had a right to settle what sum should be paid. He also declared that the government had no more right to saddle the charity with twelve old women than with twelve hundred, and he was, therefore, very indignant on the matter. He probably forgot when so talking that government had done nothing of the kind and had never assumed any such might or any such right. He made the common mistake of attributing to the government, which in such matters is powerless, the doings of Parliament, which in such matters is omnipotent.

But though he felt that the glory and honour of the situation of warden of Barchester Hospital were indeed curtailed by the new arrangement; that the whole establishment had to a certain degree been made vile by the touch of Whig commissioners; that the place, with its lessened income, its old women, and other innovations, was very different from the hospital of former days; still the archdeacon was too practical a man of the world to wish that his father-inlaw, who had at present little more than £200 per annum for all his wants, should refuse the situation, defiled, undignified, and commission-ridden as it was.

Mr. Harding had, accordingly, made up his mind that he would return to his old home at the hospital, and, to tell the truth, had experienced almost a childish pleasure in the idea of doing so. The diminished income was to him not even the source of momentary regret. The matron and the old women did rather go against the grain, but he was able to console himself with the reflection that, after all, such an arrangement might be of real service to the poor of the city. The thought that he must receive his reappointment as the gift of the new bishop, and probably through the hands of Mr. Slope, annoyed him a little, but his mind was set at rest by the assurance of the archdeacon that there would be no favour in such a presentation. The reappointment of the old warden would be regarded by all the world as a matter of course. Mr. Harding, therefore, felt no hesitation in telling his daughter that they might look upon his return to his old quarters as a settled matter.

“And you won’t have to ask for it, Papa?”

“Certainly not, my dear. There is no ground on which I could ask for any favour from the bishop, whom, indeed, I hardly know. Nor would I ask a favour, the granting of which might possibly be made a question to be settled by Mr. Slope. No,” said he, moved for a moment by a spirit very unlike his own, “I certainly shall be very glad to go back to the hospital; but I should never go there if it were necessary that my doing so should be the subject of a request to Mr. Slope.”

This little outbreak of her father’s anger jarred on the present tone of Eleanor’s mind. She had not learnt to like Mr. Slope, but she had learnt to think that he had much respect for her father; and she would, therefore, willingly use her efforts to induce something like good feeling between them.

“Papa,” said she, “I think you somewhat mistake Mr. Slope’s character.”

“Do I?” said he placidly.

“I think you do, Papa. I think he intended no personal disrespect to you when he preached the sermon which made the archdeacon and the dean so angry!”

“I never supposed he did, my dear. I hope I never inquired within myself whether he did or no. Such a matter would be unworthy of any inquiry and very unworthy of the consideration of the chapter. But I fear he intended disrespect to the ministration of God’s services, as conducted in conformity with the rules of the Church of England.”

“But might it not he that he thought it his duty to express his dissent from that which you, and the dean, and all of us here so much approve?”

“It can hardly be the duty of a young man rudely to assail the religious convictions of his elders in the church. Courtesy should have kept him silent, even if neither charity nor modesty could do so.”

“But Mr. Slope would say that on such a subject the commands of his heavenly Master do not admit of his being silent.”

“Nor of his being courteous, Eleanor?”

“He did not say that, Papa.”

“Believe me, my child, that Christian ministers are never called on by God’s word to insult the convictions, or even the prejudices of their brethren, and that religion is at any rate not less susceptible of urbane and courteous conduct among men than any other study which men may take up. I am sorry to say that I cannot defend Mr. Slope’s sermon in the cathedral. But come, my dear, put on your bonnet and let us walk round the dear old gardens at the hospital. I have never yet had the heart to go beyond the courtyard since we left the place. Now I think I can venture to enter.”

Eleanor rang the bell and gave a variety of imperative charges as to the welfare of the precious baby, whom, all but unwillingly, she was about to leave for an hour or so, and then sauntered forth with her father to revisit the old hospital. It had been forbidden ground to her as well as to him since the day on which they had walked forth together from its walls.

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