The Last Chronicle of Barset, by Anthony Trollope

Chapter LXXXI

Barchester Cloisters

On the morning of the Sunday after the dean’s return, Mr Harding was lying in his bed, and Posy was sitting on the bed beside him. It was manifest to all now that he became feebler and feebler from day to day, and that he would never leave his bed again. Even the archdeacon had shaken his head, and had acknowledged to his wife that the last day for her father was near at hand. It would very soon be necessary that he should elect another vicar for St Ewold’s.

‘Grandpa won’t play cat’s-cradle,’ said Posy, as Mrs Arabin entered the room.

‘No, darling — not this morning,’ said the old man. He himself well knew that he would never play cat’s-cradle again. Even that was over for him how.

‘She teases you, papa,’ said Mrs Arabin.

‘No, indeed,’ said he. ‘Posy never teases me;’ and he slowly moved his withered hand down outside the bed, so as to hold the child by her frock. ‘Let her stay with me, my dear.’

‘Dr Filgrave is downstairs, papa. You will see him, if he comes up?’ Now Dr Filgrave was the leading physician of Barchester, and nobody of note in the city — or for that matter of that in the eastern division of the county — was allowed to start upon the last great journey without some assistance from him as the hour of going drew nigh. I do not know that he had much reputation for prolonging life, but he was supposed to add a grace to the hour of departure. Mr Harding expressed no wish to see the doctor — had rather declared his conviction that Dr Filgrave could be of no possible service to him. But he was not a man to persevere in his objection in opposition to the wishes of his friends around him; and as soon as the archdeacon had spoken a word on the subject he assented.

‘Of course, my dear, I will see him.’

‘And Posy shall come back when he has gone,’ said Mrs Arabin.

‘Posy will do me more good than Dr Filgrave, I’m quite sure; — but Posy shall go now.’ So Posy scrambled off the bed, and the doctor was ushered into the room.

‘A day or two will see the end of it, archdeacon; I should say a day or two,’ said the doctor, as he met Dr Grantly in the hall. ‘I should say that a day or two will see the end of it. Indeed I will not undertake that twenty-four hours may not see the close of his earthly troubles. He has no suffering, no pain, no disturbing cause. Nature simply retires to rest.’ Dr Filgrave, as he said this, made a slow falling motion with his hands, which alone on various occasions had been thought to be worth all the money paid for his attendance. ‘Perhaps you would wish that I should step in this evening, Mr Dean? As it happens, I shall be at liberty.’ The dean of course said that he would take it as an additional favour. Neither the dean nor the archdeacon had the slightest belief in Dr Filgrave, and yet they would hardly have been contented that their father-in-law should have departed without him.

‘Look at that man, now,’ said the archdeacon, when the doctor had gone, ‘who talks so glibly about nature going to rest. I’ve known him all my life. He’s an older man by some months than our dear old friend upstairs. And he looks as if he were going to attend death-beds in Barchester for ever.’

‘I suppose he is right in what he tells us now?’ said the dean.

‘No doubt he is; but my belief doesn’t come from his saying it.’ Then there was a pause as the two church dignitaries sat together, doing nothing, feeling that the solemnity of the moment was such that it would be hardly becoming that they should even attempt to read. ‘His going will make an old man of me,’ said the archdeacon. ‘It will be different with you.’

‘It will make an old woman of Eleanor, I fear.’

‘I seem to have known him all my life,’ said the archdeacon. ‘I have known him ever since I left college; and I have known him as one man seldom does know another. There is nothing that he has done — as I believe nothing that he has thought — with which I have not been cognisant. I feel sure that he never had an impure fancy in his mind, or a faulty wish in his heart. His tenderness has surpassed the tenderness of a woman; and yet, when occasion came for showing it, he had all the spirit of a hero. I shall never forget his resignation of the hospital, and all that I did and said to make him keep it.’

‘But he was right?’

‘As Septimus Harding he was, I think, right; but it would have been wrong in any other man. And he was right, too, about the deanery.’ For promotion had come in Mr Harding’s way, and he, too, might have been Dean of Barchester. ‘The fact is, he never was wrong. He couldn’t go wrong. He lacked guile, and he feared God — and a man who does both will never go far astray. I don’t think he ever coveted aught in his life — except a new case for his violoncello and somebody to listen to him when he played it.’ Then the archdeacon got up, and walked about the room in his enthusiasm; and, perhaps, as he walked some thoughts as to the sterner ambition of his own life passed through his mind. What things had he coveted? Had he lacked guile? He told himself that had feared God — but he was not sure that he was telling himself true even in that.

During the whole of the morning Mrs Arabin and Mrs Grantly were with their father, and during the greater part of the day there was absolute silence in the room. He seemed to sleep; and they, though they knew in truth that he was not sleeping, feared to disturb him by a word. About two Mrs Baxter brought him his dinner, and he did rouse himself and swallowed a spoonful of soup, and half a glass of wine. At this time Posy came to him, and stood at the bedside, looking at him with her great wide eyes. She seemed to be aware that life had gone so far with her dear old friend that she must not be allowed on his bed again. But he put his hand out to her, and she held it, standing quite still and silent. When Mrs Baxter came to take away the tray, Posy’s mother got up, and whispered a word to the child. Then Posy went away, and her eyes never beheld the old man again. That was a day which Posy never forgot — not though she should live to be much older than her grandfather was when she thus left him.

‘It is so sweet to have you both here,’ he said, when he had been lying silent for nearly an hour after the child had gone. Then they got up, and came and stood close to him. ‘There is nothing left for me to wish, my dears; — nothing.’ Not long afterwards he expressed a desire that the two husbands — his two sons-in-law — should come to him; and Mrs Arabin went to them, and brought them into the room. As he took their hands he merely repeated the same words again. ‘There is nothing left for me to wish, my dears; — nothing.’ He never spoke again above his breath; but ever and anon his daughters, who watched him, could see that he was praying. The two men did not stay with him long, but returned to the gloom of the library. The gloom had almost become the darkness of the night, and they were still sitting there without any light, when Mrs Baxter entered the room. ‘The dear gentleman is no more,’ said Mrs Baxter; and it seemed to the archdeacon that the very moment of his father’s death had repeated itself. When Dr Filgrave called he was told that his services would be of no further use. ‘Dear, dear!’ said the doctor. ‘We are all dust, Mrs Baxter; are we not?’ There were people in Barchester who pretended to know how often the doctor had repeated this little formula during the last thirty years.

There was no violence of sorrow in the house that night; but there were aching hearts, and one heart so sore that it seemed that no cure for its anguish could ever reach it. ‘He has always been with me,’ Mrs Arabin said to her husband, as he strove to console her. ‘It was not that I loved him better than Susan, but I have felt so much more of his loving tenderness. The sweetness of his voice has been in my ears almost daily since I was born.’

They buried him in the cathedral which he had loved so well, and in which nearly all the work of his life had been done; and all Barchester was there to see him laid in his grave within the cloisters. There was no procession of coaches, no hearse, nor was there any attempt at funereal pomp. From the dean’s side door, across the vaulted passage, and into the transept — over the little step upon which he had so nearly fallen when last he made his way out of the building — the coffin was carried on men’s shoulders. It was but a short journey from his bedroom to his grave. But the bell had been tolling sadly all morning, and the nave and the aisles and the transepts, close up to the door leading from the transept into the cloister, were crowded with those who had known the name and the figure and the voice of Mr Harding as long as they had known anything. Up to this day no one would have said specially that Mr Harding was a favourite of the town. He had never been forward enough in anything to become the acknowledged possessor of popularity. But, now that he was gone, men and women told each other how good he had been. They remembered the sweetness of his smile, and talked of loving little words which he had spoken to them — either years ago or the other day, for his words had always been loving. The dean and the archdeacon came first, shoulder to shoulder, and after them came their wives. I do not know that it was the proper order for mourning, but it was a touching sight to be seen, and was long remembered in Barchester. Painful as it was for them, the two women would be there, and the two sisters would walk together; — nor would they go before their husbands. Then there were the archdeacon’s two sons — for the Rev Charles Grantly had come to Plumstead for the occasion. And in the vaulted passage which runs between the deanery and the end of the transept all the chapter, with the choir, the prebendaries, with the fat old chancellor, the precentor, and the minor canons down to the little choristers — they were all there, and followed in at the transept door, two by two. And in the transept they were joined by another clergyman who no one had expected to see that day. The bishop was there, looking old and worn — almost as though he were unconscious of what he was doing. Since his wife’s death no one had seen him out of the palace or the palace grounds till that day. But there he was — and they made way for him into the procession behind the two ladies — and the archdeacon, when he saw it, resolved that there should be peace in his heart, if peace were possible.

They made their way into the cloisters where the grave had been dug — as many as might be allowed to follow. The place indeed was open to all who chose to come; but they who had only slightly known the man refrained from pressing upon those who had a right to stand around his coffin. But there was one other there whom the faithful chronicler of Barchester should mention. Before any other one had reached the spot, the sexton and the verger between them had led in between them, among the graves beneath the cloisters, a blind old man, very old, with a wondrous stoop, but who must have owned a grand stature before extreme old age had bent him, and they placed him sitting on a stone in the corner of the archway. But as soon as the shuffling of steps reached his ears, he raised himself with the aid of his stick, and stood during the service leaning against the pillar. The blind man was so old that he might almost have been Mr Harding’s father. This was John Bunce, bedesman from Hiram’s Hospital — and none perhaps there had known Mr Harding better than he had known him. When the earth had been thrown on to the coffin, and the service was over, and they were about to disperse, Mrs Arabin went up to the old man, and taking his hand between hers whispered a word into his ear. ‘Oh, Miss Eleanor!’, he said. ‘Oh, Miss Eleanor!’ Within a fortnight he also was lying within the cathedral precincts.

And so they buried Mr Septimus Harding, formerly Warden of Hiram’s Hospital in the city of Barchester, of whom the chronicler may say that that city never knew a sweeter gentleman or a better Christian.

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