Barchester by Moonlight
There was much cause for grief and occasional perturbation of spirits in the Stanhope family, but yet they rarely seemed to he grieved or to he disturbed. It was the peculiar gift of each of them that each was able to bear his or her own burden without complaint and perhaps without sympathy. They habitually looked on the sunny side of the wall, if there was a gleam on either side for them to look at; if there was none, they endured the shade with an indifference which, if not stoical, answered the end at which the Stoics aimed.
Old Stanhope could not but feel that he had ill-performed his duties as a father and a clergyman and could hardly look forward to his own death without grief at the position in which he would leave his family. His income for many years had been as high as £3,000 a year, and yet they had among them no other provision than their mother's fortune of £10,000. He had not only spent his income, but was in debt. Yet with all this he seldom showed much outward sign of trouble.
It was the same with the mother. If she added little to the pleasures of her children, she detracted still less: she neither grumbled at her lot, nor spoke much of her past or future sufferings; as long as she had a maid to adjust her dress, and had those dresses well made, nature with her was satisfied.
It was the same with the children. Charlotte never rebuked her father with the prospect of their future poverty, nor did it seem to grieve her that she was becoming an old maid so quickly; her temper was rarely ruffled, and, if we might judge by her appearance, she was always happy. The signora was not so sweet-tempered, but she possessed much enduring courage; she seldom complained — never, indeed, to her family. Though she had a cause for affliction which would have utterly broken down the heart of most women as beautiful as she and as devoid of all religious support, yet she bore her suffering in silence, or alluded to it only to elicit the sympathy and stimulate the admiration of the men with whom she flirted. As to Bertie, one would have imagined from the sound of his voice and the gleam of his eye that he had not a sorrow nor a care in the world. Nor had he. He was incapable of anticipating tomorrow's griefs. The prospect of future want no more disturbed his appetite than does that of the butcher's knife disturb the appetite of the sheep.
Such was the usual tenor of their way, but there were rare exceptions. Occasionally the father would allow an angry glance to fall from his eye, and the lion would send forth a low dangerous roar as though he meditated some deed of blood. Occasionally also Madame Neroni would become bitter against mankind, more than usually antagonistic to the world's decencies, and would seem as though she was about to break from her moorings and allow herself to be carried forth by the tide of her feelings to utter ruin and shipwreck. She, however, like the rest of them, had no real feelings, could feel no true passion. In that was her security. Before she resolved on any contemplated escapade she would make a small calculation, and generally summed up that the Stanhope villa or even Barchester close was better than the world at large.
They were most irregular in their hours. The father was generally the earliest in the breakfast-parlour, and Charlotte would soon follow and give him his coffee, but the others breakfasted anywhere, anyhow, and at any time. On the morning after the archdeacon's futile visit to the palace, Dr. Stanhope came downstairs with an ominously dark look about his eyebrows; his white locks were rougher than usual, and he breathed thickly and loudly as he took his seat in his armchair. He had open letters in his hand, and when Charlotte came into the room, he was still reading them. She went up and kissed him as was her wont, but he hardly noticed her as she did so, and she knew at once that something was the matter.
"What's the meaning of that?" said he, throwing over the table a letter with a Milan postmark. Charlotte was a little frightened as she took it up, but her mind was relieved when she saw that it was merely the bill of their Italian milliner. The sum total was certainly large, but not so large as to create an important row.
"It's for our clothes, Papa, for six months before we came here. The three of us can't dress for nothing, you know."
"Nothing, indeed!" said he, looking at the figures which, in Milanese denominations, were certainly monstrous.
"The man should have sent it to me," said Charlotte.
"I wish he had with all my heart — if you would have paid it. I see enough in it to know that three quarters of it are for Madeline."
"She has little else to amuse her, sir," said Charlotte with true good nature.
"And I suppose he has nothing else to amuse him," said the doctor, throwing over another letter to his daughter. It was from some member of the family of Sidonia, and politely requested the father to pay a small trifle of £700, being the amount of a bill discounted in favour of Mr. Ethelbert Stanhope and now overdue for a period of nine months.
Charlotte read the letter, slowly folded it up, and put it under the edge of the tea-tray.
"I suppose he has nothing to amuse him but discounting bills with Jews. Does he think I'll pay that?"
"I am sure he thinks no such thing," said she.
"And who does he think will pay it?"
"As far as honesty goes I suppose it won't much matter if it is never paid," said she. "I dare say he got very little of it."
"I suppose it won't much matter either," said the father, "if he goes to prison and rots there. It seems to me that that's the other alternative."
Dr. Stanhope spoke of the custom of his youth. But his daughter, though she had lived so long abroad, was much more completely versed in the ways of the English world. "If the man arrests him," said she, "he must go through the court."
It is thus, thou great family of Sidonia — it is thus that we Gentiles treat thee, when, in our extremest need, thou and thine have aided us with mountains of gold as big as lions — and occasionally with wine-warrants and orders for dozens of dressing-cases.
"What, and become an insolvent?" said the doctor.
"He's that already," said Charlotte, wishing always to get over a difficulty.
"What a condition," said the doctor, "for the son of a clergyman of the Church of England."
"I don't see why clergymen's sons should pay their debts more than other young men," said Charlotte.
"He's had as much from me since he left school as is held sufficient for the eldest son of many a nobleman," said the angry father.
"Well, sir," said Charlotte, "give him another chance."
"What!" said the doctor, "do you mean that I am to pay that Jew?"
"Oh, no! I wouldn't pay him, he must take his chance; and if the worst comes to the worst, Bertie must go abroad. But I want you to be civil to Bertie and let him remain here as long as we stop. He has a plan in his head that may put him on his feet after all."
"Has he any plan for following up his profession?"
"Oh, he'll do that too, but that must follow. He's thinking of getting married."
Just at that moment the door opened, and Bertie came in whistling. The doctor immediately devoted himself to his egg and allowed Bertie to whistle himself round to his sister's side without noticing him.
Charlotte gave a sign to him with her eye, first glancing at her father, and then at the letter, the corner of which peeped out from under the tea-tray. Bertie saw and understood, and with the quiet motion of a cat he abstracted the letter and made himself acquainted with its contents. The doctor, however, had seen him, deep as he appeared to be mersed in his egg-shell, and said in his harshest voice, "Well, sir, do you know that gentleman?"
"Yes, sir," said Bertie. "I have a sort of acquaintance with him, but none that can justify him in troubling you. If you will allow me, sir, I will answer this."
"At any rate I shan't," said the father, and then he added, after a pause, "Is it true, sir, that you owe the man £700?"
"Well," said Bertie, "I think I should be inclined to dispute the amount, if I were in a condition to pay him such of it as I really do owe him."
"Has he your bill for £700?" said the father, speaking very loudly and very angrily.
"Well, I believe he has," said Bertie, "but all the money I ever got from him was £150."
"And what became of the £550?"
"Why, sir, the commission was £100 or so, and I took the remainder in paving-stones and rocking-horses."
"Paving-stones and rocking-horses!" said the doctor. "Where are they?"
"Oh, sir, I suppose they are in London somewhere — but I'll inquire if you wish for them."
"He's an idiot," said the doctor, "and it's sheer folly to waste more money on him. Nothing can save him from ruin," and so saying, the unhappy father walked out of the room.
"Would the governor like to have the paving-stones?" said Bertie to his sister.
"I'll tell you what," said she. "If you don't take care, you will find yourself loose upon the world without even a house over your head; you don't know him as well as I do. He's very angry."
Bertie stroked his big beard, sipped his tea, chatted over his misfortunes in a half-comic, half-serious tone, and ended by promising his sister that he would do his very best to make himself agreeable to the Widow Bold. Then Charlotte followed her father to his own room, softened down his wrath, and persuaded him to say nothing more about the Jew bill discounter, at any rate for a few weeks. He even went so far as to say he would pay the £700, or at any rate settle the bill, if he saw a certainty of his son's securing for himself anything like a decent provision in life. Nothing was said openly between them about poor Eleanor, but the father and the daughter understood each other.
They all met together in the drawing-room at nine o'clock, in perfect good humour with each other, and about that hour Mrs. Bold was announced. She had never been in the house before, though she had of course called, and now she felt it strange to find herself there in her usual evening dress, entering the drawing-room of these strangers in this friendly, unceremonious way, as though she had known them all her life. But in three minutes they made her at home. Charlotte tripped downstairs and took her bonnet from her, and Bertie came to relieve her from her shawl, and the signora smiled on her as she could smile when she chose to be gracious, and the old doctor shook hands with her in a kind benedictory manner that went to her heart at once and made her feel that he must be a good man.
She had not been seated for above five minutes when the door again opened and Mr. Slope was announced. She felt rather surprised, because she was told that nobody was to be there, and it was very evident from the manner of some of them that Mr. Slope was not unexpected. But still there was not much in it. In such invitations a bachelor or two more or less are always spoken of as nobodies, and there was no reason why Mr. Slope should not drink tea at Dr. Stanhope's as well as Eleanor herself. He, however, was very much surprised and not very much gratified at finding that his own embryo spouse made one of the party. He had come there to gratify himself by gazing on Madame Neroni's beauty and listening to and returning her flattery: and though he had not owned as much to himself, he still felt that if he spent the evening as he had intended to do, he might probably not thereby advance his suit with Mrs. Bold.
The signora, who had no idea of a rival, received Mr. Slope with her usual marks of distinction. As he took her hand, she made some confidential communication to him in a low voice, declaring that she had a plan to communicate to him after tea, and was evidently prepared to go on with her work of reducing the chaplain to a state of captivity. Poor Mr. Slope was rather beside himself. He thought that Eleanor could not but have learnt from his demeanour that he was an admirer of her own, and he had also flattered himself that the idea was not unacceptable to her. What would she think of him if he now devoted himself to a married woman!
But Eleanor was not inclined to be severe in her criticisms on him in this respect, and felt no annoyance of any kind, when she found herself seated between Bertie and Charlotte Stanhope. She had no suspicion of Mr. Slope's intentions; she had no suspicion even of the suspicion of other people; but still she felt well-pleased not to have Mr. Slope too near to her.
And she was not ill-pleased to have Bertie Stanhope near her. It was rarely indeed that he failed to make an agreeable impression on strangers. With a bishop indeed who thought much of his own dignity it was possible that he might fail, but hardly with a young and pretty woman. He possessed the tact of becoming instantly intimate with women without giving rise to any fear of impertinence. He had about him somewhat of the propensities of a tame cat. It seemed quite natural that he should be petted, caressed, and treated with familiar good nature, and that in return he should purr, and be sleek and graceful, and above all never show his claws. Like other tame cats, however, he had his claws and sometimes made them dangerous.
When tea was over, Charlotte went to the open window and declared loudly that the full harvest moon was much too beautiful to be disregarded, and called them all to look at it. To tell the truth there was but one there who cared much about the moon's beauty, and that one was not Charlotte, but she knew how valuable an aid to her purpose the chaste goddess might become, and could easily create a little enthusiasm for the purpose of the moment. Eleanor and Bertie were soon with her. The doctor was now quiet in his armchair, and Mrs. Stanhope in hers, both prepared for slumber.
"Are you a Whewellite or a Brewsterite, or a t'othermanite, Mrs. Bold?" said Charlotte, who knew a little about everything, and had read about a third of each of the books to which she alluded.
"Oh!" said Eleanor; "I have not read any of the books, but I feel sure that there is one man in the moon at least, if not more."
"You don't believe in the pulpy gelatinous matter?" said Bertie.
"I heard about that," said Eleanor, "and I really think it's almost wicked to talk in such a manner. How can we argue about God's power in the other stars from the laws which he has given for our rule in this one?"
"How indeed!" said Bertie. "Why shouldn't there he a race of salamanders in Venus? And even if there be nothing but fish in Jupiter, why shouldn't the fish there he as wide awake as the men and women here?"
"That would be saying very little for them," said Charlotte. "I am for Dr. Whewell myself, for I do not think that men and women are worth being repeated in such countless worlds. There may be souls in other stars, but I doubt their having any bodies attached to them. But come, Mrs. Bold, let us put our bonnets on and walk round the close. If we are to discuss sidereal questions, we shall do so much better under the towers of the cathedral than stuck in this narrow window."
Mrs. Bold made no objection, and a party was made to walk out. Charlotte Stanhope well knew the rule as to three being no company, and she had therefore to induce her sister to allow Mr. Slope to accompany them.
"Come, Mr. Slope," she said, "I'm sure you'll join us. We shall be in again in a quarter of an hour, Madeline."
Madeline read in her eye all that she had to say, knew her object, and as she had to depend on her sister for so many of her amusements, she felt that she must yield. It was hard to be left alone while others of her own age walked out to feel the soft influence of the bright night, but it would be harder still to be without the sort of sanction which Charlotte gave to all her flirtations and intrigues. Charlotte's eye told her that she must give up just at present for the good of the family, and so Madeline obeyed.
But Charlotte's eyes said nothing of the sort to Mr. Slope. He had no objection at all to the tête-à-tête with the signora which the departure of the other three would allow him, and gently whispered to her, "I shall not leave you alone."
"Oh, yes," said she; "go — pray go, pray go, for my sake. Do not think that I am so selfish. It is understood that nobody is kept within for me. You will understand this too when you know me better. Pray join them, Mr. Slope, but when you come in speak to me for five minutes before you leave us."
Mr. Slope understood that he was to go, and he therefore joined the party in the hall. He would have had no objection at all to this arrangement, if he could have secured Mrs. Bold's arm; but this of course was out of the question. Indeed, his fate was very soon settled, for no sooner had he reached the hall-door than Miss Stanhope put her hand within his arm, and Bertie walked off with Eleanor just as naturally as though she were already his own property.
And so they sauntered forth: first they walked round the close, according to their avowed intent; then they went under the old arched gateway below St. Cuthbert's little church, and then they turned behind the grounds of the bishop's palace, and so on till they came to the bridge just at the edge of the town, from which passers-by can look down into the gardens of Hiram's Hospital; and here Charlotte and Mr. Slope, who were in advance, stopped till the other two came up to them. Mr. Slope knew that the gable-ends and old brick chimneys which stood up so prettily in the moonlight were those of Mr. Harding's late abode, and would not have stopped on such a spot, in such company, if he could have avoided it; but Miss Stanhope would not take the hint which he tried to give.
"This is a very pretty place, Mrs. Bold," said Charlotte; "by far the prettiest place near Barchester. I wonder your father gave it up."
It was a very pretty place, and now by the deceitful light of the moon looked twice larger, twice prettier, twice more antiquely picturesque than it would have done in truth-telling daylight. Who does not know the air of complex multiplicity and the mysterious interesting grace which the moon always lends to old gabled buildings half-surrounded, as was the hospital, by fine trees! As seen from the bridge on the night of which we are speaking, Mr. Harding's late abode did look very lovely, and though Eleanor did not grieve at her father's having left it, she felt at the moment an intense wish that he might be allowed to return.
"He is going to return to it almost immediately, is he not?" asked Bertie.
Eleanor made no immediate reply. Many such a question passes unanswered without the notice of the questioner, but such was not now the case. They all remained silent as though expecting her to reply, and after a moment or two, Charlotte said, "I believe it is settled that Mr. Harding returns to the hospital, is it not?"
"I don't think anything about it is settled yet," said Eleanor.
"But it must be a matter of course," said Bertie; "that is, if your father wishes it. Who else on earth could hold it after what has occurred?"
Eleanor quietly made her companion understand that the matter was one which she could not discuss in the present company, and then they passed on. Charlotte said she would go a short way up the hill out of the town so as to look back upon the towers of the cathedral, and as Eleanor leant upon Bertie's arm for assistance in the walk, she told him how the matter stood between her father and the bishop.
"And, he," said Bertie, pointing on to Mr. Slope, "what part does he take in it?"
Eleanor explained how Mr. Slope had at first endeavoured to tyrannize over her father, but how he had latterly come round and done all he could to talk the bishop over in Mr. Harding's favour. "But my father," she said, "is hardly inclined to trust him; they all say he is so arrogant to the old clergymen of the city."
"Take my word for it," said Bertie, "your father is right. If I am not very much mistaken, that man is both arrogant and false."
They strolled up to the top of the hill and then returned through the fields by a foot-path which leads by a small wooden bridge, or rather a plank with a rustic rail to it, over the river to the other side of the cathedral from that at which they had started. They had thus walked round the bishop's grounds, through which the river runs, and round the cathedral and adjacent fields, and it was past eleven before they reached the doctor's door.
"It is very late," said Eleanor; "it will be a shame to disturb your mother again at such an hour."
"Oh"' said Charlotte, laughing, "you won't disturb Mamma; I dare say she is in bed by this time, and Madeline would be furious if you did not come in and see her. Come, Bertie, take Mrs. Bold's bonnet from her."
They went upstairs and found the signora alone, reading. She looked somewhat sad and melancholy, but not more so perhaps than was sufficient to excite additional interest in the bosom of Mr. Slope; and she was soon deep in whispered intercourse with that happy gentleman, who was allowed to find a resting-place on her sofa. The signora had a way of whispering that was peculiarly her own and was exactly the reverse of that which prevails among great tragedians. The great tragedian hisses out a positive whisper, made with bated breath, and produced by inarticulated tongue-formed sounds, but yet he is audible through the whole house. The signora, however, used no hisses and produced all her words in a clear, silver tone, but they could only be heard by the ear into which they were poured.
Charlotte hurried and scurried about the room hither and thither, doing, or pretending to do many things; then, saying something about seeing her mother, ran upstairs. Eleanor was thus left alone with Bertie, and she hardly felt an hour fly by her. To give Bertie his due credit, he could not have played his cards better. He did not make love to her, nor sigh, nor look languishing, but he was amusing and familiar, yet respectful; and when he left Eleanor at her own door at one o'clock, which he did by the by with the assistance of the now jealous Slope, she thought that he was one of the most agreeable men and the Stanhopes decidedly the most agreeable family that she had ever met.
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