The Last Chronicle of Barset CHAPTER LXVI.


Things were very gloomy at the palace. It has been already said that for many days after Dr. Tempest’s visit to Barchester the intercourse between the bishop and Mrs. Proudie had not been of a pleasant nature. He had become so silent, so sullen, and so solitary in his ways, that even her courage had been almost cowed, and for a while she had condescended to use gentler measures, with the hope that she might thus bring her lord round to his usual state of active submission; or perhaps, if we strive to do her full justice, we may say of her that her effort was made conscientiously, with the idea of inducing him to do his duty with proper activity. For she was a woman not without a conscience, and by no means indifferent to the real service which her husband, as bishop of the diocese, was bound to render to the affairs of the Church around her. Of her own struggles after personal dominion she was herself unconscious; and no doubt they gave her, when recognized and acknowledged by herself, many stabs to her inner self, of which no single being in the world knew anything. And now, as after a while she failed in producing any amelioration in the bishop’s mood, her temper also gave way, and things were becoming very gloomy and very unpleasant.

The bishop and his wife were at present alone in the palace. Their married daughter and her husband had left them, and their unmarried daughter was also away. How far the bishop’s mood may have produced this solitude in the vast house I will not say. Probably Mrs. Proudie’s state of mind may have prevented her from having other guests in the place of those who were gone. She felt herself to be almost disgraced in the eyes of all those around her by her husband’s long absence from the common rooms of the house and by his dogged silence at meals. It was better, she thought, that they two should be alone in the palace.

Her own efforts to bring him back to something like life, to some activity of mind if not of body, were made constantly; and when she failed, as she did fail day after day, she would go slowly to her own room, and lock her door, and look back in her solitude at all the days of her life. She had agonies in these minutes of which no one near her knew anything. She would seize with her arm the part of the bed near which she would stand, and hold by it, grasping it, as though she were afraid to fall; and then, when it was at the worst with her, she would go to her closet,—a closet that no eyes ever saw unlocked but her own,—and fill for herself and swallow some draught; and then she would sit down with the Bible before her, and read it sedulously. She spent hours every day with her Bible before her, repeating to herself whole chapters, which she almost knew by heart.

It cannot be said that she was a bad woman, though she had in her time done an indescribable amount of evil. She had endeavoured to do good, failing partly by ignorance and partly from the effects of an unbridled, ambitious temper. And now, even amidst her keenest sufferings, her ambition was by no means dead. She still longed to rule the diocese by means of her husband,—but was made to pause and hesitate by the unwonted mood that had fallen upon him. Before this, on more than one occasion, and on one very memorable occasion, he had endeavoured to combat her. He had fought with her, striving to put her down. He had failed, and given up the hope of any escape for himself in that direction. On those occasions her courage had never quailed for a moment. While he openly struggled to be master, she could openly struggle to be mistress,—and could enjoy the struggle. But nothing like this moodiness had ever come upon him before.

She had yielded to it for many days, striving to coax him by little softnesses of which she herself had been ashamed as she practised them. They had served her nothing, and at last she determined that something else must be done. If only for his sake, to keep some life in him, something else must be done. Were he to continue as he was now, he must give up his diocese, or, at any rate, declare himself too ill to keep the working of it in his own hands. How she hated Mr. Crawley for all the sorrow that he had brought upon her and her house!

And it was still the affair of Mr. Crawley which urged her on to further action. When the bishop received Mr. Crawley’s letter he said nothing of it to her; but he handed it over to his chaplain. The chaplain, fearing to act upon it himself, handed it to Mr. Thumble, whom he knew to be one of the bishop’s commission, and Mr. Thumble, equally fearing responsibility in the present state of affairs at the palace, found himself obliged to consult Mrs. Proudie. Mrs. Proudie had no doubt as to what should be done. The man had abdicated his living, and of course some provision must be made for the services. She would again make an attempt upon her husband, and therefore she went into his room holding Mr. Crawley’s letter in her hand.

“My dear,” she said, “here is Mr. Crawley’s letter. I suppose you have read it?”

“Yes,” said the bishop; “I have read it.”

“And what will you do about it? Something must be done.”

“I don’t know,” said he. He did not even look at her as he spoke. He had not turned his eyes upon her since she had entered the room.

“But, bishop, it is a letter that requires to be acted upon at once. We cannot doubt that the man is doing right at last. He is submitting himself where his submission is due; but his submission will be of no avail unless you take some action upon his letter. Do you not think that Mr. Thumble had better go over?”

“No, I don’t. I think Mr. Thumble had better stay where he is,” said the irritated bishop.

“What, then, would you wish to have done?”

“Never mind,” said he.

“But, bishop, that is nonsense,” said Mrs. Proudie, adding something of severity to the tone of her voice.

“No, it isn’t nonsense,” said he. Still he did not look at her, nor had he done so for a moment since she had entered the room. Mrs. Proudie could not bear this, and as her anger became strong within her breast, she told herself that she would be wrong to bear it. She had tried what gentleness would do, and she had failed. It was now imperatively necessary that she should resort to sterner measures. She must make him understand that he must give her authority to send Mr. Thumble to Hogglestock.

“Why do you not turn round and speak to me properly?” she said.

“I do not want to speak to you at all,” the bishop answered.

This was very bad;—almost anything would be better than this. He was sitting now over the fire, with his elbows on his knees, and his face buried in his hands. She had gone round the room so as to face him, and was now standing almost over him, but still she could not see his countenance. “This will not do at all,” she said. “My dear, do you know that you are forgetting yourself altogether?”

“I wish I could forget myself.”

“That might be all very well if you were in a position in which you owed no service to any one; or, rather, it would not be well then, but the evil would not be so manifest. You cannot do your duty in the diocese if you continue to sit there doing nothing, with your head upon your hands. Why do you not rally, and get to your work like a man?”

“I wish you would go away and leave me,” he said.

“No, bishop, I will not go away and leave you. You have brought yourself to such a condition that it is my duty as your wife to stay by you; and if you neglect your duty, I will not neglect mine.”

“It was you that brought me to it.”

“No, sir, that is not true. I did not bring you to it.”

“It is the truth.” And now he got up and looked at her. For a moment he stood upon his legs, and then again he sat down with his face turned towards her. “It is the truth. You have brought on me such disgrace that I cannot hold up my head. You have ruined me. I wish I were dead; and it is all through you that I am driven to wish it.”

Of all that she had suffered in her life this was the worst. She clasped both her hands to her side as she listened to him, and for a minute or two she made no reply. When he ceased from speaking he again put his elbows on his knees and again buried his face in his hands. What had she better do, or how was it expedient that she should treat him? At this crisis the whole thing was so important to her that she would have postponed her own ambition and would have curbed her temper had she thought that by doing so she might in any degree have benefited him. But it seemed to her that she could not rouse him by conciliation. Neither could she leave him as he was. Something must be done. “Bishop,” she said, “the words that you speak are sinful, very sinful.”

“You have made them sinful,” he replied.

“I will not hear that from you. I will not indeed. I have endeavoured to do my duty by you, and I do not deserve it. I am endeavouring to do my duty now, and you must know that it would ill become me to remain quiescent while you are in such a state. The world around you is observing you, and knows that you are not doing your work. All I want of you is that you should arouse yourself, and go to your work.”

“I could do my work very well,” he said, “if you were not here.”

“I suppose, then, you wish that I were dead?” said Mrs. Proudie. To this he made no reply, nor did he stir himself. How could flesh and blood bear this,—female flesh and blood,—Mrs. Proudie’s flesh and blood? Now, at last, her temper once more got the better of her judgment, probably much to her immediate satisfaction, and she spoke out. “I’ll tell you what it is, my lord; if you are imbecile, I must be active. It is very sad that I should have to assume your authority—”

“I will not allow you to assume my authority.”

“I must do so, or must else obtain a medical certificate as to your incapacity, and beg that some neighbouring bishop may administer the diocese. Things shall not go on as they are now. I, at any rate, will do my duty. I shall tell Mr. Thumble that he must go over to Hogglestock, and arrange for the duties of the parish.”

“I desire that you will do no such thing,” said the bishop, now again looking up at her.

“You may be sure that I shall,” said Mrs. Proudie, and then she left the room.

He did not even yet suppose that she would go about this work at once. The condition of his mind was in truth bad, and was becoming worse, probably, from day to day; but still he did make his calculations about things, and now reflected that it would be sufficient if he spoke to his chaplain to-morrow about Mr. Crawley’s letter. Since the terrible scene that Dr. Tempest had witnessed, he had never been able to make up his mind as to what great step he would take, but he had made up his mind that some great step was necessary. There were moments in which he thought that he would resign his bishopric. For such resignation, without acknowledged incompetence on the score of infirmity, the precedents were very few; but even if there were no precedents, it would be better to do that than to remain where he was. Of course there would be disgrace. But then it would be disgrace from which he could hide himself. Now there was equal disgrace; and he could not hide himself. And then such a measure as that would bring punishment where punishment was due. It would bring his wife to the ground,—her who had brought him to the ground. The suffering should not be all his own. When she found that her income, and her palace, and her position were all gone, then perhaps she might repent the evil that she had done him. Now, when he was left alone, his mind went back to this, and he did not think of taking immediate measures,—measures on that very day,—to prevent the action of Mr. Thumble.

But Mrs. Proudie did take immediate steps. Mr. Thumble was at this moment in the palace waiting for instructions. It was he who had brought Mr. Crawley’s letter to Mrs. Proudie, and she now returned to him with that letter in her hand. The reader will know what was the result. Mr. Thumble was sent off to Hogglestock at once on the bishop’s old cob, and,—as will be remembered,—fell into trouble on the road. Late in the afternoon he entered the palace yard, having led the cob by the bridle the whole way home from Hogglestock.

Some hour or two before Mr. Thumble’s return Mrs. Proudie returned to her husband, thinking it better to let him know what she had done. She resolved to be very firm with him, but at the same time she determined not to use harsh language if it could be avoided. “My dear,” she said, “I have arranged with Mr. Thumble.” She found him on this occasion sitting at his desk with papers before him, with a pen in his hand; and she could see at a glance that nothing had been written on the paper. What would she have thought had she known that when he placed the sheet before him he was proposing to consult the archbishop as to the propriety of his resignation! He had not, however, progressed so far as to write even the date of his letter.

“You have done what?” said he, throwing down the pen.

“I have arranged with Mr. Thumble as to going out to Hogglestock,” said she firmly. “Indeed he has gone already.” Then the bishop jumped up from his seat, and rang the bell with violence. “What are you going to do?” said Mrs. Proudie.

“I am going to depart from here,” said he. “I will not stay here to be the mark of scorn for all men’s fingers. I will resign the diocese.”

“You cannot do that,” said his wife.

“I can try, at any rate,” said he. Then the servant entered. “John,” said he, addressing the man, “let Mr. Thumble know the moment he returns to the palace that I wish to see him here. Perhaps he may not come to the palace. In that case let word be sent to his house.”

Mrs. Proudie allowed the man to go before she addressed her husband again. “What do you mean to say to Mr. Thumble when you see him?”

“That is nothing to you.”

She came up to him and put her hand upon his shoulder, and spoke to him very gently. “Tom,” she said, “is that the way in which you speak to your wife?”

“Yes, it is. You have driven me to it. Why have you taken upon yourself to send that man to Hogglestock?”

“Because it was right to do so. I came to you for instructions, and you would give none.”

“I should have given what instructions I pleased in proper time. Thumble shall not go to Hogglestock next Sunday.”

“Who shall go, then?”

“Never mind. Nobody. It does not matter to you. If you will leave me now I shall be obliged to you. There will be an end of all this very soon,—very soon.”

Mrs. Proudie after this stood for a while thinking what she would say; but she left the room without uttering another word. As she looked at him a hundred different thoughts came into her mind. She had loved him dearly, and she loved him still; but she knew now,—at this moment felt absolutely sure,—that by him she was hated! In spite of all her roughness and temper, Mrs. Proudie was in this like other women,—that she would fain have been loved had it been possible. She had always meant to serve him. She was conscious of that; conscious also in a way that, although she had been industrious, although she had been faithful, although she was clever, yet she had failed. At the bottom of her heart she knew that she had been a bad wife. And yet she had meant to be a pattern wife! She had meant to be a good Christian; but she had so exercised her Christianity that not a soul in the world loved her, or would endure her presence if it could be avoided! She had sufficient insight to the minds and feelings of those around her to be aware of this. And now her husband had told her that her tyranny to him was so overbearing that he must throw up his great position, and retire to an obscurity that would be exceptionally disgraceful to them both, because he could no longer endure the public disgrace which her conduct brought upon him in his high place before the world! Her heart was too full for speech; and she left him, very quietly closing the door behind her.

She was preparing to go up to her chamber, with her hand on the banisters and with her foot on the stairs, when she saw the servant who had answered the bishop’s bell. “John,” she said, “when Mr. Thumble comes to the palace, let me see him before he goes to my lord.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said John, who well understood the nature of these quarrels between his master and his mistress. But the commands of the mistress were still paramount among the servants, and John proceeded on his mission with the view of accomplishing Mrs. Proudie’s behests. Then Mrs. Proudie went upstairs to her chamber, and locked her door.

Mr. Thumble returned to Barchester that day, leading the broken-down cob; and a dreadful walk he had. He was not good at walking, and before he came near Barchester had come to entertain a violent hatred for the beast he was leading. The leading of a horse that is tired, or in pain, or lame, or even stiff in his limbs, is not pleasant work. The brute will not accommodate his paces to the man, and will contrive to make his head very heavy on the bridle. And he will not walk on the part of the road which the man intends for him, but will lean against the man, and will make himself altogether very disagreeable. It may be understood, therefore, that Mr. Thumble was not in a good humour when he entered the palace yard. Nor was he altogether quiet in his mind as to the injury which he had done to the animal. “It was the brute’s fault,” said Mr. Thumble. “It comes generally of not knowing how to ride ’em,” said the groom. For Mr. Thumble, though he often had a horse out of the episcopal stables, was not ready with his shillings to the man who waited upon him with the steed.

He had not, however, come to any satisfactory understanding respecting the broken knees when the footman from the palace told him he was wanted. It was in vain that Mr. Thumble pleaded that he was nearly dead with fatigue, that he had walked all the way from Hogglestock and must go home to change his clothes. John was peremptory with him, insisting that he must wait first upon Mrs. Proudie and then upon the bishop. Mr. Thumble might perhaps have turned a deaf ear to the latter command, but the former was one which he felt himself bound to obey. So he entered the palace, rather cross, very much soiled as to his outer man; and in this condition went up a certain small staircase which was familiar to him, to a small parlour which adjoined Mrs. Proudie’s room, and there awaited the arrival of the lady. That he should be required to wait some quarter of an hour was not surprising to him; but when half an hour was gone, and he remembered himself of his own wife at home, and of the dinner which he had not yet eaten, he ventured to ring the bell. Mrs. Proudie’s own maid, Mrs. Draper by name, came to him and said that she had knocked twice at Mrs. Proudie’s door and would knock again. Two minutes after that she returned, running into the room with her arms extended, and exclaiming, “Oh, heavens, sir; mistress is dead!” Mr. Thumble, hardly knowing what he was about, followed the woman into the bedroom, and there he found himself standing awestruck before the corpse of her who had so lately been the presiding spirit of the palace.

The body was still resting on its legs, leaning against the end of the side of the bed, while one of the arms was close clasped round the bed-post. The mouth was rigidly closed, but the eyes were open as though staring at him. Nevertheless there could be no doubt from the first glance that the woman was dead. He went up close to it, but did not dare to touch it. There was no one as yet there but he and Mrs. Draper;—no one else knew what had happened.

“It’s her heart,” said Mrs. Draper.

“Did she suffer from heart complaint?” he asked.

“We suspected it, sir, though nobody knew it. She was very shy of talking about herself.”

“We must send for the doctor at once,” said Mr. Thumble. “We had better touch nothing till he is here.” Then they retreated and the door was locked.

In ten minutes everybody in the house knew it except the bishop; and in twenty minutes the nearest apothecary with his assistant were in the room, and the body had been properly laid upon the bed. Even then the husband had not been told,—did not know either his relief or his loss. It was now past seven, which was the usual hour for dinner at the palace, and it was probable that he would come out of his room among the servants, if he were not summoned. When it was proposed to Mr. Thumble that he should go in to him and tell him, he positively declined, saying that the sight which he had just seen and the exertions of the day together, had so unnerved him, that he had not physical strength for the task. The apothecary, who had been summoned in a hurry, had escaped, probably being equally unwilling to be the bearer of such a communication. The duty therefore fell to Mrs. Draper, and under the pressing instance of the other servants she descended to her master’s room. Had it not been that the hour of dinner had come, so that the bishop could not have been left much longer to himself, the evil time would have been still postponed.

She went very slowly along the passage, and was just going to pause ere she reached the room, when the door was opened and the bishop stood close before her. It was easy to be seen that he was cross. His hands and face were unwashed and his face was haggard. In these days he would not even go through the ceremony of dressing himself before dinner. “Mrs. Draper,” he said, “why don’t they tell me that dinner is ready? Are they going to give me any dinner?” She stood a moment without answering him, while the tears streamed down her face. “What is the matter?” said he. “Has your mistress sent you here?”

“Oh, laws!” said Mrs. Draper,—and she put out her hands to support him if such support should be necessary.

“What is the matter?” he demanded angrily.

“Oh, my lord;—bear it like a Christian. Mistress isn’t no more.” He leaned back against the door-post, and she took hold of him by the arm. “It was the heart, my lord. Dr. Filgrave hisself has not been yet; but that’s what it was.” The bishop did not say a word, but walked back to his chair before the fire.