The Last Chronicle of Barset CHAPTER LXVII.


Illustration he bishop when he had heard the tidings of his wife’s death walked back to his seat over the fire, and Mrs. Draper, the housekeeper, came and stood over him without speaking. Thus she stood for ten minutes looking down at him and listening. But there was no sound; not a word, nor a moan, nor a sob. It was as though he also were dead, but that a slight irregular movement of his fingers on the top of his bald head, told her that his mind and body were still active. “My lord,” she said at last, “would you wish to see the doctor when he comes?” She spoke very low and he did not answer her. Then, after another minute of silence, she asked the same question again.

“What doctor?” he said.

“Dr. Filgrave. We sent for him. Perhaps he is here now. Shall I go and see, my lord?” Mrs. Draper found that her position there was weary and she wished to escape. Anything on his behalf requiring trouble or work she would have done willingly; but she could not stand there for ever watching the motion of his fingers.

“I suppose I must see him,” said the bishop. Mrs. Draper took this as an order for her departure and crept silently out of the room, closing the door behind her with the long protracted elaborate click which is always produced by an attempt at silence on such occasions. He did not care for noise or for silence. Had she slammed the door he would not have regarded it. A wonderful silence had come upon him which for the time almost crushed him. He would never hear that well-known voice again!

He was free now. Even in his misery,—for he was very miserable,—he could not refrain from telling himself that. No one could now press uncalled-for into his study, contradict him in the presence of those before whom he was bound to be authoritative, and rob him of all his dignity. There was no one else of whom he was afraid. She had at least kept him out of the hands of other tyrants. He was now his own master, and there was a feeling,—I may not call it of relief, for as yet there was more of pain in it than of satisfaction,—a feeling as though he had escaped from an old trouble at a terrible cost of which he could not as yet calculate the amount. He knew that he might now give up all idea of writing to the archbishop.

She had in some ways, and at certain periods of his life, been very good to him. She had kept his money for him and made things go straight, when they had been poor. His interests had always been her interests. Without her he would never have been a bishop. So, at least, he told himself now, and so told himself probably with truth. She had been very careful of his children. She had never been idle. She had never been fond of pleasure. She had neglected no acknowledged duty. He did not doubt that she was now on her way to heaven. He took his hands down from his head, and clasping them together, said a little prayer. It may be doubted whether he quite knew for what he was praying. The idea of praying for her soul, now that she was dead, would have scandalized him. He certainly was not praying for his own soul. I think he was praying that God might save him from being glad that his wife was dead.

But she was dead;—and, as it were, in a moment! He had not stirred out of that room since she had been there with him. Then there had been angry words between them,—perhaps more determined enmity on his part than ever had before existed; and they had parted for the last time with bitter animosity. But he told himself that he had certainly been right in what he had done then. He thought he had been right then. And so his mind went back to the Crawley and Thumble question, and he tried to alleviate the misery which that last interview with his wife now created by assuring himself that he at least had been justified in what he had done.

But yet his thoughts were very tender to her. Nothing reopens the springs of love so fully as absence, and no absence so thoroughly as that which must needs be endless. We want that which we have not; and especially that which we can never have. She had told him in the very last moments of her presence with him that he was wishing that she were dead, and he had made her no reply. At the moment he had felt, with savage anger, that such was his wish. Her words had now come to pass, and he was a widower,—and he assured himself that he would give all that he possessed in the world to bring her back again.

Yes, he was a widower, and he might do as he pleased. The tyrant was gone, and he was free. The tyrant was gone, and the tyranny had doubtless been very oppressive. Who had suffered as he had done? But in thus being left without his tyrant he was wretchedly desolate. Might it not be that the tyranny had been good for him?—that the Lord had known best what wife was fit for him? Then he thought of a story which he had read,—and had well marked as he was reading,—of some man who had been terribly afflicted by his wife, whose wife had starved him and beaten him and reviled him; and yet this man had been able to thank his God for having thus mortified him in the flesh. Might it not be that the mortification which he himself had doubtless suffered in his flesh had been intended for his welfare, and had been very good for him? But if this were so, it might be that the mortification was now removed because the Lord knew that his servant had been sufficiently mortified. He had not been starved or beaten, but the mortification had been certainly severe. Then there came words—into his mind, not into his mouth—”The Lord sent the thorn, and the Lord has taken it away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” After that he was very angry with himself, and tried to pray that he might be forgiven. While he was so striving there came a low knock at the door, and Mrs. Draper again entered the room.

“Dr. Filgrave, my lord, was not at home,” said Mrs. Draper; “but he will be sent the very moment he arrives.”

“Very well, Mrs. Draper.”

“But, my lord, will you not come to your dinner? A little soup, or a morsel of something to eat, and a glass of wine, will enable your lordship to bear it better.” He allowed Mrs. Draper to persuade him, and followed her into the dining-room. “Do not go, Mrs. Draper,” he said; “I would rather that you should stay with me.” So Mrs. Draper stayed with him, and administered to his wants. He was desirous of being seen by as few eyes as possible in these the first moments of his freedom.

He saw Dr. Filgrave twice, both before and after the doctor had been upstairs. There was no doubt, Dr. Filgrave said, that it was as Mrs. Draper had surmised. The poor lady was suffering, and had for years been suffering, from heart-complaint. To her husband she had never said a word on the subject. To Mrs. Draper a word had been said now and again,—a word when some moment of fear would come, when some sharp stroke of agony would tell of danger. But Mrs. Draper had kept the secret of her mistress, and none of the family had known that there was aught to be feared. Dr. Filgrave, indeed, did tell the bishop that he had dreaded all along exactly that which had happened. He had said the same to Mr. Rerechild, the surgeon, when they two had had a consultation together at the palace on the occasion of a somewhat alarming birth of a grandchild. But he mixed up this information with so much medical Latin, and was so pompous over it, and the bishop was so anxious to be rid of him, that his words did not have much effect. What did it all matter? The thorn was gone, and the wife was dead, and the widower must balance his gain and loss as best he might.

He slept well, but when he woke in the morning the dreariness of his loneliness was very strong on him. He must do something, and must see somebody, but he felt that he did not know how to bear himself in his new position. He must send of course for his chaplain, and tell his chaplain to open all letters and to answer them for a week. Then he remembered how many of his letters in days of yore had been opened and been answered by the helpmate who had just gone from him. Since Dr. Tempest’s visit he had insisted that the palace letter-bag should always be brought in the first instance to him;—and this had been done, greatly to the annoyance of his wife. In order that it might be done the bishop had been up every morning an hour before his usual time; and everybody in the household had known why it was so. He thought of this now as the bag was brought to him on the first morning of his freedom. He could have it where he pleased now;—either in his bedroom or left for him untouched on the breakfast-table till he should go to it. “Blessed be the name of the Lord,” he said as he thought of all this; but he did not stop to analyse what he was saying. On this morning he would not enjoy his liberty, but desired that the letter-bag might be taken to Mr. Snapper, the chaplain.

The news of Mrs. Proudie’s death had spread all over Barchester on the evening of its occurrence, and had been received with that feeling of distant awe which is always accompanied by some degree of pleasurable sensation. There was no one in Barchester to lament a mother, or a sister, or a friend who was really loved. There were those, doubtless, who regretted the woman’s death,—and even some who regretted it without any feeling of personal damage done to themselves. There had come to be around Mrs. Proudie a party who thought as she thought on church matters, and such people had lost their head, and thereby their strength. And she had been staunch to her own party, preferring bad tea from a low-church grocer, to good tea from a grocer who went to the ritualistic church or to no church at all. And it is due to her to say that she did not forget those who were true to her,—looking after them mindfully where looking after might be profitable, and fighting their battles where fighting might be more serviceable. I do not think that the appetite for breakfast of any man or woman in Barchester was disturbed by the news of Mrs. Proudie’s death, but there were some who felt that a trouble had fallen on them.

Tidings of the catastrophe reached Hiram’s Hospital on the evening of its occurrence,—Hiram’s Hospital, where dwelt Mr. and Mrs. Quiverful with all their children. Now Mrs. Quiverful owed a debt of gratitude to Mrs. Proudie, having been placed in her present comfortable home by that lady’s patronage. Mrs. Quiverful perhaps understood the character of the deceased woman, and expressed her opinion respecting it, as graphically as did any one in Barchester. There was the natural surprise felt at the Warden’s lodge in the Hospital when the tidings were first received there, and the Quiverful family was at first too full of dismay, regrets and surmises, to be able to give themselves impartially to criticism. But on the following morning, conversation at the breakfast-table naturally referring to the great loss which the bishop had sustained, Mrs. Quiverful thus pronounced her opinion of her friend’s character: “You’ll find that he’ll feel it, Q.,” she said to her husband, in answer to some sarcastic remark made by him as to the removal of the thorn. “He’ll feel it, though she was almost too many for him while she was alive.”

“I daresay he’ll feel it at first,” said Quiverful; “but I think he’ll be more comfortable than he has been.”

“Of course he’ll feel it, and go on feeling it till he dies, if he’s the man I take him to be. You’re not to think that there has been no love because there used to be some words, that he’ll find himself the happier because he can do things more as he pleases. She was a great help to him, and he must have known that she was, in spite of the sharpness of her tongue. No doubt she was sharp. No doubt she was upsetting. And she could make herself a fool too in her struggles to have everything her own way. But, Q., there were worse women than Mrs. Proudie. She was never one of your idle ones, and I’m quite sure that no man or woman ever heard her say a word against her husband behind his back.”

“All the same, she gave him a terribly bad life of it, if all is true that we hear.”

“There are men who must have what you call a terribly bad life of it, whatever way it goes with them. The bishop is weak, and he wants somebody near to him to be strong. She was strong,—perhaps too strong; but he had his advantage out of it. After all I don’t know that his life has been so terribly bad. I daresay he’s had everything very comfortable about him. And a man ought to be grateful for that, though very few men ever are.”

Mr. Quiverful’s predecessor at the Hospital, old Mr. Harding, whose halcyon days in Barchester had been passed before the coming of the Proudies, was in bed playing cat’s-cradle with Posy seated on the counterpane, when the tidings of Mrs. Proudie’s death were brought to him by Mrs. Baxter. “Oh, sir,” said Mrs. Baxter, seating herself on a chair by the bed-side. Mr. Harding liked Mrs. Baxter to sit down, because he was almost sure on such occasions to have the advantage of a prolonged conversation.

“What is it, Mrs. Baxter?”

“Oh, sir!”

“Is anything the matter?” And the old man attempted to raise himself in his bed.

“You mustn’t frighten grandpa,” said Posy.

“No, my dear; and there isn’t nothing to frighten him. There isn’t indeed, Mr. Harding. They’re all well at Plumstead, and when I heard from the missus at Venice, everything was going on well.”

“But what is it, Mrs. Baxter?”

“God forgive her all her sins—Mrs. Proudie ain’t no more.” Now there had been a terrible feud between the palace and the deanery for years, in carrying on which the persons of the opposed households were wont to express themselves with eager animosity. Mrs. Baxter and Mrs. Draper never spoke to each other. The two coachmen each longed for an opportunity to take the other before a magistrate for some breach of the law of the road in driving. The footmen abused each other, and the grooms occasionally fought. The masters and mistresses contented themselves with simple hatred. Therefore it was not surprising that Mrs. Baxter, in speaking of the death of Mrs. Proudie, should remember first her sins.

“Mrs. Proudie dead!” said the old man.

“Indeed she is, Mr. Harding,” said Mrs. Baxter, putting both her hands together piously. “We’re just grass, ain’t we, sir! and dust and clay and flowers of the field?” Whether Mrs. Proudie had most partaken of the clayey nature or of the flowery nature, Mrs. Baxter did not stop to consider.

“Mrs. Proudie dead!” said Posy, with a solemnity that was all her own. “Then she won’t scold the poor bishop any more.”

“No, my dear; she won’t scold anybody any more; and it will be a blessing for some, I must say. Everybody is always so considerate in this house, Miss Posy, that we none of us know nothing about what that is.”

“Dead!” said Mr. Harding again. “I think, if you please, Mrs. Baxter, you shall leave me for a little time, and take Miss Posy with you.” He had been in the city of Barchester some fifty years, and here was one who might have been his daughter, who had come there scarcely ten years since, and who now had gone before him! He had never loved Mrs. Proudie. Perhaps he had gone as near to disliking Mrs. Proudie as he had ever gone to disliking any person. Mrs. Proudie had wounded him in every part that was most sensitive. It would be long to tell, nor need it be told now, how she had ridiculed his cathedral work, how she had made nothing of him, how she had despised him, always manifesting her contempt plainly. He had been even driven to rebuke her, and it had perhaps been the only personal rebuke which he had ever uttered in Barchester. But now she was gone; and he thought of her simply as an active pious woman, who had been taken away from her work before her time. And for the bishop, no idea ever entered Mr. Harding’s mind as to the removal of a thorn. The man had lost his life’s companion at that time of life when such a companion is most needed; and Mr. Harding grieved for him with sincerity.

The news went out to Plumstead Episcopi by the postman, and happened to reach the archdeacon as he was talking to his sexton at the little gate leading into the churchyard. “Mrs. Proudie dead!” he almost shouted, as the postman notified the fact to him. “Impossible!”

“It be so for zartain, yer reverence,” said the postman, who was proud of his news.

“Heavens!” ejaculated the archdeacon, and then hurried in to his wife. “My dear,” he said—and as he spoke he could hardly deliver himself of his words, so eager was he to speak them—”who do you think is dead? Gracious heavens! Mrs. Proudie is dead!” Mrs. Grantly dropped from her hand the teaspoonful of tea that was just going into the pot, and repeated her husband’s words. “Mrs. Proudie dead?” There was a pause, during which they looked into each other’s faces. “My dear, I don’t believe it,” said Mrs. Grantly.

But she did believe it very shortly. There were no prayers at Plumstead rectory that morning. The archdeacon immediately went out into the village, and soon obtained sufficient evidence of the truth of that which the postman had told him. Then he rushed back to his wife. “It’s true,” he said. “It’s quite true. She’s dead. There’s no doubt about that. She’s dead. It was last night about seven. That was when they found her, at least, and she may have died about an hour before. Filgrave says not more than an hour.”

“And how did she die?”

“Heart-complaint. She was standing up, taking hold of the bedstead, and so they found her.” Then there was a pause, during which the archdeacon sat down to his breakfast. “I wonder how he felt when he heard it?”

“Of course he was terribly shocked.”

“I’ve no doubt he was shocked. Any man would be shocked. But when you come to think of it, what a relief!”

“How can you speak of it in that way?” said Mrs. Grantly.

“How am I to speak of it in any other way?” said the archdeacon. “Of course I shouldn’t go and say it out in the street.”

“I don’t think you ought to say it anywhere,” said Mrs. Grantly. “The poor man no doubt feels about his wife in the same way that anybody else would.”

“And if any other poor man has got such a wife as she was, you may be quite sure that he would be glad to be rid of her. I don’t say that he wished her to die, or that he would have done anything to contrive her death—”

“Gracious, archdeacon; do, pray, hold your tongue.”

“But it stands to reason that her going will be a great relief to him. What has she done for him? She has made him contemptible to everybody in the diocese by her interference, and his life has been a burden to him through her violence.”

“Is that the way you carry out your proverb of De mortuis?” said Mrs. Grantly.

“The proverb of De mortuis is founded on humbug. Humbug out of doors is necessary. It would not do for you and me to go into the High Street just now and say what we think about Mrs. Proudie; but I don’t suppose that kind of thing need be kept up in here, between you and me. She was an uncomfortable woman,—so uncomfortable that I cannot believe that any one will regret her. Dear me! Only to think that she has gone! You may as well give me my tea.”

I do not think that Mrs. Grantly’s opinion differed much from that expressed by her husband, or that she was, in truth, the least offended by the archdeacon’s plain speech. But it must be remembered that there was probably no house in the diocese in which Mrs. Proudie had been so thoroughly hated as she had been at the Plumstead rectory. There had been hatred at the deanery; but the hatred at the deanery had been mild in comparison with the hatred at Plumstead. The archdeacon was a sound friend; but he was also a sound enemy. From the very first arrival of the Proudies at Barchester, Mrs. Proudie had thrown down her gauntlet to him, and he had not been slow in picking it up. The war had been internecine, and each had given the other terrible wounds. It had been understood that there should be no quarter, and there had been none. His enemy was now dead, and the archdeacon could not bring himself to adopt before his wife the namby-pamby every-day decency of speaking well of one of whom he had ever thought ill, or of expressing regret when no regret could be felt. “May all her sins be forgiven her,” said Mrs. Grantly. “Amen,” said the archdeacon. There was something in the tone of his Amen which thoroughly implied that it was uttered only on the understanding that her departure from the existing world was to be regarded as an unmitigated good, and that she should, at any rate, never come back again to Barchester.

When Lady Lufton heard the tidings, she was not so bold in speaking of it as was her friend the archdeacon. “Mrs. Proudie dead!” she said to her daughter-in-law. This was some hours after the news had reached the house, and when the fact of the poor lady’s death had been fully recognized. “What will he do without her?”

“The same as other men do,” said young Lady Lufton.

“But, my dear, he is not the same as other men. He is not at all like other men. He is so weak that he cannot walk without a stick to lean upon. No doubt she was a virago, a woman who could not control her temper for a moment! No doubt she had led him a terrible life! I have often pitied him with all my heart. But, nevertheless, she was useful to him. I suppose she was useful to him. I can hardly believe that Mrs. Proudie is dead. Had he gone, it would have seemed so much more natural. Poor woman. I daresay she had her good points.” The reader will be pleased to remember that the Luftons had ever been strong partisans on the side of the Grantlys.

The news made its way even to Hogglestock on the same day. Mrs. Crawley, when she heard it, went out after her husband, who was in the school. “Dead!” said he, in answer to her whisper. “Do you tell me that the woman is dead?” Then Mrs. Crawley explained that the tidings were credible. “May God forgive her all her sins,” said Mr. Crawley. “She was a violent woman, certainly, and I think that she misunderstood her duties; but I do not say that she was a bad woman. I am inclined to think that she was earnest in her endeavours to do good.” It never occurred to Mr. Crawley that he and his affair had, in truth, been the cause of her death.

It was thus that she was spoken of for a few days; and then men and women ceased to speak much of her, and began to talk of the bishop instead. A month had not passed before it was surmised that a man so long accustomed to the comforts of married life would marry again; and even then one lady connected with low-church clergymen in and around the city was named as a probable successor to the great lady who was gone. For myself, I am inclined to think that the bishop will for the future be content to lean upon his chaplain.

The monument that was put up to our old friend’s memory in one of the side aisles of the choir of the cathedral was supposed to be designed and executed in good taste. There was a broken column, and on the column simply the words, “My beloved wife!” Then there was a slab by the column, bearing Mrs. Proudie’s name, with the date of her life and death. Beneath this was the common inscription,—

“Requiescat in pace.”