When Eleanor laid her head on her pillow that night, her mind was anxiously intent on some plan by which she might extricate her father from his misery; and, in her warm-hearted enthusiasm, self-sacrifice was decided on as the means to be adopted. Was not so good an Agamemnon worthy of an Iphigenia? She would herself personally implore John Bold to desist from his undertaking; she would explain to him her father's sorrows, the cruel misery of his position; she would tell him how her father would die if he were thus dragged before the public and exposed to such unmerited ignominy; she would appeal to his old friendship, to his generosity, to his manliness, to his mercy; if need were, she would kneel to him for the favour she would ask; but before she did this the idea of love must be banished. There must be no bargain in the matter. To his mercy, to his generosity, she could appeal; but as a pure maiden, hitherto even unsolicited, she could not appeal to his love, nor under such circumstances could she allow him to do so. Of course, when so provoked he would declare his passion; that was to be expected; there had been enough between them to make such a fact sure; but it was equally certain that he must be rejected. She could not be understood as saying, Make my father free and I am the reward. There would be no sacrifice in that;—not so had Jephthah's daughter saved her father;—not so could she show to that kindest, dearest of parents how much she was able to bear for his good. No; to one resolve must her whole soul be bound; and so resolving, she felt that she could make her great request to Bold with as much self-assured confidence as she could have done to his grandfather.
And now I own I have fears for my heroine; not as to the upshot of her mission,—not in the least as to that; as to the full success of her generous scheme, and the ultimate result of such a project, no one conversant with human nature and novels can have a doubt; but as to the amount of sympathy she may receive from those of her own sex. Girls below twenty and old ladies above sixty will do her justice; for in the female heart the soft springs of sweet romance reopen after many years, and again gush out with waters pure as in earlier days, and greatly refresh the path that leads downwards to the grave. But I fear that the majority of those between these two eras will not approve of Eleanor's plan. I fear that unmarried ladies of thirty-five will declare that there can be no probability of so absurd a project being carried through; that young women on their knees before their lovers are sure to get kissed, and that they would not put themselves in such a position did they not expect it; that Eleanor is going to Bold only because circumstances prevent Bold from coming to her; that she is certainly a little fool, or a little schemer, but that in all probability she is thinking a good deal more about herself than her father.
Dear ladies, you are right as to your appreciation of the circumstances, but very wrong as to Miss Harding's character. Miss Harding was much younger than you are, and could not, therefore, know, as you may do, to what dangers such an encounter might expose her. She may get kissed; I think it very probable that she will; but I give my solemn word and positive assurance, that the remotest idea of such a catastrophe never occurred to her as she made the great resolve now alluded to.
And then she slept; and then she rose refreshed; and met her father with her kindest embrace and most loving smiles; and on the whole their breakfast was by no means so triste as had been their dinner the day before; and then, making some excuse to her father for so soon leaving him, she started on the commencement of her operations.
She knew that John Bold was in London, and that, therefore, the scene itself could not be enacted to-day; but she also knew that he was soon to be home, probably on the next day, and it was necessary that some little plan for meeting him should be concerted with his sister Mary. When she got up to the house, she went, as usual, into the morning sitting-room, and was startled by perceiving, by a stick, a greatcoat, and sundry parcels which were lying about, that Bold must already have returned.
"John has come back so suddenly," said Mary, coming into the room; "he has been travelling all night."
"Then I'll come up again some other time," said Eleanor, about to beat a retreat in her sudden dismay.
"He's out now, and will be for the next two hours," said the other; "he's with that horrid Finney; he only came to see him, and he returns by the mail train tonight."
Returns by the mail train tonight, thought Eleanor to herself, as she strove to screw up her courage;—away again tonight;—then it must be now or never; and she again sat down, having risen to go.
She wished the ordeal could have been postponed: she had fully made up her mind to do the deed, but she had not made up her mind to do it this very day; and now she felt ill at ease, astray, and in difficulty.
"Mary," she began, "I must see your brother before he goes back."
"Oh yes, of course," said the other; "I know he'll be delighted to see you;" and she tried to treat it as a matter of course, but she was not the less surprised; for Mary and Eleanor had daily talked over John Bold and his conduct, and his love, and Mary would insist on calling Eleanor her sister, and would scold her for not calling Bold by his Christian name; and Eleanor would half confess her love, but like a modest maiden would protest against such familiarities even with the name of her lover; and so they talked hour after hour, and Mary Bold, who was much the elder, looked forward with happy confidence to the day when Eleanor would not be ashamed to call her her sister. She was, however, fully sure that just at present Eleanor would be much more likely to avoid her brother than to seek him.
"Mary, I must see your brother, now, to-day, and beg from him a great favour;" and she spoke with a solemn air, not at all usual to her; and then she went on, and opened to her friend all her plan, her well-weighed scheme for saving her father from a sorrow which would, she said, if it lasted, bring him to his grave. "But, Mary," she continued, "you must now, you know, cease any joking about me and Mr Bold; you must now say no more about that; I am not ashamed to beg this favour from your brother, but when I have done so, there can never be anything further between us;" and this she said with a staid and solemn air, quite worthy of Jephthah's daughter or of Iphigenia either.
It was quite clear that Mary Bold did not follow the argument. That Eleanor Harding should appeal, on behalf of her father, to Bold's better feelings seemed to Mary quite natural; it seemed quite natural that he should relent, overcome by such filial tears, and by so much beauty; but, to her thinking, it was at any rate equally natural, that having relented, John should put his arm round his mistress's waist, and say: "Now having settled that, let us be man and wife, and all will end happily!" Why his good nature should not be rewarded, when such reward would operate to the disadvantage of none, Mary, who had more sense than romance, could not understand; and she said as much.
Eleanor, however, was firm, and made quite an eloquent speech to support her own view of the question: she could not condescend, she said, to ask such a favour on any other terms than those proposed. Mary might, perhaps, think her high-flown, but she had her own ideas, and she could not submit to sacrifice her self-respect.
"But I am sure you love him;—don't you?" pleaded Mary; "and I am sure he loves you better than anything in the world."
Eleanor was going to make another speech, but a tear came to each eye, and she could not; so she pretended to blow her nose, and walked to the window, and made a little inward call on her own courage, and finding herself somewhat sustained, said sententiously: "Mary, this is nonsense."
"But you do love him," said Mary, who had followed her friend to the window, and now spoke with her arms close wound round the other's waist. "You do love him with all your heart,—you know you do; I defy you to deny it."
"I—" commenced Eleanor, turning sharply round to refute the charge; but the intended falsehood stuck in her throat, and never came to utterance. She could not deny her love, so she took plentifully to tears, and leant upon her friend's bosom and sobbed there, and protested that, love or no love, it would make no difference in her resolve, and called Mary, a thousand times, the most cruel of girls, and swore her to secrecy by a hundred oaths, and ended by declaring that the girl who could betray her friend's love, even to a brother, would be as black a traitor as a soldier in a garrison who should open the city gates to the enemy. While they were yet discussing the matter, Bold returned, and Eleanor was forced into sudden action: she had either to accomplish or abandon her plan; and having slipped into her friend's bedroom, as the gentleman closed the hall door, she washed the marks of tears from her eyes, and resolved within herself to go through with it. "Tell him I am here," said she, "and coming in; and mind, whatever you do, don't leave us." So Mary informed her brother, with a somewhat sombre air, that Miss Harding was in the next room, and was coming to speak to him.
Eleanor was certainly thinking more of her father than herself, as she arranged her hair before the glass, and removed the traces of sorrow from her face; and yet I should be untrue if I said that she was not anxious to appear well before her lover: why else was she so sedulous with that stubborn curl that would rebel against her hand, and smooth so eagerly her ruffled ribands? why else did she damp her eyes to dispel the redness, and bite her pretty lips to bring back the colour? Of course she was anxious to look her best, for she was but a mortal angel after all. But had she been immortal, had she flitted back to the sitting-room on a cherub's wings, she could not have had a more faithful heart, or a truer wish to save her father at any cost to herself.
John Bold had not met her since the day when she left him in dudgeon in the cathedral close. Since then his whole time had been occupied in promoting the cause against her father, and not unsuccessfully. He had often thought of her, and turned over in his mind a hundred schemes for showing her how disinterested was his love. He would write to her and beseech her not to allow the performance of a public duty to injure him in her estimation; he would write to Mr Harding, explain all his views, and boldly claim the warden's daughter, urging that the untoward circumstances between them need be no bar to their ancient friendship, or to a closer tie; he would throw himself on his knees before his mistress; he would wait and marry the daughter when the father has lost his home and his income; he would give up the lawsuit and go to Australia, with her of course, leaving The Jupiter and Mr Finney to complete the case between them. Sometimes as he woke in the morning fevered and impatient, he would blow out his brains and have done with all his cares;—but this idea was generally consequent on an imprudent supper enjoyed in company with Tom Towers.
How beautiful Eleanor appeared to him as she slowly walked into the room! Not for nothing had all those little cares been taken. Though her sister, the archdeacon's wife, had spoken slightingly of her charms, Eleanor was very beautiful when seen aright. Hers was not of those impassive faces, which have the beauty of a marble bust; finely chiselled features, perfect in every line, true to the rules of symmetry, as lovely to a stranger as to a friend, unvarying unless in sickness, or as age affects them. She had no startling brilliancy of beauty, no pearly whiteness, no radiant carnation. She had not the majestic contour that rivets attention, demands instant wonder, and then disappoints by the coldness of its charms. You might pass Eleanor Harding in the street without notice, but you could hardly pass an evening with her and not lose your heart.
She had never appeared more lovely to her lover than she now did. Her face was animated though it was serious, and her full dark lustrous eyes shone with anxious energy; her hand trembled as she took his, and she could hardly pronounce his name, when she addressed him. Bold wished with all his heart that the Australian scheme was in the act of realisation, and that he and Eleanor were away together, never to hear further of the lawsuit.
He began to talk, asked after her health,—said something about London being very stupid, and more about Barchester being very pleasant; declared the weather to be very hot, and then inquired after Mr Harding.
"My father is not very well," said Eleanor.
John Bold was very sorry,—so sorry: he hoped it was nothing serious, and put on the unmeaningly solemn face which people usually use on such occasions.
"I especially want to speak to you about my father, Mr Bold; indeed, I am now here on purpose to do so. Papa is very unhappy, very unhappy indeed, about this affair of the hospital: you would pity him, Mr Bold, if you could see how wretched it has made him."
"Oh, Miss Harding!"
"Indeed you would;—anyone would pity him; but a friend, an old friend as you are,—indeed you would. He is an altered man; his cheerfulness has all gone, and his sweet temper, and his kind happy tone of voice; you would hardly know him if you saw him, Mr Bold, he is so much altered; and—and—if this goes on, he will die." Here Eleanor had recourse to her handkerchief, and so also had her auditors; but she plucked up her courage, and went on with her tale. "He will break his heart, and die. I am sure, Mr Bold, it was not you who wrote those cruel things in the newspaper—"
John Bold eagerly protested that it was not, but his heart smote him as to his intimate alliance with Tom Towers.
"No, I am sure it was not; and papa has not for a moment thought so; you would not be so cruel;—but it has nearly killed him. Papa cannot bear to think that people should so speak of him, and that everybody should hear him so spoken of:—they have called him avaricious, and dishonest, and they say he is robbing the old men, and taking the money of the hospital for nothing."
"I have never said so, Miss Harding. I—"
"No," continued Eleanor, interrupting him, for she was now in the full flood-tide of her eloquence; "no, I am sure you have not; but others have said so; and if this goes on, if such things are written again, it will kill papa. Oh! Mr Bold, if you only knew the state he is in! Now papa does not care much about money."
Both her auditors, brother and sister, assented to this, and declared on their own knowledge that no man lived less addicted to filthy lucre than the warden.
"Oh! it's so kind of you to say so, Mary, and of you too, Mr Bold. I couldn't bear that people should think unjustly of papa. Do you know he would give up the hospital altogether, only he cannot. The archdeacon says it would be cowardly, and that he would be deserting his order, and injuring the church. Whatever may happen, papa will not do that: he would leave the place to-morrow willingly, and give up his house, and the income and all, if the archdeacon—"
Eleanor was going to say "would let him," but she stopped herself before she had compromised her father's dignity; and giving a long sigh, she added—"Oh, I do so wish he would."
"No one who knows Mr Harding personally accuses him for a moment," said Bold.
"It is he that has to bear the punishment; it is he that suffers," said Eleanor; "and what for? what has he done wrong? how has he deserved this persecution? he that never had an unkind thought in his life, he that never said an unkind word!" and here she broke down, and the violence of her sobs stopped her utterance.
Bold, for the fifth or sixth time, declared that neither he nor any of his friends imputed any blame personally to Mr Harding.
"Then why should he be persecuted?" ejaculated Eleanor through her tears, forgetting in her eagerness that her intention had been to humble herself as a suppliant before John Bold;—"why should he be singled out for scorn and disgrace? why should he be made so wretched? Oh! Mr Bold,"—and she turned towards him as though the kneeling scene were about to be commenced,—"oh! Mr Bold, why did you begin all this? You, whom we all so—so—valued!"
To speak the truth, the reformer's punishment was certainly come upon him, for his present plight was not enviable; he had nothing for it but to excuse himself by platitudes about public duty, which it is by no means worth while to repeat, and to reiterate his eulogy on Mr Harding's character. His position was certainly a cruel one: had any gentleman called upon him on behalf of Mr Harding he could of course have declined to enter upon the subject; but how could he do so with a beautiful girl, with the daughter of the man whom he had injured, with his own love?
In the meantime Eleanor recollected herself, and again summoned up her energies. "Mr Bold," said she, "I have come here to implore you to abandon this proceeding." He stood up from his seat, and looked beyond measure distressed. "To implore you to abandon it, to implore you to spare my father, to spare either his life or his reason, for one or the other will pay the forfeit if this goes on. I know how much I am asking, and how little right I have to ask anything; but I think you will listen to me as it is for my father. Oh, Mr Bold, pray, pray do this for us;—pray do not drive to distraction a man who has loved you so well."
She did not absolutely kneel to him, but she followed him as he moved from his chair, and laid her soft hands imploringly upon his arm. Ah! at any other time how exquisitely valuable would have been that touch! but now he was distraught, dumbfounded, and unmanned. What could he say to that sweet suppliant; how explain to her that the matter now was probably beyond his control; how tell her that he could not quell the storm which he had raised?
"Surely, surely, John, you cannot refuse her," said his sister.
"I would give her my soul," said he, "if it would serve her."
"Oh, Mr Bold," said Eleanor, "do not speak so; I ask nothing for myself; and what I ask for my father, it cannot harm you to grant."
"I would give her my soul, if it would serve her," said Bold, still addressing his sister; "everything I have is hers, if she will accept it; my house, my heart, my all; every hope of my breast is centred in her; her smiles are sweeter to me than the sun, and when I see her in sorrow as she now is, every nerve in my body suffers. No man can love better than I love her."
"No, no, no," ejaculated Eleanor; "there can be no talk of love between us. Will you protect my father from the evil you have brought upon him?"
"Oh, Eleanor, I will do anything; let me tell you how I love you!"
"No, no, no!" she almost screamed. "This is unmanly of you, Mr Bold. Will you, will you, will you leave my father to die in peace in his quiet home?" and seizing him by his arm and hand, she followed him across the room towards the door. "I will not leave you till you promise me; I'll cling to you in the street; I'll kneel to you before all the people. You shall promise me this, you shall promise me this, you shall—" And she clung to him with fixed tenacity, and reiterated her resolve with hysterical passion.
"Speak to her, John; answer her," said Mary, bewildered by the unexpected vehemence of Eleanor's manner; "you cannot have the cruelty to refuse her."
"Promise me, promise me," said Eleanor; "say that my father is safe;—one word will do. I know how true you are; say one word, and I will let you go."
She still held him, and looked eagerly into his face, with her hair dishevelled and her eyes all bloodshot. She had no thought now of herself, no care now for her appearance; and yet he thought he had never seen her half so lovely; he was amazed at the intensity of her beauty, and could hardly believe that it was she whom he had dared to love. "Promise me," said she; "I will not leave you till you have promised me."
"I will," said he at length; "I do—all I can do, I will do."
"Then may God Almighty bless you for ever and ever!" said Eleanor; and falling on her knees with her face in Mary's lap, she wept and sobbed like a child: her strength had carried her through her allotted task, but now it was well nigh exhausted.
In a while she was partly recovered, and got up to go, and would have gone, had not Bold made her understand that it was necessary for him to explain to her how far it was in his power to put an end to the proceedings which had been taken against Mr Harding. Had he spoken on any other subject, she would have vanished, but on that she was bound to hear him; and now the danger of her position commenced. While she had an active part to play, while she clung to him as a suppliant, it was easy enough for her to reject his proffered love, and cast from her his caressing words; but now—now that he had yielded, and was talking to her calmly and kindly as to her father's welfare, it was hard enough for her to do so. Then Mary Bold assisted her; but now she was quite on her brother's side. Mary said but little, but every word she did say gave some direct and deadly blow. The first thing she did was to make room for her brother between herself and Eleanor on the sofa: as the sofa was full large for three, Eleanor could not resent this, nor could she show suspicion by taking another seat; but she felt it to be a most unkind proceeding. And then Mary would talk as though they three were joined in some close peculiar bond together; as though they were in future always to wish together, contrive together, and act together; and Eleanor could not gainsay this; she could not make another speech, and say, "Mr Bold and I are strangers, Mary, and are always to remain so!"
He explained to her that, though undoubtedly the proceeding against the hospital had commenced solely with himself, many others were now interested in the matter, some of whom were much more influential than himself; that it was to him alone, however, that the lawyers looked for instruction as to their doings, and, more important still, for the payment of their bills; and he promised that he would at once give them notice that it was his intention to abandon the cause. He thought, he said, that it was not probable that any active steps would be taken after he had seceded from the matter, though it was possible that some passing allusion might still be made to the hospital in the daily Jupiter. He promised, however, that he would use his best influence to prevent any further personal allusion being made to Mr Harding. He then suggested that he would on that afternoon ride over himself to Dr Grantly, and inform him of his altered intentions on the subject, and with this view, he postponed his immediate return to London.
This was all very pleasant, and Eleanor did enjoy a sort of triumph in the feeling that she had attained the object for which she had sought this interview; but still the part of Iphigenia was to be played out. The gods had heard her prayer, granted her request, and were they not to have their promised sacrifice? Eleanor was not a girl to defraud them wilfully; so, as soon as she decently could, she got up for her bonnet.
"Are you going so soon?" said Bold, who half an hour since would have given a hundred pounds that he was in London, and she still at Barchester.
"Oh yes!" said she. "I am so much obliged to you; papa will feel this to be so kind." She did not quite appreciate all her father's feelings. "Of course I must tell him, and I will say that you will see the archdeacon."
"But may I not say one word for myself?" said Bold.
"I'll fetch you your bonnet, Eleanor," said Mary, in the act of leaving the room.
"Mary, Mary," said she, getting up and catching her by her dress; "don't go, I'll get my bonnet myself." But Mary, the traitress, stood fast by the door, and permitted no such retreat. Poor Iphigenia!
And with a volley of impassioned love, John Bold poured forth the feelings of his heart, swearing, as men do, some truths and many falsehoods; and Eleanor repeated with every shade of vehemence the "No, no, no," which had had a short time since so much effect; but now, alas! its strength was gone. Let her be never so vehement, her vehemence was not respected; all her "No, no, no's" were met with counter-asseverations, and at last were overpowered. The ground was cut from under her on every side. She was pressed to say whether her father would object; whether she herself had any aversion (aversion! God help her, poor girl! the word nearly made her jump into his arms); any other preference (this she loudly disclaimed); whether it was impossible that she should love him (Eleanor could not say that it was impossible): and so at last all her defences demolished, all her maiden barriers swept away, she capitulated, or rather marched out with the honours of war, vanquished evidently, palpably vanquished, but still not reduced to the necessity of confessing it.
And so the altar on the shore of the modern Aulis reeked with no sacrifice.