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The Archdeacon's Prologue and Tale

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The Venerable Dr Grantly, the archdeacon of Barchester, last heard of the doings of the Mr Obadiah Slope in the late summer of 185_, when he was making his way be train from Barchester to Canterbury for a dinner being held there by the archbishop in the Old Palace.

It so happened that he met on the train an old acquaintance by the name of Dr Josiah Bartleby. Being of similar temperament and inclination, and as close in age, ability and manner as two men could be without being twins, the two men had been great friends for many years. The Venerable Dr Bartleby was now the archdeacon of Ely, where he fulfilled a role and led a life which, save for the changing of a number of key names, might have been exchanged for that of Dr Grantly’s without anyone much noticing.

“Good heavens!” Dr Grantly declared delightedly. “Good heavens! Dr Bartleby, how very good to see you.”

“By heaven! By heaven! Dr Grantly, as I live and breathe.”

And this being the nature of interaction between the senior clergy of the Church of England, the two men sat in their first class compartment for a good hour, discussing the health and happiness of their wives and children, the state of repair of their houses and their own little aches and pains, before ever thinking of speaking of matters of religion.

“And how is your dean working out?” Dr Bartleby asked.

“Dr Arabin? A splendid fellow and a real champion of our way of doing things. And yours?”

“Dr Thorpe? A most admirable man of impeccable religious character. But what of your bishop? I have heard most disturbing things said of Dr Proudy.”

Of course, from anyone else such a comment would have been quite unacceptable, but from a member of the church in good standing and so close to Dr Grantly’s own ways of thinking, and spoken in confidence in the seclusion of a private railway carriage it could be taken as it was, a request after the health of the church herself and not an attack upon her.

“Dr Proudy is a fine man,” Dr Grantly said. “It is Mrs Proudy who plagues us all with her confounded low church ideas. We can but be thankful for the departure of Mr Slope.”

“Slope?” Dr Bartleby asked.

“Mr Obadiah Slope,” Dr Grantly explained. “The Bishop’s former private chaplain, a most obdurate and interfering man, who fancied himself to be some manner of Episcopal advisor in extraordinary with power to dispense the bishop’s favour, appoint posts within the diocese and to order all things as he saw fit in the Bishop’s name.”

“My heavens, Grantly! I do believe that I know the fellow. A thin, oily creature with an insinuating manner and a dictatorial mind?”

“Good heaven, Bartleby! The very man. He did not find a place in your diocese, I hope?”

“Not as such, Dr Grantly, no. I came across him in a roundabout sort of way in the course of my duties when a complaint was levelled against the behaviour of a member of the clergy. Dr Thorpe and I sought to find the root of the problem and discovered the miscreant to have been a priest of low church leanings and rich tastes, of no parish or occupation save preaching poverty to the wealthy and doing his utmost to help them achieve that blessed state.”

“Good heavens! Good heavens, Bartleby. You don’t mean that he had been practicing as a confidence trickster?”

“Worse, as a street-corner evangelist; yet he received his just desserts. Let me tell you the story as we determined it to run.”

*

‘Mr Slope came to Ely after facing some minor scandal in London. He had met, in his time in the metropolis, a certain Ely wool-merchant’s wife who had seemed most desirous of funding his future efforts as a preacher of a simple and pious life. As this good lady of Ely in no way believed the cruel stories put about in London to blacken Mr Slope’s name, she welcomed him into her house when he was ejected from his lodgings in London and helped him to establish a ministry of dubious authority in the city.

‘Once he was settled in his new place, Mr Slope began to encourage his congregants to contribute their own moneys towards the foundation of a permanent meeting hall for the brethren. Much of the money collected in fact went towards the maintenance of Mr Slope’s way of life.

‘All this might have gone unnoticed, if not for the fact that he took up – or tried to take up – with the young widow of a bargeman named Stubbs. Mrs Stubbs’ mother was an eager member of Mr Slope’s congregation and gladly encouraged his interest in her daughter. The daughter was far less forthcoming and refused to give Mr Slope any word of hope. She was but new widowed, and that by report of her husband’s disappearance, not his confirmed death. Besides which, she was a woman of good looks, some means and high ideals, none of which prompted her to consider Mr Slope a good match.

‘Mr Slope persisted to the point of persuading the mother to invite him to stay in Mrs Stubbs’ home as a non-paying lodger. When Mrs Stubbs’ protests fell on deaf ears, she took to her room, having all food and drink brought to her by her maid, so that she would not have to face the onslaught of Mr Slope’s advances, which she still did nothing to encourage.

‘At last, flush with a good – or perhaps I should say productive – day’s work at his ministry, Mr Slope pressed his suit harder than usual, going so far as to force the door when the maid was leaving the room with her mistress’ empty supper tray.

‘Fortunately, the lady’s cries for help received answer from a most unexpected quarter. Her husband, supposed dead, finally made his way home from France, where he had found himself after an accident left him unconscious amid a cargo of grain. He burst in, presumed the worst of Mr Slope and – I am glad to say – quite the best of his wife, and flung the man bodily from his house, inviting his mother-in-law to return to her own humble dwelling at a more leisurely pace the next morning.’

*

“Mr Slope has not been heard from in the diocese of Ely since that time,” Dr Bartleby finished.

“Well, good heavens,” Dr Grantly sighed. “Mr Slope still up to his old tricks, and I am glad to see enjoying no greater success than he did in Barchester.” He sat back in his seat and folded his hands across his stomach in great satisfaction. “So long as Mr Slope receives no encouragement from the righteous, I shall know that all is right with the world,” he declared.