E-text prepared by Stanford Carmack
This e-text was taken from the first edition of this novel and attempts to reproduce the original spelling, punctuation etc. Some corrections have been made—a complete list of changes and items to note is at the end of the e-text.
The Table of Contents of Volume II is located at the beginning of that volume.
DR. WORTLE'S SCHOOL.
IN TWO VOLUMES.—VOL. I.
London: Chapman and Hall, Limited, 193, Piccadilly. 1881.
London: R. Clay, Sons, and Taylor, Printers, Bread Street Hill.
CONTENTS OF VOL. I.
CHAPTER I. DR. WORTLE
CHAPTER II. THE NEW USHER
CHAPTER III. THE MYSTERY
CHAPTER IV. THE DOCTOR ASKS HIS QUESTION
CHAPTER V. "THEN WE MUST GO"
CHAPTER VI. LORD CARSTAIRS
CHAPTER VII. ROBERT LEFROY
CHAPTER VIII. THE STORY IS TOLD
CHAPTER IX. MRS. WORTLE AND MR. PUDDICOMBE
CHAPTER X. MR. PEACOCKE GOES
CHAPTER XI. THE BISHOP
CHAPTER XII. THE STANTILOUP CORRESPONDENCE
DR. WORTLE'S SCHOOL.
THE Rev. Jeffrey Wortle, D.D., was a man much esteemed by others,—and by himself. He combined two professions, in both of which he had been successful,—had been, and continued to be, at the time in which we speak of him. I will introduce him to the reader in the present tense as Rector of Bowick, and proprietor and head-master of the school established in the village of that name. The seminary at Bowick had for some time enjoyed a reputation under him;—not that he had ever himself used so new-fangled and unpalatable a word in speaking of his school. Bowick School had been established by himself as preparatory to Eton. Dr. Wortle had been elected to an assistant-mastership at Eton early in life soon after he had become a Fellow of Exeter. There he had worked successfully for ten years, and had then retired to the living of Bowick. On going there he had determined to occupy his leisure, and if possible to make his fortune, by taking a few boys into his house. By dint of charging high prices and giving good food,—perhaps in part, also, by the quality of the education which he imparted,—his establishment had become popular and had outgrown the capacity of the parsonage. He had been enabled to purchase a field or two close abutting on the glebe gardens, and had there built convenient premises. He now limited his number to thirty boys, for each of which he charged L200 a-year. It was said of him by his friends that if he would only raise his price to L250, he might double the number, and really make a fortune. In answer to this, he told his friends that he knew his own business best;—he declared that his charge was the only sum that was compatible both with regard to himself and honesty to his customers, and asserted that the labours he endured were already quite heavy enough. In fact, he recommended all those who gave him advice to mind their own business.
It may be said of him that he knew his own so well as to justify him in repudiating counsel from others. There are very different ideas of what "a fortune" may be supposed to consist. It will not be necessary to give Dr. Wortle's exact idea. No doubt it changed with him, increasing as his money increased. But he was supposed to be a comfortable man. He paid ready money and high prices. He liked that people under him should thrive,—and he liked them to know that they throve by his means. He liked to be master, and always was. He was just, and liked his justice to be recognised. He was generous also, and liked that, too, to be known. He kept a carriage for his wife, who had been the daughter of a poor clergyman at Windsor, and was proud to see her as well dressed as the wife of any county squire. But he was a domineering husband. As his wife worshipped him, and regarded him as a Jupiter on earth from whose nod there could be and should be no appeal, but little harm came from this. If a tyrant, he was an affectionate tyrant. His wife felt him to be so. His servants, his parish, and his school all felt him to be so. They obeyed him, loved him, and believed in him.
So, upon the whole, at the time with which we are dealing, did the diocese, the county, and that world of parents by whom the boys were sent to his school. But this had not come about without some hard fighting. He was over fifty years of age, and had been Rector of Bowick for nearly twenty. During that time there had been a succession of three bishops, and he had quarrelled more or less with all of them. It might be juster to say that they had all of them had more or less of occasion to find fault with him. Now Dr. Wortle,—or Mr. Wortle, as he should be called in reference to that period,—was a man who would bear censure from no human being. He had left his position at Eton because the Head-master had required from him some slight change of practice. There had been no quarrel on that occasion, but Mr. Wortle had gone. He at once commenced his school at Bowick, taking half-a-dozen pupils into his own house. The bishop of that day suggested that the cure of the souls of the parishioners of Bowick was being subordinated to the Latin and Greek of the sons of the nobility. The bishop got a response which gave an additional satisfaction to his speedy translation to a more comfortable diocese. Between the next bishop and Mr. Wortle there was, unfortunately, misunderstanding, and almost feud for the entire ten years during which his lordship reigned in the Palace of Broughton. This Bishop of Broughton had been one of that large batch of Low Church prelates who were brought forward under Lord Palmerston. Among them there was none more low, more pious, more sincere, or more given to interference. To teach Mr. Wortle his duty as a parish clergyman was evidently a necessity to such a bishop. To repudiate any such teaching was evidently a necessity to Mr. Wortle. Consequently there were differences, in all of which Mr. Wortle carried his own. What the good bishop suffered no one probably knew except his wife and his domestic chaplain. What Mr. Wortle enjoyed,—or Dr. Wortle, as he came to be called about this time,—was patent to all the county and all the diocese. The sufferer died, not, let us hope, by means of the Doctor; and then came the third bishop. He, too, had found himself obliged to say a word. He was a man of the world,—wise, prudent, not given to interference or fault-finding, friendly by nature, one who altogether hated a quarrel, a bishop beyond all things determined to be the friend of his clergymen;—and yet he thought himself obliged to say a word. There were matters in which Dr. Wortle affected a peculiarly anti-clerical mode of expression, if not of feeling. He had been foolish enough to declare openly that he was in search of a curate who should have none of the "grace of godliness" about him. He was wont to ridicule the piety of young men who devoted themselves entirely to their religious offices. In a letter which he wrote he spoke of one youthful divine as "a conceited ass who had preached for forty minutes." He not only disliked, but openly ridiculed all signs of a special pietistic bearing. It was said of him that he had been heard to swear. There can be no doubt that he made himself wilfully distasteful to many of his stricter brethren. Then it came to pass that there was a correspondence between him and the bishop as to that outspoken desire of his for a curate without the grace of godliness. But even here Dr. Wortle was successful. The management of his parish was pre-eminently good. The parish school was a model. The farmers went to church. Dissenters there were none. The people of Bowick believed thoroughly in their parson, and knew the comfort of having an open-handed, well-to-do gentleman in the village. This third episcopal difficulty did not endure long. Dr. Wortle knew his man, and was willing enough to be on good terms with his bishop so long as he was allowed to be in all things his own master.
There had, too, been some fighting between Dr. Wortle and the world about his school. He was, as I have said, a thoroughly generous man, but he required, himself, to be treated with generosity. Any question as to the charges made by him as schoolmaster was unendurable. He explained to all parents that he charged for each boy at the rate of two hundred a-year for board, lodging, and tuition, and that anything required for a boy's benefit or comfort beyond that ordinarily supplied would be charged for as an extra at such price as Dr. Wortle himself thought to be an equivalent. Now the popularity of his establishment no doubt depended in a great degree on the sufficiency and comfort of the good things of the world which he provided. The beer was of the best; the boys were not made to eat fat; their taste in the selection of joints was consulted. The morning coffee was excellent. The cook was a great adept at cakes and puddings. The Doctor would not himself have been satisfied unless everything had been plentiful, and everything of the best. He would have hated a butcher who had attempted to seduce him with meat beneath the usual price. But when he had supplied that which was sufficient according to his own liberal ideas, he did not give more without charging for it. Among his customers there had been a certain Honourable Mr. Stantiloup, and,—which had been more important,—an Honourable Mrs. Stantiloup. Mrs. Stantiloup was a lady who liked all the best things which the world could supply, but hardly liked paying the best price. Dr. Wortle's school was the best thing the world could supply of that kind, but then the price was certainly the very best. Young Stantiloup was only eleven, and as there were boys at Bowick as old as seventeen,—for the school had not altogether maintained its old character as being merely preparatory,—Mrs. Stantiloup had thought that her boy should be admitted at a lower fee. The correspondence which had ensued had been unpleasant. Then young Stantiloup had had the influenza, and Mrs. Stantiloup had sent her own doctor. Champagne had been ordered, and carriage exercise. Mr. Stantiloup had been forced by his wife to refuse to pay sums demanded for these undoubted extras. Ten shillings a-day for a drive for a little boy seemed to her a great deal,—seemed so to Mrs. Stantiloup. Ought not the Doctor's wife to have been proud to take out her little boy in her own carriage? And then L2 10s. for champagne for the little boy! It was monstrous. Mr. Stantiloup remonstrated. Dr. Wortle said that the little boy had better be taken away and the bill paid at once. The little boy was taken away and the money was offered, short of L5. The matter was instantly put into the hands of the Doctor's lawyer, and a suit commenced. The Doctor, of course, got his money, and then there followed an acrimonious correspondence in the "Times" and other newspapers. Mrs. Stantiloup did her best to ruin the school, and many very eloquent passages were written not only by her or by her own special scribe, but by others who took the matter up, to prove that two hundred a-year was a great deal more than ought to be paid for the charge of a little boy during three quarters of the year. But in the course of the next twelve months Dr. Wortle was obliged to refuse admittance to a dozen eligible pupils because he had not room for them.
No doubt he had suffered during these contests,—suffered, that is, in mind. There had been moments in which it seemed that the victory would be on the other side, that the forces congregated against him were too many for him, and that not being able to bend he would have to be broken; but in every case he had fought it out, and in every case he had conquered. He was now a prosperous man, who had achieved his own way, and had made all those connected with him feel that it was better to like him and obey him, than to dislike him and fight with him. His curates troubled him as little as possible with the grace of godliness, and threw off as far as they could that zeal which is so dear to the youthful mind but which so often seems to be weak and flabby to their elders. His ushers or assistants in the school fell in with his views implicitly, and were content to accept compensation in the shape of personal civilities. It was much better to go shares with the Doctor in a joke than to have to bear his hard words.
It is chiefly in reference to one of these ushers that our story has to be told. But before we commence it, we must say a few more words as to the Doctor and his family. Of his wife I have already spoken. She was probably as happy a woman as you shall be likely to meet on a summer's day. She had good health, easy temper, pleasant friends, abundant means, and no ambition. She went nowhere without the Doctor, and whenever he went she enjoyed her share of the respect which was always shown to him. She had little or nothing to do with the school, the Doctor having many years ago resolved that though it became him as a man to work for his bread, his wife should not be a slave. When the battles had been going on,—those between the Doctor and the bishops, and the Doctor and Mrs. Stantiloup, and the Doctor and the newspapers,—she had for a while been unhappy. It had grieved her to have it insinuated that her husband was an atheist, and asserted that her husband was a cormorant; but his courage had sustained her, and his continual victories had taught her to believe at last that he was indomitable.
They had one child, a daughter, Mary, of whom it was said in Bowick that she alone knew the length of the Doctor's foot. It certainly was so that, if Mrs. Wortle wished to have anything done which was a trifle beyond her own influence, she employed Mary. And if the boys collectively wanted to carry a point, they would "collectively" obtain Miss Wortle's aid. But all this the Doctor probably knew very well; and though he was often pleased to grant favours thus asked, he did so because he liked the granting of favours when they had been asked with a proper degree of care and attention. She was at the present time of the age in which fathers are apt to look upon their children as still children, while other men regard them as being grown-up young ladies. It was now June, and in the approaching August she would be eighteen. It was said of her that of the girls all round she was the prettiest; and indeed it would be hard to find a sweeter-favoured girl than Mary Wortle. Her father had been all his life a man noted for the manhood of his face. He had a broad forehead, with bright grey eyes,—eyes that had always a smile passing round them, though the smile would sometimes show that touch of irony which a smile may contain rather than the good-humour which it is ordinarily supposed to indicate. His nose was aquiline, not hooky like a true bird's-beak, but with that bend which seems to give to the human face the clearest indication of individual will. His mouth, for a man, was perhaps a little too small, but was admirably formed, as had been the chin with a deep dimple on it, which had now by the slow progress of many dinners become doubled in its folds. His hair had been chestnut, but dark in its hue. It had now become grey, but still with the shade of the chestnut through it here and there. He stood five feet ten in height, with small hands and feet. He was now perhaps somewhat stout, but was still as upright on his horse as ever, and as well able to ride to hounds for a few fields when by chance the hunt came in the way of Bowick. Such was the Doctor. Mrs. Wortle was a pretty little woman, now over forty years of age, of whom it was said that in her day she had been the beauty of Windsor and those parts. Mary Wortle took mostly after her father, being tall and comely, having especially her father's eyes; but still they who had known Mrs. Wortle as a girl declared that Mary had inherited also her mother's peculiar softness and complexion.
For many years past none of the pupils had been received within the parsonage,—unless when received there as guests, which was of frequent occurrence. All belonging to the school was built outside the glebe land, as a quite separate establishment, with a door opening from the parsonage garden to the school-yard. Of this door the rule was that the Doctor and the gardener should have the only two keys; but the rule may be said to have become quite obsolete, as the door was never locked. Sometimes the bigger boys would come through unasked,—perhaps in search of a game of lawn-tennis with Miss Wortle, perhaps to ask some favour of Mrs. Wortle, who always was delighted to welcome them, perhaps even to seek the Doctor himself, who never on such occasions would ask how it came to pass that they were on that side of the wall. Sometimes Mrs. Wortle would send her housekeeper through for some of the little boys. It would then be a good time for the little boys. But this would generally be during the Doctor's absence.
Here, on the school side of the wall, there was a separate establishment of servants, and a separate kitchen. There was no sending backwards or forwards of food or of clothes,—unless it might be when some special delicacy was sent in if a boy were unwell. For these no extra charge was ever made, as had been done in the case of young Stantiloup. Then a strange doctor had come, and had ordered the wine and the carriage. There was no extra charge for the kindly glasses of wine which used to be administered in quite sufficient plenty.
Behind the school, and running down to the little river Pin, there is a spacious cricket-ground, and a court marked out for lawn-tennis. Up close to the school is a racket-court. No doubt a good deal was done to make the externals of the place alluring to those parents who love to think that their boys shall be made happy at school. Attached to the school, forming part of the building, is a pleasant, well-built residence, with six or eight rooms, intended for the senior or classical assistant-master. It had been the Doctor's scheme to find a married gentleman to occupy this house, whose wife should receive a separate salary for looking after the linen and acting as matron to the school,—doing what his wife did till he became successful,—while the husband should be in orders and take part of the church duties as a second curate. But there had been a difficulty in this.
THE NEW USHER.
THE Doctor had found it difficult to carry out the scheme described in the last chapter. They indeed who know anything of such matters will be inclined to call it Utopian, and to say that one so wise in worldly matters as our schoolmaster should not have attempted to combine so many things. He wanted a gentleman, a schoolmaster, a curate, a matron, and a lady,—we may say all in one. Curates and ushers are generally unmarried. An assistant schoolmaster is not often in orders, and sometimes is not a gentleman. A gentleman, when he is married, does not often wish to dispose of the services of his wife. A lady, when she has a husband, has generally sufficient duties of her own to employ her, without undertaking others. The scheme, if realised, would no doubt be excellent, but the difficulties were too many. The Stantiloups, who lived about twenty miles off, made fun of the Doctor and his project; and the Bishop was said to have expressed himself as afraid that he would not be able to license as curate any one selected as usher to the school. One attempt was made after another in vain;—but at last it was declared through the country far and wide that the Doctor had succeeded in this, as in every other enterprise that he had attempted. There had come a Rev. Mr. Peacocke and his wife. Six years since, Mr. Peacocke had been well known at Oxford as a Classic, and had become a Fellow of Trinity. Then he had taken orders, and had some time afterwards married, giving up his Fellowship as a matter of course. Mr. Peacocke, while living at Oxford, had been well known to a large Oxford circle, but he had suddenly disappeared from that world, and it had reached the ears of only a few of his more intimate friends that he had undertaken the duties of vice-president of a classical college at Saint Louis in the State of Missouri. Such a disruption as this was for a time complete; but after five years Mr. Peacocke appeared again at Oxford, with a beautiful American wife, and the necessity of earning an income by his erudition.
It would at first have seemed very improbable that Dr. Wortle should have taken into his school or into his parish a gentleman who had chosen the United States as a field for his classical labours. The Doctor, whose mind was by no means logical, was a thoroughgoing Tory of the old school, and therefore considered himself bound to hate the name of a republic. He hated rolling stones, and Mr. Peacocke had certainly been a rolling stone. He loved Oxford with all his heart, and some years since had been heard to say hard things of Mr. Peacocke, when that gentleman deserted his college for the sake of establishing himself across the Atlantic. But he was one who thought that there should be a place of penitence allowed to those who had clearly repented of their errors; and, moreover, when he heard that Mr. Peacocke was endeavouring to establish himself in Oxford as a "coach" for undergraduates, and also that he was a married man without any encumbrance in the way of family, there seemed to him to be an additional reason for pardoning that American escapade. Circumstances brought the two men together. There were friends at Oxford who knew how anxious the Doctor was to carry out that plan of his in reference to an usher, a curate, and a matron, and here were the very things combined. Mr. Peacocke's scholarship and power of teaching were acknowledged; he was already in orders; and it was declared that Mrs. Peacocke was undoubtedly a lady. Many inquiries were made. Many meetings took place. Many difficulties arose. But at last Mr. and Mrs. Peacocke came to Bowick, and took up their abode in the school.
All the Doctor's requirements were not at once fulfilled. Mrs. Peacocke's position was easily settled. Mrs. Peacocke, who seemed to be a woman possessed of sterling sense and great activity, undertook her duties without difficulty. But Mr. Peacocke would not at first consent to act as curate in the parish. He did, however, after a time perform a portion of the Sunday services. When he first came to Bowick he had declared that he would undertake no clerical duty. Education was his profession, and to that he meant to devote himself exclusively. Nor for the six or eight months of his sojourn did he go back from this; so that the Doctor may be said even still to have failed in carrying out his purpose. But at last the new schoolmaster appeared in the pulpit of the parish church and preached a sermon.
All that had passed in private conference between the Doctor and his assistant on the subject need not here be related. Mr. Peacocke's aversion to do more than attend regularly at the church services as one of the parishioners had been very strong. The Doctor's anxiety to overcome his assistant's reasoning had also been strong. There had no doubt been much said between them. Mr. Peacocke had been true to his principles, whatever those principles were, in regard to his appointment as a curate,—but it came to pass that he for some months preached regularly every Sunday in the parish church, to the full satisfaction of the parishioners. For this he had accepted no payment, much to the Doctor's dissatisfaction. Nevertheless, it was certainly the case that they who served the Doctor gratuitously never came by the worse of the bargain.
Mr. Peacocke was a small wiry man, anything but robust in appearance, but still capable of great bodily exertion. He was a great walker. Labour in the school never seemed to fatigue him. The addition of a sermon to preach every week seemed to make no difference to his energies in the school. He was a constant reader, and could pass from one kind of mental work to another without fatigue. The Doctor was a noted scholar, but it soon became manifest to the Doctor himself, and to the boys, that Mr. Peacocke was much deeper in scholarship than the Doctor. Though he was a poor man, his own small classical library was supposed to be a repository of all that was known about Latin and Greek. In fact, Mr. Peacocke grew to be a marvel; but of all the marvels about him, the thing most marvellous was the entire faith which the Doctor placed in him. Certain changes even were made in the old-established "curriculum" of tuition,—and were made, as all the boys supposed, by the advice of Mr. Peacocke. Mr. Peacocke was treated with a personal respect which almost seemed to imply that the two men were equal. This was supposed by the boys to come from the fact that both the Doctor and the assistant had been Fellows of their colleges at Oxford; but the parsons and other gentry around could see that there was more in it than that. Mr. Peacocke had some power about him which was potent over the Doctor's spirit.
Mrs. Peacocke, in her line, succeeded almost as well. She was a woman something over thirty years of age when she first came to Bowick, in the very pride and bloom of woman's beauty. Her complexion was dark and brown,—so much so, that it was impossible to describe her colour generally by any other word. But no clearer skin was ever given to a woman. Her eyes were brown, and her eye-brows black, and perfectly regular. Her hair was dark and very glossy, and always dressed as simply as the nature of a woman's head will allow. Her features were regular, but with a great show of strength. She was tall for a woman, but without any of that look of length under which female altitude sometimes suffers. She was strong and well made, and apparently equal to any labour to which her position might subject her. When she had been at Bowick about three months, a boy's leg had been broken, and she had nursed him, not only with assiduity, but with great capacity. The boy was the youngest son of the Marchioness of Altamont; and when Lady Altamont paid a second visit to Bowick, for the sake of taking her boy home as soon as he was fit to be moved, her ladyship made a little mistake. With the sweetest and most caressing smile in the world, she offered Mrs. Peacocke a ten-pound note. "My dear madam," said Mrs. Peacocke, without the slightest reserve or difficulty, "it is so natural that you should do this, because you cannot of course understand my position; but it is altogether out of the question." The Marchioness blushed, and stammered, and begged a hundred pardons. Being a good-natured woman, she told the whole story to Mrs. Wortle. "I would just as soon have offered the money to the Marchioness herself," said Mrs. Wortle, as she told it to her husband. "I would have done it a deal sooner," said the Doctor. "I am not in the least afraid of Lady Altamont; but I stand in awful dread of Mrs. Peacocke." Nevertheless Mrs. Peacocke had done her work by the little lord's bed-side, just as though she had been a paid nurse.
And so she felt herself to be. Nor was she in the least ashamed of her position in that respect. If there was aught of shame about her, as some people said, it certainly did not come from the fact that she was in the receipt of a salary for the performance of certain prescribed duties. Such remuneration was, she thought, as honourable as the Doctor's income; but to her American intelligence, the acceptance of a present of money from a Marchioness would have been a degradation.
It certainly was said of her by some persons that there must have been something in her former life of which she was ashamed. The Honourable Mrs. Stantiloup, to whom all the affairs of Bowick had been of consequence since her husband had lost his lawsuit, and who had not only heard much, but had inquired far and near about Mr. and Mrs. Peacocke, declared diligently among her friends, with many nods and winks, that there was something "rotten in the state of Denmark." She did at first somewhat imprudently endeavour to spread a rumour abroad that the Doctor had become enslaved by the lady's beauty. But even those hostile to Bowick could not accept this. The Doctor certainly was not the man to put in jeopardy the respect of the world and his own standing for the beauty of any woman; and, moreover, the Doctor, as we have said before, was over fifty years of age. But there soon came up another ground on which calumny could found a story. It was certainly the case that Mrs. Peacocke had never accepted any hospitality from Mrs. Wortle or other ladies in the neighbourhood. It reached the ears of Mrs. Stantiloup, first, that the ladies had called upon each other, as ladies are wont to do who intend to cultivate a mutual personal acquaintance, and then that Mrs. Wortle had asked Mrs. Peacocke to dinner. But Mrs. Peacocke had refused not only that invitation, but subsequent invitations to the less ceremonious form of tea-drinking.
All this had been true, and it had been true also,—though of this Mrs. Stantiloup had not heard the particulars,—that Mrs. Peacocke had explained to her neighbour that she did not intend to put herself on a visiting footing with any one. "But why not, my dear?" Mrs. Wortle had said, urged to the argument by precepts from her husband. "Why should you make yourself desolate here, when we shall be so glad to have you?" "It is part of my life that it must be so," Mrs. Peacocke had answered. "I am quite sure that the duties I have undertaken are becoming a lady; but I do not think that they are becoming to one who either gives or accepts entertainments."
There had been something of the same kind between the Doctor and Mr. Peacocke. "Why the mischief shouldn't you and your wife come and eat a bit of mutton, and drink a glass of wine, over at the Rectory, like any other decent people?" I never believed that accusation against the Doctor in regard to swearing; but he was no doubt addicted to expletives in conversation, and might perhaps have indulged in a strong word or two, had he not been prevented by the sanctity of his orders. "Perhaps I ought to say," replied Mr. Peacocke, "because we are not like any other decent people." Then he went on to explain his meaning. Decent people, he thought, in regard to social intercourse, are those who are able to give and take with ease among each other. He had fallen into a position in which neither he nor his wife could give anything, and from which, though some might be willing to accept him, he would be accepted only, as it were, by special favour. "Bosh!" ejaculated the Doctor. Mr. Peacocke simply smiled. He said it might be bosh, but that even were he inclined to relax his own views, his wife would certainly not relax hers. So it came to pass that although the Doctor and Mr. Peacocke were really intimate, and that something of absolute friendship sprang up between the two ladies, when Mr. Peacocke had already been more than twelve months in Bowick neither had he nor Mrs. Peacocke broken bread in the Doctor's house.
And yet the friendship had become strong. An incident had happened early in the year which had served greatly to strengthen it. At the school there was a little boy, just eleven years old, the only son of a Lady De Lawle, who had in early years been a dear friend to Mrs. Wortle. Lady De Lawle was the widow of a baronet, and the little boy was the heir to a large fortune. The mother had been most loath to part with her treasure. Friends, uncles, and trustees had declared that the old prescribed form of education for British aristocrats must be followed,—a t'other school, namely, then Eton, and then Oxford. No; his mother might not go with him, first to one, and then to the other. Such going and living with him would deprive his education of all the real salt. Therefore Bowick was chosen as the t'other school, because Mrs. Wortle would be more like a mother to the poor desolate boy than any other lady. So it was arranged, and the "poor desolate boy" became the happiest of the young pickles whom it was Mrs. Wortle's special province to spoil whenever she could get hold of them.
Now it happened that on one beautiful afternoon towards the end of April, Mrs. Wortle had taken young De Lawle and another little boy with her over the foot-bridge which passed from the bottom of the parsonage garden to the glebe-meadow which ran on the other side of a little river, and with them had gone a great Newfoundland dog, who was on terms equally friendly with the inmates of the Rectory and the school. Where this bridge passed across the stream the gardens and the field were on the same level. But as the water ran down to the ground on which the school-buildings had been erected, there arose a steep bank over a bend in the river, or, rather, steep cliff; for, indeed, it was almost perpendicular, the force of the current as it turned at this spot having washed away the bank. In this way it had come to pass that there was a precipitous fall of about a dozen feet from the top of the little cliff into the water, and that the water here, as it eddied round the curve, was black and deep, so that the bigger boys were wont to swim in it, arrangements for bathing having been made on the further or school side. There had sometimes been a question whether a rail should not be placed for protection along the top of this cliff, but nothing of the kind had yet been done. The boys were not supposed to play in this field, which was on the other side of the river, and could only be reached by the bridge through the parsonage garden.
On this day young De Lawle and his friend and the dog rushed up the hill before Mrs. Wortle, and there began to romp, as was their custom. Mary Wortle, who was one of the party, followed them, enjoining the children to keep away from the cliff. For a while they did so, but of course returned. Once or twice they were recalled and scolded, always asserting that the fault was altogether with Neptune. It was Neptune that knocked them down and always pushed them towards the river. Perhaps it was Neptune; but be that as it might, there came a moment very terrible to them all. The dog in one of his gyrations came violently against the little boy, knocked him off his legs, and pushed him over the edge. Mrs. Wortle, who had been making her way slowly up the hill, saw the fall, heard the splash, and fell immediately to the ground.
Other eyes had also seen the accident. The Doctor and Mr. Peacocke were at the moment walking together in the playgrounds at the school side of the brook. When the boy fell they had paused in their walk, and were standing, the Doctor with his back to the stream, and the assistant with his face turned towards the cliff. A loud exclamation broke from his lips as he saw the fall, but in a moment,—almost before the Doctor had realised the accident which had occurred,—he was in the water, and two minutes afterwards young De Lawle, drenched indeed, frightened, and out of breath, but in nowise seriously hurt, was out upon the bank; and Mr. Peacocke, drenched also, but equally safe, was standing over him, while the Doctor on his knees was satisfying himself that his little charge had received no fatal injury. It need hardly be explained that such a termination as this to such an accident had greatly increased the good feeling with which Mr. Peacocke was regarded by all the inhabitants of the school and Rectory.
MR. PEACOCKE himself said that in this matter a great deal of fuss was made about nothing. Perhaps it was so. He got a ducking, but, being a strong swimmer, probably suffered no real danger. The boy, rolling down three or four feet of bank, had then fallen down six or eight feet into deep water. He might, no doubt, have been much hurt. He might have struck against a rock and have been killed,—in which case Mr. Peacocke's prowess would have been of no avail. But nothing of this kind happened. Little Jack De Lawle was put to bed in one of the Rectory bed-rooms, and was comforted with sherry-negus and sweet jelly. For two days he rejoiced thoroughly in his accident, being freed from school, and subjected only to caresses. After that he rebelled, having become tired of his bed. But by that time his mother had been most unnecessarily summoned. Unless she was wanted to examine the forlorn condition of his clothes, there was nothing that she could do. But she came, and, of course, showered blessings on Mr. Peacocke's head,—while Mrs. Wortle went through to the school and showered blessings on Mrs. Peacocke. What would they have done had the Peacockes not been there?
"You must let them have their way, whether for good or bad," the Doctor said, when his assistant complained rather of the blessings,—pointing out at any rate their absurdity. "One man is damned for ever, because, in the conscientious exercise of his authority, he gives a little boy a rap which happens to make a small temporary mark on his skin. Another becomes a hero because, when in the equally conscientious performance of a duty, he gives himself a ducking. I won't think you a hero; but, of course, I consider myself very fortunate to have had beside me a man younger than myself, and quick and ready at such an emergence. Of course I feel grateful, but I shan't bother you by telling you so."
But this was not the end of it. Lady De Lawle declared that she could not be happy unless Mr. and Mrs. Peacocke would bring Jack home for the holidays to De Lawle Park. Of course she carried her blessings up into Mrs. Peacocke's little drawing-room, and became quite convinced, as was Mrs. Wortle, that Mrs. Peacocke was in all respects a lady. She heard of Mr. Peacocke's antecedents at Oxford, and expressed her opinion that they were charming people. She could not be happy unless they would promise to come to De Lawle Park for the holidays. Then Mrs. Peacocke had to explain that in her present circumstances she did not intend to visit anywhere. She was very much flattered, and delighted to think that the dear little boy was none the worse for his accident; but there must be an end of it. There was something in her manner, as she said this, which almost overawed Lady De Lawle. She made herself, at any rate, understood, and no further attempt was made for the next six weeks to induce her or Mr. Peacocke to enter the Rectory dining-room. But a good deal was said about Mr. Peacocke,—generally in his favour.
Generally in his favour,—because he was a fine scholar, and could swim well. His preaching perhaps did something for him, but the swimming did more. But though there was so much said of good, there was something also of evil. A man would not altogether refuse society for himself and his wife unless there were some cause for him to do so. He and she must have known themselves to be unfit to associate with such persons as they would have met at De Lawle Park. There was a mystery, and the mystery, when unravelled, would no doubt prove to be very deleterious to the character of the persons concerned. Mrs. Stantiloup was quite sure that such must be the case. "It might be very well," said Mrs. Stantiloup, "for Dr. Wortle to obtain the services of a well-educated usher for his school, but it became quite another thing when he put a man up to preach in the church, of whose life, for five years, no one knew anything." Somebody had told her something as to the necessity of a bishop's authority for the appointment of a curate; but no one had strictly defined to her what a curate is. She was, however, quite ready to declare that Mr. Peacocke had no business to preach in that pulpit, and that something very disagreeable would come of it.
Nor was this feeling altogether confined to Mrs. Stantiloup, though it had perhaps originated with what she had said among her own friends. "Don't you think it well you should know something of his life during these five years?" This had been said to the Rector by the Bishop himself,—who probably would have said nothing of the kind had not these reports reached his ears. But reports, when they reach a certain magnitude, and attain a certain importance, require to be noticed.
So much in this world depends upon character that attention has to be paid to bad character even when it is not deserved. In dealing with men and women, we have to consider what they believe, as well as what we believe ourselves. The utility of a sermon depends much on the idea that the audience has of the piety of the man who preaches it. Though the words of God should never have come with greater power from the mouth of man, they will come in vain if they be uttered by one who is known as a breaker of the Commandments;—they will come in vain from the mouth of one who is even suspected to be so. To all this, when it was said to him by the Bishop in the kindest manner, Dr. Wortle replied that such suspicions were monstrous, unreasonable, and uncharitable. He declared that they originated with that abominable virago, Mrs. Stantiloup. "Look round the diocese," said the Bishop in reply to this, "and see if you can find a single clergyman acting in it, of the details of whose life for the last five years you know absolutely nothing." Thereupon the Doctor said that he would make inquiry of Mr. Peacocke himself. It might well be, he thought, that Mr. Peacocke would not like such inquiry, but the Doctor was quite sure that any story told to him would be true. On returning home he found it necessary, or at any rate expedient, to postpone his questions for a few days. It is not easy to ask a man what he has been doing with five years of his life, when the question implies a belief that these five years have been passed badly. And it was understood that the questioning must in some sort apply to the man's wife. The Doctor had once said to Mrs. Wortle that he stood in awe of Mrs. Peacocke. There had certainly come upon him an idea that she was a lady with whom it would not be easy to meddle. She was obedient, diligent, and minutely attentive to any wish that was expressed to her in regard to her duties; but it had become manifest to the Doctor that in all matters beyond the school she was independent, and was by no means subject to external influences. She was not, for instance, very constant in her own attendance at church, and never seemed to feel it necessary to apologise for her absence. The Doctor, in his many and familiar conversations with Mr. Peacocke, had not found himself able to allude to this; and he had observed that the husband did not often speak of his own wife unless it were on matters having reference to the school. So it came to pass that he dreaded the conversation which he proposed to himself, and postponed it from day to day with a cowardice which was quite unusual to him.
And now, O kind-hearted reader, I feel myself constrained, in the telling of this little story, to depart altogether from those principles of story-telling to which you probably have become accustomed, and to put the horse of my romance before the cart. There is a mystery respecting Mr. and Mrs. Peacocke which, according to all laws recognised in such matters, ought not to be elucidated till, let us say, the last chapter but two, so that your interest should be maintained almost to the end,—so near the end that there should be left only space for those little arrangements which are necessary for the well-being, or perhaps for the evil-being, of our personages. It is my purpose to disclose the mystery at once, and to ask you to look for your interest,—should you choose to go on with my chronicle,—simply in the conduct of my persons, during this disclosure, to others. You are to know it all before the Doctor or the Bishop,—before Mrs. Wortle or the Hon. Mrs. Stantiloup, or Lady De Lawle. You are to know it all before the Peacockes become aware that it must necessarily be disclosed to any one. It may be that when I shall have once told the mystery there will no longer be any room for interest in the tale to you. That there are many such readers of novels I know. I doubt whether the greater number be not such. I am far from saying that the kind of interest of which I am speaking,—and of which I intend to deprive myself,—is not the most natural and the most efficacious. What would the 'Black Dwarf' be if every one knew from the beginning that he was a rich man and a baronet?—or 'The Pirate,' if all the truth about Norna of the Fitful-head had been told in the first chapter? Therefore, put the book down if the revelation of some future secret be necessary for your enjoyment. Our mystery is going to be revealed in the next paragraph,—in the next half-dozen words. Mr. and Mrs. Peacocke were not man and wife.
The story how it came to be so need not be very long;—nor will it, as I think, entail any great degree of odious criminality either upon the man or upon the woman. At St. Louis Mrs. Peacocke had become acquainted with two brothers named Lefroy, who had come up from Louisiana, and had achieved for themselves characters which were by no means desirable. They were sons of a planter who had been rich in extent of acres and number of slaves before the war of the Secession. General Lefroy had been in those days a great man in his State, had held command during the war, and had been utterly ruined. When the war was over the two boys,—then seventeen and sixteen years of age,—were old enough to remember and to regret all that they had lost, to hate the idea of Abolition, and to feel that the world had nothing left for them but what was to be got by opposition to the laws of the Union, which was now hateful to them. They were both handsome, and, in spite of the sufferings of their State, an attempt had been made to educate them like gentlemen. But no career of honour had been open to them, and they had fallen by degrees into dishonour, dishonesty, and brigandage.
The elder of these, when he was still little more than a stripling, had married Ella Beaufort, the daughter of another ruined planter in his State. She had been only sixteen when her father died, and not seventeen when she married Ferdinand Lefroy. It was she who afterwards came to England under the name of Mrs. Peacocke.
Mr. Peacocke was Vice-President of the College at Missouri when he first saw her, and when he first became acquainted with the two brothers, each of whom was called Colonel Lefroy. Then there arose a great scandal in the city as to the treatment which the wife received from her husband. He was about to go away South, into Mexico, with the view of pushing his fortune there with certain desperadoes, who were maintaining a perpetual war against the authorities of the United States on the borders of Texas, and he demanded that his wife should accompany him. This she refused to do, and violence was used to force her. Then it came to pass that certain persons in St. Louis interfered on her behalf, and among these was the Reverend Mr. Peacocke, the Vice-President of the College, upon whose feelings the singular beauty and dignified demeanour of the woman, no doubt, had had much effect. The man failed to be powerful over his wife, and then the two brothers went away together. The woman was left to provide for herself, and Mr. Peacocke was generous in the aid he gave to her in doing so.
It may be understood that in this way an intimacy was created, but it must not be understood that the intimacy was of such a nature as to be injurious to the fair fame of the lady. Things went on in this way for two years, during which Mrs. Lefroy's conduct drew down upon her reproaches from no one. Then there came tidings that Colonel Lefroy had perished in making one of those raids in which the two brothers were continually concerned. But which Colonel Lefroy had perished? If it were the younger brother, that would be nothing to Mr. Peacocke. If it were the elder, it would be everything. If Ferdinand Lefroy were dead, he would not scruple at once to ask the woman to be his wife. That which the man had done, and that which he had not done, had been of such a nature as to solve all bonds of affection. She had already allowed herself to speak of the man as one whose life was a blight upon her own; and though there had been no word of out-spoken love from her lips to his ears, he thought that he might succeed if it could be made certain that Ferdinand Lefroy was no longer among the living.
"I shall never know," she said in her misery. "What I do hear I shall never believe. How can one know anything as to what happens in a country such as that?"
Then he took up his hat and staff, and, vice-president, professor, and clergyman as he was, started off for the Mexican border. He did tell her that he was going, but barely told her. "It's a thing that ought to be found out," he said, "and I want a turn of travelling. I shall be away three months." She merely bade God bless him, but said not a word to hinder or to encourage his going.
He was gone just the three months which he had himself named, and then returned elate with his news. He had seen the younger brother, Robert Lefroy, and had learnt from him that the elder Ferdinand had certainly been killed. Robert had been most ungracious to him, having even on one occasion threatened his life; but there had been no doubt that he, Robert, was alive, and that Ferdinand had been killed by a party of United States soldiers.
Then the clergyman had his reward, and was accepted by the widow with a full and happy heart. Not only had her release been complete, but so was her present joy; and nothing seemed wanting to their happiness during the six first months after their union. Then one day, all of a sudden, Ferdinand Lefroy was standing within her little drawing-room at the College of St. Louis.
Dead? Certainly he was not dead! He did not believe that any one had said that he was dead! She might be lying or not,—he did not care; he, Peacocke, certainly had lied;—so said the Colonel. He did not believe that Peacocke had ever seen his brother Robert. Robert was dead,—must have been dead, indeed, before the date given for that interview. The woman was a bigamist,—that is, if any second marriage had ever been perpetrated. Probably both had wilfully agreed to the falsehood. For himself he should resolve at once what steps he meant to take. Then he departed, it being at that moment after nine in the evening. In the morning he was gone again, and from that moment they had never either heard of him or seen him.
How was it to be with them? They could have almost brought themselves to think it a dream, were it not that others besides themselves had seen the man, and known that Colonel Ferdinand Lefroy had been in St. Louis. Then there came to him an idea that even she might disbelieve the words which he had spoken;—that even she might think his story to have been false. But to this she soon put an end. "Dearest," she said, "I never knew a word that was true to come from his mouth, or a word that was false from yours."
Should they part? There is no one who reads this but will say that they should have parted. Every day passed together as man and wife must be a falsehood and a sin. There would be absolute misery for both in parting;—but there is no law from God or man entitling a man to escape from misery at the expense of falsehood and sin. Though their hearts might have burst in the doing of it, they should have parted. Though she would have been friendless, alone, and utterly despicable in the eyes of the world, abandoning the name which she cherished, as not her own, and going back to that which she utterly abhorred, still she should have done it. And he, resolving, as no doubt he would have done under any circumstances, that he must quit the city of his adoption,—he should have left her with such material sustenance as her spirit would have enabled her to accept, should have gone his widowed way, and endured as best he might the idea that he had left the woman whom he loved behind, in the desert, all alone! That he had not done so the reader is aware. That he had lived a life of sin,—that he and she had continued in one great falsehood,—is manifest enough. Mrs. Stantiloup, when she hears it all, will have her triumph. Lady De Lawle's soft heart will rejoice because that invitation was not accepted. The Bishop will be unutterably shocked; but, perhaps, to the good man there will be some solace in the feeling that he had been right in his surmises. How the Doctor bore it this story is intended to tell,—and how also Mr. and Mrs. Peacocke bore it, when the sin and the falsehood were made known to all the world around them. The mystery has at any rate been told, and they who feel that on this account all hope of interest is at an end had better put down the book.
THE DOCTOR ASKS HIS QUESTION.
THE Doctor, instigated by the Bishop, had determined to ask some questions of Mr. Peacocke as to his American life. The promise had been given at the Palace, and the Doctor, as he returned home, repented himself in that he had made it. His lordship was a gossip, as bad as an old woman, as bad as Mrs. Stantiloup, and wanted to know things in which a man should feel no interest. So said the Doctor to himself. What was it to him, the Bishop, or to him, the Doctor, what Mr. Peacocke had been doing in America? The man's scholarship was patent, his morals were unexceptional, his capacity for preaching undoubted, his peculiar fitness for his place at Bowick unquestionable. Who had a right to know more? That the man had been properly educated at Oxford, and properly ordained on entering his Fellowship, was doubted by no man. Even if there had been some temporary backslidings in America,—which might be possible, for which of us have not backslided at some time of our life?—why should they be raked up? There was an uncharitableness in such a proceeding altogether opposed to the Doctor's view of life. He hated severity. It may almost be said that he hated that state of perfection which would require no pardon. He was thoroughly human, quite content with his own present position, anticipating no millennium for the future of the world, and probably, in his heart, looking forward to heaven as simply the better alternative when the happiness of this world should be at an end. He himself was in no respect a wicked man, and yet a little wickedness was not distasteful to him.
And he was angry with himself in that he had made such a promise. It had been a rule of life with him never to take advice. The Bishop had his powers, within which he, as Rector of Bowick, would certainly obey the Bishop; but it had been his theory to oppose his Bishop, almost more readily than any one else, should the Bishop attempt to exceed his power. The Bishop had done so in giving this advice, and yet he had promised. He was angry with himself, but did not on that account think that the promise should be evaded. Oh no! Having said that he would do it, he would do it. And having said that he would do it, the sooner that he did it the better. When three or four days had passed by, he despised himself because he had not yet made for himself a fit occasion. "It is such a mean, sneaking thing to do," he said to himself. But still it had to be done.
It was on a Saturday afternoon that he said this to himself, as he returned back to the parsonage garden from the cricket-ground, where he had left Mr. Peacocke and the three other ushers playing cricket with ten or twelve of the bigger boys of the school. There was a French master, a German master, a master for arithmetic and mathematics with the adjacent sciences, besides Mr. Peacocke, as assistant classical master. Among them Mr. Peacocke was facile princeps in rank and supposed ability; but they were all admitted to the delights of the playground. Mr. Peacocke, in spite of those years of his spent in America where cricket could not have been familiar to him, remembered well his old pastime, and was quite an adept at the game. It was ten thousand pities that a man should be disturbed by unnecessary questionings who could not only teach and preach, but play cricket also. But nevertheless it must be done. When, therefore, the Doctor entered his own house, he went into his study and wrote a short note to his assistant;—
"MY DEAR PEACOCKE,—Could you come over and see me in my study this evening for half an hour? I have a question or two which I wish to ask you. Any hour you may name will suit me after eight.—Yours most sincerely,
In answer to this there came a note to say that at half-past eight Mr. Peacocke would be with the Doctor.
At half-past eight Mr. Peacocke came. He had fancied, on reading the Doctor's note, that some further question would be raised as to money. The Doctor had declared that he could no longer accept gratuitous clerical service in the parish, and had said that he must look out for some one else if Mr. Peacocke could not oblige him by allowing his name to be referred in the usual way to the Bishop. He had now determined to say, in answer to this, that the school gave him enough to do, and that he would much prefer to give up the church;—although he would always be happy to take a part occasionally if he should be wanted. The Doctor had been sitting alone for the last quarter of an hour when his assistant entered the room, and had spent the time in endeavouring to arrange the conversation that should follow. He had come at last to a conclusion. He would let Mr. Peacocke know exactly what had passed between himself and the Bishop, and would then leave it to his usher either to tell his own story as to his past life, or to abstain from telling it. He had promised to ask the question, and he would ask it; but he would let the man judge for himself whether any answer ought to be given.
"The Bishop has been bothering me about you, Peacocke," he said, standing up with his back to the fireplace, as soon as the other man had shut the door behind him. The Doctor's face was always expressive of his inward feelings, and at this moment showed very plainly that his sympathies were not with the Bishop.
"I'm sorry that his lordship should have troubled himself," said the other, "as I certainly do not intend to take any part in his diocese."
"We'll sink that for the present," said the Doctor. "I won't let that be mixed up with what I have got to say just now. You have taken a certain part in the diocese already, very much to my satisfaction. I hope it may be continued; but I won't bother about that now. As far as I can see, you are just the man that would suit me as a colleague in the parish." Mr. Peacocke bowed, but remained silent. "The fact is," continued the Doctor, "that certain old women have got hold of the Bishop, and made him feel that he ought to answer their objections. That Mrs. Stantiloup has a tongue as loud as the town-crier's bell."
"But what has Mrs. Stantiloup to say about me?"
"Nothing, except in so far as she can hit me through you."
"And what does the Bishop say?"
"He thinks that I ought to know something of your life during those five years you were in America."
"I think so also," said Mr. Peacocke.
"I don't want to know anything for myself. As far as I am concerned, I am quite satisfied. I know where you were educated, how you were ordained, and I can feel sure, from your present efficiency, that you cannot have wasted your time. If you tell me that you do not wish to say anything, I shall be contented, and I shall tell the Bishop that, as far as I am concerned, there must be an end of it."
"And what will he do?" asked Mr. Peacocke.
"Well; as far as the curacy is concerned, of course he can refuse his licence."
"I have not the slightest intention of applying to his lordship for a licence."
This the usher said with a tone of self-assertion which grated a little on the Doctor's ear, in spite of his good-humour towards the speaker. "I don't want to go into that," he said. "A man never can say what his intentions may be six months hence."
"But if I were to refuse to speak of my life in America," said Mr. Peacocke, "and thus to decline to comply with what I must confess would be no more than a rational requirement on your part, how then would it be with myself and my wife in regard to the school?"
"It would make no difference whatever," said the Doctor.
"There is a story to tell," said Mr. Peacocke, very slowly.
"I am sure that it cannot be to your disgrace."
"I do not say that it is,—nor do I say that it is not. There may be circumstances in which a man may hardly know whether he has done right or wrong. But this I do know,—that, had I done otherwise, I should have despised myself. I could not have done otherwise and have lived."
"There is no man in the world," said the Doctor, earnestly, "less anxious to pry into the secrets of others than I am. I take things as I find them. If the cook sends me up a good dish I don't care to know how she made it. If I read a good book, I am not the less gratified because there may have been something amiss with the author."
"You would doubt his teaching," said Mr. Peacocke, "who had gone astray himself."
"Then I must doubt all human teaching, for all men have gone astray. You had better hold your tongue about the past, and let me tell those who ask unnecessary questions to mind their own business."
"It is very odd, Doctor," said Mr. Peacocke, "that all this should have come from you just now."
"Why odd just now?"
"Because I had been turning it in my mind for the last fortnight whether I ought not to ask you as a favour to listen to the story of my life. That I must do so before I could formally accept the curacy I had determined. But that only brought me to the resolution of refusing the office. I think,—I think that, irrespective of the curacy, it ought to be told. But I have not quite made up my mind."
"Do not suppose that I am pressing you."
"Oh no; nor would your pressing me influence me. Much as I owe to your undeserved kindness and forbearance, I am bound to say that. Nothing can influence me in the least in such a matter but the well-being of my wife, and my own sense of duty. And it is a matter in which I can unfortunately take counsel from no one. She, and she alone, besides myself, knows the circumstances, and she is so forgetful of herself that I can hardly ask her for an opinion."
The Doctor by this time had no doubt become curious. There was a something mysterious with which he would like to become acquainted. He was by no means a philosopher, superior to the ordinary curiosity of mankind. But he was manly, and even at this moment remembered his former assurances. "Of course," said he, "I cannot in the least guess what all this is about. For myself I hate secrets. I haven't a secret in the world. I know nothing of myself which you mightn't know too for all that I cared. But that is my good fortune rather than my merit. It might well have been with me as it is with you; but, as a rule, I think that where there is a secret it had better be kept. No one, at any rate, should allow it to be wormed out of him by the impertinent assiduity of others. If there be anything affecting your wife which you do not wish all the world on this side of the water to know, do not tell it to any one on this side of the water."
"There is something affecting my wife that I do not wish all the world to know."
"Then tell it to no one," said Dr. Wortle, authoritatively.
"I will tell you what I will do," said Mr. Peacocke; "I will take a week to think of it, and then I will let you know whether I will tell it or whether I will not; and if I tell it I will let you know also how far I shall expect you to keep my secret, and how far to reveal it. I think the Bishop will be entitled to know nothing about me unless I ask to be recognised as one of the clergy of his diocese."
"Certainly not; certainly not," said the Doctor. And then the interview was at an end.
Mr. Peacocke, when he went away from the Rectory, did not at once return to his own house, but went off for a walk alone. It was now nearly midsummer, and there was broad daylight till ten o'clock. It was after nine when he left the Doctor's, but still there was time for a walk which he knew well through the fields, which would take him round by Bowick Wood, and home by a path across the squire's park and by the church. An hour would do it, and he wanted an hour to collect his thoughts before he should see his wife, and discuss with her, as he would be bound to do, all that had passed between him and the Doctor. He had said that he could not ask her advice. In this there had been much of truth. But he knew also that he would do nothing as to which he had not received at any rate her assent. She, for his sake, would have annihilated herself, had that been possible. Again and again, since that horrible apparition had showed itself in her room at St. Louis, she had begged that she might leave him,—not on her own behalf, not from any dread of the crime that she was committing, not from shame in regard to herself should her secret be found out, but because she felt herself to be an impediment to his career in the world. As to herself, she had no pricks of conscience. She had been true to the man,—brutal, abominable as he had been to her,—until she had in truth been made to believe that he was dead; and even when he had certainly been alive,—for she had seen him,—he had only again seen her, again to desert her. Duty to him she could owe never. There was no sting of conscience with her in that direction. But to the other man she owed, as she thought, everything that could be due from a woman to a man. He had come within her ken, and had loved her without speaking of his love. He had seen her condition, and had sympathised with her fully. He had gone out, with his life in his hand,—he, a clergyman, a quiet man of letters,—to ascertain whether she was free; and finding her, as he believed, to be free, he had returned to take her to his heart, and to give her all that happiness which other women enjoy, but which she had hitherto only seen from a distance. Then the blow had come. It was necessary, it was natural, that she should be ruined by such a blow. Circumstances had ruined her. That fate had betaken her which so often falls upon a woman who trusts herself and her life to a man. But why should he fall also with her fall? There was still a career before him. He might be useful; he might be successful; he might be admired. Everything might still be open to him,—except the love of another woman. As to that, she did not doubt his truth. Why should he be doomed to drag her with him as a log tied to his foot, seeing that a woman with a misfortune is condemned by the general voice of the world, whereas for a man to have stumbled is considered hardly more than a matter of course? She would consent to take from him the means of buying her bread; but it would be better,—she had said,—that she should eat it on her side of the water, while he might earn it on the other.
We know what had come of these arguments. He had hitherto never left her for a moment since that man had again appeared before their eyes. He had been strong in his resolution. If it were a crime, then he would be a criminal. If it were a falsehood, then would he be a liar. As to the sin, there had no doubt been some divergence of opinion between him and her. The teaching that he had undergone in his youth had been that with which we, here, are all more or less acquainted, and that had been strengthened in him by the fact of his having become a clergyman. She had felt herself more at liberty to proclaim to herself a gospel of her own for the guidance of her own soul. To herself she had never seemed to be vicious or impure, but she understood well that he was not equally free from the bonds which religion had imposed upon him. For his sake,—for his sake, it would be better that she should be away from him.
All this was known to him accurately, and all this had to be considered by him as he walked across the squire's park in the gloaming of the evening. No doubt,—he now said to himself,—the Doctor should have been made acquainted with his condition before he or she had taken their place at the school. Reticence under such circumstances had been a lie. Against his conscience there had been many pricks. Living in his present condition he certainly should not have gone up into that pulpit to preach the Word of God. Though he had been silent, he had known that the evil and the deceit would work round upon him. But now what should he do? There was only one thing on which he was altogether decided;—nothing should separate them. As he had said so often before, he said again now,—"If there be sin, let it be sin." But this was clear to him,—were he to give Dr. Wortle a true history of what had happened to him in America, then must he certainly leave Bowick. And this was equally certain, that before telling his tale, he must make known his purpose to his wife.
But as he entered his own house he had determined that he would tell the Doctor everything.
"THEN WE MUST GO."
"I THOUGHT you were never going to have done with that old Jupiter," said Mrs. Peacocke, as she began at that late hour of the evening to make tea for herself and her husband.
"Why have you waited for me?"
"Because I like company. Did you ever know me go to tea without you when there was a chance of your coming? What has Jupiter been talking about all this time?"
"Jupiter has not been talking all this time. Jupiter talked only for half an hour. Jupiter is a very good fellow."
"I always thought so. Otherwise I should never have consented to have been one of his satellites, or have been contented to see you doing chief moon. But you have been with him an hour and a half."
"Since I left him I have walked all round by Bowick Lodge. I had something to think of before I could talk to you,—something to decide upon, indeed, before I could return to the house."
"What have you decided?" she asked. Her voice was altogether changed. Though she was seated in her chair and had hardly moved, her appearance and her carriage of herself were changed. She still held the cup in her hand which she had been about to fill, but her face was turned towards his, and her large brown speaking eyes were fixed upon him.
"Let me have my tea," he said, "and then I will tell you." While he drank his tea she remained quite quiet, not touching her own, but waiting patiently till it should suit him to speak. "Ella," he said, "I must tell it all to Dr. Wortle."
"Why, dearest?" As he did not answer at once, she went on with her question. "Why now more than before?"
"Nay, it is not now more than before. As we have let the before go by, we can only do it now."
"But why at all, dear? Has the argument, which was strong when we came, lost any of its force?"
"It should have had no force. We should not have taken the man's good things, and have subjected him to the injury which may come to him by our bad name."
"Have we not given him good things in return?"
"Not the good things which he had a right to expect,—not that respectability which is all the world to such an establishment as this."
"Let me go," she said, rising from her chair and almost shrieking.
"Nay, Ella, nay; if you and I cannot talk as though we were one flesh, almost with one soul between us, as though that which is done by one is done by both, whether for weal or woe,—if you and I cannot feel ourselves to be in a boat together either for swimming or for sinking, then I think that no two persons on this earth ever can be bound together after that fashion. 'Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge. The Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me."' Then she rose from her chair, and flinging herself on her knees at his feet, buried her face in his lap. "Ella," he said, "the only injury you can do me is to speak of leaving me. And it is an injury which is surely unnecessary because you cannot carry it beyond words. Now, if you will sit up and listen to me, I will tell you what passed between me and the Doctor." Then she raised herself from the ground and took her seat at the tea-table, and listened patiently as he began his tale. "They have been talking about us here in the county."
"Who has found it necessary to talk about one so obscure as I?"
"What does it matter who they might be? The Doctor in his kindly wrath,—for he is very wroth,—mentions this name and the other. What does it matter? Obscurity itself becomes mystery, and mystery of course produces curiosity. It was bound to be so. It is not they who are in fault, but we. If you are different from others, of course you will be inquired into."
"Am I so different?"
"Yes;—different in not eating the Doctor's dinners when they are offered to you; different in not accepting Lady De Lawle's hospitality; different in contenting yourself simply with your duties and your husband. Of course we are different. How could we not be different? And as we are different, so of course there will be questions and wonderings, and that sifting and searching which always at last finds out the facts. The Bishop says that he knows nothing of my American life."
"Why should he want to know anything?"
"Because I have been preaching in one of his churches. It is natural;—natural that the mothers of the boys should want to know something. The Doctor says that he hates secrets. So do I."
"Oh, my dearest!"
"A secret is always accompanied by more or less of fear, and produces more or less of cowardice. But it can no more be avoided than a sore on the flesh or a broken bone. Who would not go about, with all his affairs such as the world might know, if it were possible? But there come gangrenes in the heart, or perhaps in the pocket. Wounds come, undeserved wounds, as those did to you, my darling; but wounds which may not be laid bare to all eyes. Who has a secret because he chooses it?"
"But the Bishop?"
"Well,—yes, the Bishop. The Bishop has told the Doctor to examine me, and the Doctor has done it. I give him the credit of saying that the task has been most distasteful to him. I do him the justice of acknowledging that he has backed out of the work he had undertaken. He has asked the question, but has said in the same breath that I need not answer it unless I like."
"And you? You have not answered it yet?"
"No; I have answered nothing as yet. But I have, I think, made up my mind that the question must be answered."
"That everything should be told?"
"Everything,—to him. My idea is to tell everything to him, and to leave it to him to decide what should be done. Should he refuse to repeat the story any further, and then bid us go away from Bowick, I should think that his conduct had been altogether straightforward and not uncharitable."
"And you,—what would you do then?"
"I should go. What else?"
"Ah! on that we must decide. He would be friendly with me. Though he might think it necessary that I should leave Bowick, he would not turn against me violently."
"He could do nothing."
"I think he would assist me rather. He would help me, perhaps, to find some place where I might still earn my bread by such skill as I possess;—where I could do so without dragging in aught of my domestic life, as I have been forced to do here."
"I have been a curse to you," exclaimed the unhappy wife.
"My dearest blessing," he said. "That which you call a curse has come from circumstances which are common to both of us. There need be no more said about it. That man has been a source of terrible trouble to us. The trouble must be discussed from time to time, but the necessity of enduring it may be taken for granted."
"I cannot be a philosopher such as you are," she said.
"There is no escape from it. The philosophy is forced upon us. When an evil thing is necessary, there remains only the consideration how it may be best borne."
"You must tell him, then?"
"I think so. I have a week to consider of it; but I think so. Though he is very kind at this moment in giving me the option, and means what he says in declaring that I shall remain even though I tell him nothing, yet his mind would become uneasy, and he would gradually become discontented. Think how great is his stake in the school! How would he feel towards me, were its success to be gradually diminished because he kept a master here of whom people believed some unknown evil?"
"There has been no sign of any such falling off?"
"There has been no time for it. It is only now that people are beginning to talk. Had nothing of the kind been said, had this Bishop asked no questions, had we been regarded as people simply obscure, to whom no mystery attached itself, the thing might have gone on; but as it is, I am bound to tell him the truth."
"Then we must go?"
"When it has been so decided, the sooner the better. How could we endure to remain here when our going shall be desired?"
"We must flit, and again seek some other home. Though he should keep our secret,—and I believe he will if he be asked,—it will be known that there is a secret, and a secret of such a nature that its circumstances have driven us hence. If I could get literary work in London, perhaps we might live there."
"But how,—how would you set about it? The truth is, dearest, that for work such as yours you should either have no wife at all, or else a wife of whom you need not be ashamed to speak the whole truth before the world."
"What is the use of it?" he said, rising from his chair as in anger. "Why go back to all that which should be settled between us, as fixed by fate? Each of us has given to the other all that each has to give, and the partnership is complete. As far as that is concerned, I at any rate am contented."
"Ah, my darling!" she exclaimed, throwing her arms round his neck.
"Let there be an end to distinctions and differences, which, between you and me, can have no effect but to increase our troubles. You are a woman, and I am a man; and therefore, no doubt, your name, when brought in question, is more subject to remark than mine,—as is my name, being that of a clergyman, more subject to remark than that of one not belonging to a sacred profession. But not on that account do I wish to unfrock myself; nor certainly on that account do I wish to be deprived of my wife. For good or bad, it has to be endured together; and expressions of regret as to that which is unavoidable, only aggravate our trouble." After that, he seated himself, and took up a book as though he were able at once to carry off his mind to other matters. She probably knew that he could not do so, but she sat silent by him for a while, till he bade her take herself to bed, promising that he would follow without delay.
For three days nothing further was said between them on the subject, nor was any allusion made to it between the Doctor and his assistant. The school went on the same as ever, and the intercourse between the two men was unaltered as to its general mutual courtesy. But there did undoubtedly grow in the Doctor's mind a certain feverish feeling of insecurity. At any rate, he knew this, that there was a mystery, that there was something about the Peacockes,—something referring especially to Mrs. Peacocke,—which, if generally known, would be held to be deleterious to their character. So much he could not help deducing from what the man had already told him. No doubt he had undertaken, in his generosity, that although the man should decline to tell his secret, no alteration should be made as to the school arrangements; but he became conscious that in so promising he had in some degree jeopardised the well-being of the school. He began to whisper to himself that persons in such a position as that filled by this Mr. Peacocke and his wife should not be subject to peculiar remarks from ill-natured tongues. A weapon was afforded by such a mystery to the Stantiloups of the world, which the Stantiloups would be sure to use with all their virulence. To such an establishment as his school, respectability was everything. Credit, he said to himself, is a matter so subtle in its essence, that, as it may be obtained almost without reason, so, without reason, may it be made to melt away. Much as he liked Mr. Peacocke, much as he approved of him, much as there was in the man of manliness and worth which was absolutely dear to him,—still he was not willing to put the character of his school in peril for the sake of Mr. Peacocke. Were he to do so, he would be neglecting a duty much more sacred than any he could owe to Mr. Peacocke. It was thus that, during these three days, he conversed with himself on the subject, although he was able to maintain outwardly the same manner and the same countenance as though all things were going well between them. When they parted after the interview in the study, the Doctor, no doubt, had so expressed himself as rather to dissuade his usher from telling his secret than to encourage him to do so. He had been free in declaring that the telling of the secret should make no difference in his assistant's position at Bowick. But in all that, he had acted from his habitual impulse. He had since told himself that the mystery ought to be disclosed. It was not right that his boys should be left to the charge of one who, however competent, dared not speak of his own antecedents. It was thus he thought of the matter, after consideration. He must wait, of course, till the week should be over before he made up his mind to anything further.
"So Peacocke isn't going to take the curacy?"
This was said to the Doctor by Mr. Pearson, the squire, in the course of those two or three days of which we are speaking. Mr. Pearson was an old gentleman, who did not live often at Bowick, being compelled, as he always said, by his health, to spend the winter and spring of every year in Italy, and the summer months by his family in London. In truth, he did not much care for Bowick, but had always been on good terms with the Doctor, and had never opposed the school. Mr. Pearson had been good also as to Church matters,—as far as goodness can be shown by generosity,—and had interested himself about the curates. So it had come to pass that the Doctor did not wish to snub his neighbour when the question was asked. "I rather think not," said the Doctor. "I fear I shall have to look out for some one else." He did not prolong the conversation; for, though he wished to be civil, he did not wish to be communicative. Mr. Pearson had shown his parochial solicitude, and did not trouble himself with further questions.
"So Mr. Peacocke isn't going to take the curacy?" This, the very same question in the very same words, was put to the Doctor on the next morning by the vicar of the next parish. The Rev. Mr. Puddicombe, a clergyman without a flaw who did his duty excellently in every station of life, was one who would preach a sermon or take a whole service for a brother parson in distress, and never think of reckoning up that return sermons or return services were due to him,—one who gave dinners, too, and had pretty daughters;—but still our Doctor did not quite like him. He was a little too pious, and perhaps given to ask questions. "So Mr. Peacocke isn't going to take the curacy?"
There was a certain animation about the asking of this question by Mr. Puddicombe very different from Mr. Pearson's listless manner. It was clear to the Doctor that Mr. Puddicombe wanted to know. It seemed to the Doctor that something of condemnation was implied in the tone of the question, not only against Mr. Peacocke, but against himself also, for having employed Mr. Peacocke. "Upon my word I can't tell you," he said, rather crossly.
"I thought that it had been all settled. I heard that it was decided."
"Then you have heard more than I have."
"It was the Bishop told me."
Now it certainly was the case that in that fatal conversation which had induced the Doctor to interrogate Mr. Peacocke about his past life, the Doctor himself had said that he intended to look out for another curate. He probably did not remember that at the moment. "I wish the Bishop would confine himself to asserting things that he knows," said the Doctor, angrily.
"I am sure the Bishop intends to do so," said Mr. Puddicombe, very gravely. "But I apologise. I had not intended to touch a subject on which there may perhaps be some reserve. I was only going to tell you of an excellent young man of whom I have heard. But, good morning." Then Mr. Puddicombe withdrew.
DURING the last six months Mr. Peacocke's most intimate friend at Bowick, excepting of course his wife, had been one of the pupils at the school. The lad was one of the pupils, but could not be said to be one of the boys. He was the young Lord Carstairs, eldest son of Earl Bracy. He had been sent to Bowick now six years ago, with the usual purpose of progressing from Bowick to Eton. And from Bowick to Eton he had gone in due course. But there, things had not gone well with the young lord. Some school disturbance had taken place when he had been there about a year and a half, in which he was, or was supposed to have been, a ringleader. It was thought necessary, for the preservation of the discipline of the school, that a victim should be made;—and it was perhaps thought well, in order that the impartiality of the school might be made manifest, that the victim should be a lord. Earl Bracy was therefore asked to withdraw his son; and young Lord Carstairs, at the age of seventeen, was left to seek his education where he could. It had been, and still was, the Earl's purpose to send his son to Oxford, but there was now an interval of two years before that could be accomplished. During one year he was sent abroad to travel with a tutor, and was then reported to have been all that a well-conducted lad ought to be. He was declared to be quite worthy of all that Oxford would do for him. It was even suggested that Eton had done badly for herself in throwing off from her such a young nobleman. But though Lord Carstairs had done well with his French and German on the Continent, it would certainly be necessary that he should rub up his Greek and Latin before he went to Christ Church. Then a request was made to the Doctor to take him in at Bowick in some sort as a private pupil. After some demurring the Doctor consented. It was not his wont to run counter to earls who treated him with respect and deference. Earl Bracy had in a special manner been his friend, and Lord Carstairs himself had been a great favourite at Bowick. When that expulsion from Eton had come about, the Doctor had interested himself, and had declared that a very scant measure of justice had been shown to the young lord. He was thus in a measure compelled to accede to the request made to him, and Lord Carstairs was received back at Bowick, not without hesitation, but with a full measure of affectionate welcome. His bed-room was in the parsonage-house, and his dinner he took with the Doctor's family. In other respects he lived among the boys.