Dr. Wortle's school, by Anthony Trollope

Mr Peacocke Goes

The Doctor had been all but savage with his wife, and, for the moment, had hated Mr Puddicombe, but still what they said had affected him. They were both of them quite clear that Mr Peacocke should be made to go at once. And he, though he hated Mr Puddicombe for his cold logic, could not but acknowledge that all the man had said was true. According to the strict law of right and wrong the two unfortunates should have parted when they found that they were not in truth married. And, again, according to the strict law of right and wrong, Mr Peacocke, should not have brought the woman there, into his school, as his wife. There had been deceit. But then would not he, Dr Wortle himself, have been guilty of similar deceit had it fallen upon him to have to defend a woman who had been true and affectionate to him? Mr Puddicombe would have left the woman to break her heart and have gone away and done his duty like a Christian, feeling no tugging at his heart-strings. It was so that our Doctor spoke to himself of his counsellor, sitting there alone in his library.

During his conference with Lefroy something had been said which had impressed him suddenly with an idea. A word had fallen from the Colonel, an unintended word, by which the Doctor was made to believe that the other Colonel was dead, at any rate now. He had cunningly tried to lead up to the subject, but Robert Lefroy had been on his guard as soon as he had perceived the Doctor’s object, and had drawn back, denying the truth of the word he had before spoken. The Doctor at last asked him the question direct. Lefroy then declared that his brother had been alive and well when he left Texas, but he did this in such a manner as to strengthen in the Doctor’s mind the impression that he was dead. If it were so, then might not all these crooked things be made straight?

He had thought it better to raise no false hopes. He had said nothing of this to Peacocke on discussing the story. He had not even hinted it to his wife, from whom it might probably make its way to Mrs Peacocke. He had suggested it to Mr Puddicombe — asking whether there might not be a way out of all their difficulties. Mr Puddicombe had declared that there could be no such way as far as the school was concerned. Let them marry, and repent their sins, and go away from the spot they had contaminated, and earn their bread in some place in which there need be no longer additional sin in concealing the story of their past life. That seemed to have been Mr Puddicombe’s final judgment. But it was altogether opposed to Dr Wortle’s feelings.

When Mr Puddicombe came down from the church to the rectory, Lord Carstairs was walking home after the afternoon service with Miss Wortle. It was his custom to go to church with the family, whereas the school went there under the charge of one of the ushers and sat apart in a portion of the church appropriated to themselves. Mrs Wortle, when she found that the Doctor was not going to the afternoon service, declined to go herself. She was thoroughly disturbed by all these bad tidings, and was, indeed, very little able to say her prayers in a fit state of mind. She could hardly keep herself still for a moment, and was as one who thinks that the crack of doom is coming — so terrible to her was her vicinity and connection with this man, and with the woman who was not his wife. Then, again, she became flurried when she found that Lord Carstairs and Mary would have to walk alone together; and she made little abortive attempts to keep first the one and then the other from going to church. Mary probably saw no reason for staying away, while Lord Carstairs possibly found an additional reason for going. Poor Mrs Wortle had for some weeks past wished that the charming young nobleman had been at home with his father and mother, or anywhere but in her house. It had been arranged, however, that he should go in July and not return after the summer holidays. Under these circumstances, having full confidence in her girl, she had refrained from again expressing her fears to the Doctor. But there were fears. It was evident to her, though the Doctor seemed to see nothing of it, that the young lord was falling in love. It might be that his youth and natural bashfulness would come to her aid, and that nothing should be said before that day in July which would separate them. But when it suddenly occurred to her that they two would walk to and fro from church together, there was cause for additional uneasiness.

If she had heard their conversation as they came back she would have been in no way disturbed by its tone on the score of the young man’s tenderness towards her daughter, but she might perhaps have been surprised by his vehemence in another respect. She would have been surprised also at finding how much had been said during the last twenty-four hours by others besides herself and her husband about the affairs of Mr and Mrs Peacocke.

“Do you know what he came about?” asked Mary. The “he” had of course been Robert Lefroy.

“Not in the least; but he came up there looking so queer, as though he certainly had come about something unpleasant.”

“And then he was with papa afterwards,” said Mary. I am sure papa and mamma not coming to church has something to do with it. And Mr Peacocke hasn’t been to church all day.”

“Something has happened to make him very unhappy,” said the boy. “He told me so even before this man came here. I don’t know anyone whom I like so much as Mr Peacocke.”

“I think it is about his wife,” said Mary.

“How about his wife?”

“I don’t know, but I think it is. She is so very quiet.”

“How quiet, Miss Wortle?” he asked.

“She never will come in to see us. Mamma has asked her to dinner and to drink tea ever so often, but she never comes. She calls perhaps once in two or three months in a formal way, and that is all we see of her.”

“Do you like her?” he asked.

“How can I say, when I so seldom see her.”

“I do. I like her very much. I go and see her often; and I’m sure of this — she is quite a lady. Mamma asked her to go to Carstairs for the holidays because of what I said.”

“She is not going?”

“No; neither of them will come. I wish they would; and oh, Miss Wortle, I do so wish you were going to be there too.” This is all that was said of peculiar tenderness between them on that walk home.

Late in the evening — so late that the boys had already gone to bed — the Doctor sent again for Mr Peacocke. “I should not have troubled you tonight,” he said, “only that I have heard something from Pritchett.” Pritchett was the rectory gardener who had charge also of the school buildings, and was a person of great authority in the establishment. He, as well the Doctor, held Mr Peacocke in great respect, and would have been almost as unwilling as the Doctor himself to tell stories to the schoolmaster’s discredit. “They are saying down at the Lamb’ — the Lamb was the Bowick public-house — “that Lefroy told them all yesterday — “ the Doctor hesitated before he could tell it.

“That my wife is not my wife?”

“Just so.”

“Of course I am prepared for it. I knew that it would be so; did not you?”

“I expected it.”

“I was sure of it. It may be taken for granted at once that there is no longer a secret to keep. I would wish you to act just as though all the facts were known to the entire diocese.” After this there was a pause, during which neither of them spoke for a few moments. The Doctor had not intended to declare any purpose of his own on that occasion, but it seemed to him now as though he were almost driven to do so. Then Mr Peacocke seeing the difficulty at once believed him from it. “I am quite prepared to leave Bowick,” he said, “at once. I know that it must be so. I have thought about it, and have perceived that there is no possible alternative. I should like to consult with you as to whither I had better go. Where shall I first take her?”

“Leave her here,” said the Doctor.

“Here! Where?”

“Where she is in the schoolhouse. No one will come to fill your place for a while.”

“I should have thought,” said Mr Peacocke very slowly, “that her presence — would have been worse almost — than my own.”

“To me,’ — said the Doctor — to me she is as pure as the most unsullied matron in the country.” Upon this Mr Peacocke, jumping from his chair, seized the Doctor’s hand, but could not speak for his tears; then he seated himself again, turning his face away towards the wall. “To no one could the presence of either of you be an evil. The evil is, if I may say so, that the two of you should be here together. You should be apart — till some better day has come upon you.”

“What better day can ever come?” said the poor man through his tears.

Then the Doctor declared his scheme. He told what he thought as to Ferdinand Lefroy, and his reason for believing that the man was dead. “I felt sure from his manner that his brother is now dead in truth. Go to him and ask him boldly,” he said.

“But his word would not suffice for another marriage ceremony.”

To this the Doctor agreed. It was not his intention, he said, that they should proceed on evidence as slight as that. No — a step must be taken much more serious in its importance, and occupying a considerable time. He, Peacocke, must go again to Missouri and find out all the truth. The Doctor was of opinion that if this were resolved upon, and that if the whole truth were at once proclaimed, then Mr Peacocke need not hesitate to pay Robert Lefroy for any information which might assist him in his search. “While you are gone,” continued the Doctor almost wildly, “let bishops and Stantiloups and Puddicombes say what they may, she shall remain here. To say that she will be happy is of course vain. There can be no happiness for her till this has been put right. But she will be safe; and here, at my hand, she will, I think, be free from insult. What better is there to be done?”

“There can be nothing better,” said Peacocke drawing his breath — as though a gleam of light had shone in upon him.

“I had not meant to have spoken to you of this till tomorrow. I should not have done so, but that Pritchett had been with me. But the more I thought of it, the more sure I became that you could not both remain — till something had been done; till something had been done.”

“I was sure of it, Dr Wortle.”

“Mr Puddicombe saw that it was so. Mr Puddicombe is not all the world to me by any means, but he is a man of common sense. I will be frank with you. My wife said that it could not be so.”

“She shall not stay. Mrs Wortle shall not be annoyed.”

“You don’t see it yet,” said the Doctor. But you do; I know you do. And she shall stay. The house shall be hers, as her residence, for the next six months. As for money — ”

“I have got what will do for that, I think.”

“If she wants money she shall have what she wants. There is nothing I will not do for you in your trouble — except that you may not both be here together till I shall have shaken hands with her as Mrs Peacocke in very truth.”

It was settled that Mr Peacocke should not go again into the school, or Mrs Peacocke among the boys, till he should have gone to America and have come back. It was explained in the school by the Doctor early — for the Doctor must now take the morning school himself — that circumstances of very grave import made it necessary that Mr Peacocke should start at once for America. That the tidings which had been published at the Lamb would reach the boys was more than probable. Nay — was it not certain? It would of course reach all the boys parents. There was no use, no service, in any secrecy. But in speaking to the school not a word was said of Mrs Peacocke. The Doctor explained that he himself would take the morning school, and that Mr Rose, the mathematical master, would take charge of the school meals. Mrs Cane, the housekeeper, would look to the linen and the bedrooms. It was made plain that Mrs Peacocke’s services were not to be required; but her name was not mentioned — except that the Doctor, in order to let it be understood that she was not to be banished from the house, begged the boys as a favour that they would not interrupt Mrs Peacocke’s tranquillity during Mr Peacocke’s absence.

On the Tuesday morning Mr Peacocke started, remaining, however, a couple of days at Broughton, during which the Doctor saw him. Lefroy declared that he knew nothing about his brother — whether he were alive or dead. He might be dead, because he was always in trouble, and generally drunk. Robert, on the whole, thought it probable that he was dead, but could not be got to say so. For a thousand dollars he would go over to Missouri, and, if necessary, to Texas, so as to find the truth. He would then come back and give undeniable evidence. While making this benevolent offer, he declared, with tears in his eyes, that he had come over intending to be a true brother to his sister-in-law, and had simply been deterred from prosecuting his good intentions by Peacocke’s austerity. Then he swore a most solemn oath that if he knew anything about his brother Ferdinand he would reveal it. The Doctor and Peacocke agreed together that the man’s word was worth nothing; but that the man’s services might be useful in enabling them to track out the truth. They were both convinced, by words which fell from him, that Ferdinand Lefroy was dead; but this would be of no avail unless they could obtain absolute evidence.

During these two days there were various conversations at Broughton between the Doctor, Mr Peacocke, and Lefroy, in which a plan of action was at length arranged. Lefroy and the schoolmaster were to proceed to America together, and there obtain what evidence they could as to the life or death of the elder brother. When absolute evidence had been obtained of either, a thousand dollars was to be handed to Robert Lefroy. But when this agreement was made the man was given to understand that his own uncorroborated word would go for nothing.

“Who is to say what is evidence, and what not?” asked the man, not unnaturally.

“Mr Peacocke must be the judge,” said the Doctor.

“I ain’t going to agree to that,” said the other. “Though he were to see him dead, he might swear he hadn’t, and not give me a red cent. Why ain’t I to be judge as well as he?”

“Because you can trust him, and he cannot in the least trust you,” said the Doctor. “You know well enough that if he were to see your brother alive, or to see him dead, you would get the money. At any rate, you have no other way of getting it but what we propose.” To all this Robert Lefroy at last assented.

The prospect before Mr Peacocke for the next three months was certainly very sad. He was to travel from Broughton to St Louis, and possibly from thence down into the wilds of Texas, in company with this man, whom he thoroughly despised. Nothing could be more abominable to him than such an association; but there was no other way in which the proposed plan could be carried out. He was to pay Lefroy’s expenses back to his own country, and could only hope to keep the man true to his purpose by doing so from day to day. Were he to give the man money, the man would at once disappear. Here in England, and in their passage across the ocean, the man might, in some degree, be amenable and obedient. But there was no knowing to what he might have recourse when he should find himself nearer to his country, and should feel that his companion was distant from his own.

“You’ll have to keep a close watch upon him,” whispered the Doctor to his friend. “I should not advise all this if I did not think you were a man of strong nerve.

“I am not afraid,” said the other; but I doubt whether he may not be too many for me. At any rate, I will try it. You will hear from me as I go on.”

And so they parted as dear friends part. The Doctor had, in truth, taken the man altogether to his heart since all the circumstances of the story had come home to him. And it need hardly be said that the other was aware how deep a debt of gratitude he owed to the protector of his wife. Indeed the very money that was to be paid to Robert Lefroy, if he earned it, was advanced out of the Doctor’s pocket. Mr Peacocke’s means were sufficient for the expenses of the journey, but fell short when these thousand dollars had to be provided.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:43