Dr. Wortle's school, by Anthony Trollope

Mr Puddicombe’s Boot

It was not to be expected that the matter should be kept out of the county newspaper, or even from those in the metropolis. There was too much of romance in the story, too good a tale to be told, for any such hope. The man’s former life and the woman’s, the disappearance of her husband and his reappearance after his reported death, the departure of the couple from St Louis and the coming of Lefroy to Bowick formed together a most attractive subject. But it could not be told without reference to Dr Wortle’s school, to Dr Wortle’s position as clergyman of the parish — and also to the fact which was considered by his enemies to be of all the facts the most damning, that Mr Peacocke had for a time been allowed to preach in the parish church. The “Broughton Gazette,” a newspaper which was supposed to be altogether devoted to the interest of the diocese, was very eloquent on this subject. “We do not desire”, said the “Broughton Gazette, to make any remarks as to the management of Dr Wortle’s school. We leave all that between him and the parents of the boys who are educated there. We are perfectly aware that Dr Wortle himself is a scholar, and that his school has been deservedly successful. It is advisable, no doubt, that in such an establishment none should be employed whose lives are openly immoral — but as we have said before, it is not our purpose to insist upon this. Parents, if they feel themselves to be aggrieved, can remedy the evil by withdrawing their sons. But when we consider the great power which is placed in the hands of an incumbent of a parish, that he is endowed as it were with the freehold of his pulpit, that he may put up whom he will to preach the gospel to his parishioners, even in a certain degree in opposition to his bishop, we think that we do no more than our duty in calling attention to such a case as this.” Then the whole story was told at great length, so as to give the “we” of the Broughton Gazette a happy opportunity of making its leading article not only much longer, but much more amusing, than usual. “We must say”, continued the writer, as he concluded his narrative, “that this man should not have been allowed to preach in the Bowick pulpit. He is no doubt a clergyman of the Church of England, and Dr Wortle was within his rights in asking for his assistance; but the incumbent of a parish is responsible for those he employs, and that responsibility now rests on Dr Wortle.”

There was a great deal in this that made the Doctor very angry — so angry that he did not know how to restrain himself. The matter had been argued as though he had employed the clergyman in his church after he had known the history. “For aught I know,” he said to Mrs Wortle, “any curate coming to me might have three wives, all alive.”

“That would be most improbable,” said Mrs Wortle.

“So was all this improbable — just as improbable. Nothing could be more improbable. Do we not all feel overcome with pity for the poor woman because she encountered trouble that was so improbable? How much more improbable was it that I should come across a clergyman who had encountered such improbabilities.” In answer to this Mrs Wortle could only shake her head, not at all understanding the purport of her husband’s argument.

But what was said about his school hurt him more than what was said about his church. In regard to his church he was impregnable. Not even the Bishop could touch him — or even annoy him much. But this “penny-a-liner,” as the Doctor indignantly called him, had attacked him in his tenderest point. After declaring that he did not intend to meddle with the school, he had gone on to point out that an immoral person had been employed there, and had then invited all parents to take away their sons. “He doesn’t know what moral and immoral means,” said the Doctor, again pleading his own case to his own wife. “As far as I know, it would be hard to find a man of a higher moral feeling than Mr Peacocke, or a woman than his wife.”

“I suppose they ought to have separated when it was found out,” said Mrs Wortle.

“No, no,” he shouted; I hold that they were right. He was right to cling to her, and she was bound to obey him. Such a fellow as that,’ — and he crushed the paper up in his hand in his wrath, as though he were crushing the editor himself — “such a fellow as that knows nothing of morality, nothing of honour, nothing of tenderness. What he did I would have done, and I’ll stick to him through it all in spite of the Bishop, in spite of the newspapers, and in spite of all the rancour of all my enemies.” Then he got up and walked about the room in such a fury that his wife did not dare to speak to him. Should he or should he not answer the newspaper? That was a question which for the first two days after he had read the article greatly perplexed him. He would have been very ready to advise any other man what to do in such a case. “Never notice what may be written about you in a newspaper,” he would have said. Such is the advice which a man always gives to his friend. But when the case comes to himself he finds it sometimes almost impossible to follow it. “What’s the use? Who cares what the “Broughton Gazette” says? let it pass, and it will be forgotten in three days. If you stir the mud yourself, it will hang about you for months. It is just what they want you to do. They cannot go on by themselves, and so the subject dies away from them; but if you write rejoinders they have a contributor working for them for nothing, and one whose writing will be much more acceptable to their readers than any that comes from their own anonymous scribes. It is very disagreeable to be worried like a rat by a dog; but why should you go into the kennel and unnecessarily put yourself in the way of it?” The Doctor had said this more than once to clerical friends who were burning with indignation at something that had been written about them. But now he was burning himself, and could hardly keep his fingers from pen and ink.

In this emergency he went to Mr Puddicombe, not, as he said to himself, for advice, but in order that he might hear what Mr Puddicombe would have to say about it. He did not like Mr Puddicombe, but he believed in him — which was more than he quite did with the Bishop. Mr Puddicombe would tell him his true thoughts. Mr Puddicombe would be unpleasant very likely; but he would be sincere and friendly. So he went to Mr Puddicombe. “It seems to me,” he said, “almost necessary that I should answer such allegations as these for the sake of truth.”

“You are not responsible for the truth of the “Broughton Gazette,”” said Mr Puddicombe.

“But I am responsible to a certain degree that false reports shall not be spread abroad as to what is done in my church.”

“You can contradict nothing that the newspaper has said.”

“It is implied,” said the Doctor, that I allowed Mr Peacocke to preach in my church after I knew his marriage was informal.”

“There is no such statement in the paragraph,” said Mr Puddicombe, after attentive reperusal of the article. “The writer has written in a hurry, as such writers generally do, but has made no statement such as you presume. Were you to answer him, you could only do so by an elaborate statement of the exact facts of the case. It can hardly be worth your while, in defending yourself against the “Broughton Gazette,” to tell the whole story in public of Mr Peacocke’s life and fortunes.”

“You would pass it over altogether?”

“Certainly I would.”

“And so acknowledge the truth of all that the newspaper says.”

“I do not know that the paper says anything untrue,” said Mr Puddicombe, not looking the Doctor in the face, with his eyes turned to the ground, but evidently with the determination to say what he thought, however unpleasant it might be. “The fact is that you have fallen into a — misfortune.”

“I don’t acknowledge it at all,” said the Doctor.

“All your friends at any rate will think so, let the story be told as it may. It was a misfortune, that this lady whom you had taken into your establishment should have proved not to be the gentleman’s wife. When I am taking a walk through the fields and get one of my feet deeper than usual into the mud, I always endeavour to bear it as well as I may before the eyes of those who meet me rather than make futile efforts to get rid of the dirt and look as though nothing had happened. The dirt, when it is rubbed and smudged and scraped, is more palpably dirt than the honest mud.”

“I will not admit that I am dirty at all,” said the Doctor.

“Nor do I, in the case which I describe. I admit nothing; but I let those who see me form their own opinion. If anyone asks me about my boot I tell him that it is a matter of no consequence. I advise you to do the same. You will only make the smudges more palpable if you write to the “Broughton Gazette.””

“Would you say nothing to the boys’ parents?” asked the Doctor.

“There, perhaps, I am not a judge, as I never kept a school — but I think not. If any father writes to you, then tell him the truth.”

If the matter had gone no farther than this, the Doctor might probably have left Mr Puddicombe’s house with a sense of thankfulness for the kindness rendered to him; but he did go farther, and endeavoured to extract from his friend some sense of the injustice shown by the Bishop, the Stantiloups, the newspaper, and his enemies in general through the diocese. But here he failed signally. “I really think, Dr Wortle, that you could not have expected it otherwise.”

“Expect that people should lie?”

“I don’t know about lies. If people have told lies I have not seen them or heard them. I don’t think the Bishop has lied.”

“I don’t mean the Bishop; though I do think that he has shown a great want of what I may call liberality towards a clergyman in his diocese.”

“No doubt he thinks you have been wrong. By liberality you mean sympathy. Why should you expect him to sympathise with your wrongdoing?”

“What have I done wrong?”

“You have countenanced immorality and deceit in a brother clergyman.”

“I deny it,” said the Doctor, rising up impetuously from his chair.

“Then I do not understand the position, Dr Wortle. That is all I can say.”

“To my thinking, Mr Puddicombe, I never came across a better man than Mr Peacocke in my life.”

“I cannot make comparisons. As to the best man I ever met in my life I might have to acknowledge that even he had done wrong in certain circumstances. As the matter is forced upon me, I have to express my opinion that a great sin was committed both by the man and by the woman. You not only condone the sin, but declare both by your words and deeds that you sympathise with the sin as well as with the sinners. You have no right to expect that the Bishop will sympathise with you in that — nor can it be but that in such a country as this the voices of many will be loud against you.”

“And yours as loud as any,” said the Doctor, angrily.

“That is unkind and unjust,” said Mr Puddicombe. What I have said, I have said to yourself, and not to others; and what I have said, I have said in answer to questions asked by yourself.” Then the Doctor apologised with what grace he could. But when he left the house his heart was still bitter against Mr Puddicombe.

He was almost ashamed of himself as he rode back to Bowick — first, because he had condescended to ask advice, and then because, after having asked it, he had been so thoroughly scolded. There was no one whom Mr Puddicombe would admit to have been wrong in the matter except the Doctor himself. And yet though he had been so counselled and so scolded, he had found himself obliged to apologise before he left the house! And, too, he had been made to understand that he had better not rush into print. Though the “Broughton Gazette” should come to the attack again and again, he must hold his peace. That reference to Mr Puddicombe’s dirty boot had convinced him. He could see the thoroughly squalid look of the boot that had been scraped in vain, and appreciate the wholesomeness of the unadulterated mud. There was more in the man than he had ever acknowledged before. There was a consistency in him, and a courage, and an honesty of purpose. But there was no softness of heart. Had there been a grain of tenderness there, he could not have spoken so often as he had done of Mrs Peacocke without expressing some grief at the unmerited sorrows to which that poor lady had been subjected.

His own heart melted with ruth as he thought, while riding home, of the cruelty to which she had been and was subjected. She was all alone there, waiting, waiting, waiting, till the dreary days should have gone by. And if no good news should come, if Mr Peacocke should return with tidings that her husband was alive and well, what should she do then? What would the world then have in store for her? “If it were me,” said the Doctor to himself, “I’d take her to some other home and treat her as my wife in spite of all the Puddicombes in creation — in spite of all the bishops.”

The Doctor, though he was a self-asserting and somewhat violent man, was thoroughly soft-hearted. It is to be hoped that the reader has already learned as much as that — a man with a kind, tender, affectionate nature. It would perhaps be unfair to raise a question whether he would have done as much, been so willing to sacrifice himself, for a plain woman. Had Mr Stantiloup, or Sir Samuel Griffin if he had suddenly come again to life, been found to have prior wives also living, would the Doctor have found shelter for them in their ignominy and trouble? Mrs Wortle, who knew her husband thoroughly, was sure that he would not have done so. Mrs Peacocke was a very beautiful woman, and the Doctor was a man who thoroughly admired beauty. To say that Mrs Wortle was jealous would be quite untrue. She liked to see her husband talking to a pretty woman, because he would be sure to be in a good humour and sure to make the best of himself. She loved to see him shine. But she almost wished that Mrs Peacocke had been ugly, because there would not then have been so much danger about the school.

“I’m just going up to see her,” said the Doctor, as soon as he got home — “just to ask her what she wants.”

“I don’t think she wants anything,” said Mrs Wortle, weakly.

“Does she not? She must be a very odd woman if she can live there all day alone, and not want to see a human creature.”

“I was with her yesterday.”

“And therefore I will call today,” said the Doctor, leaving the room with his hat on.

When he was shown up into the sitting-room he found Mrs Peacocke with a newspaper in her hand. He could see at a glance that it was a copy of the “Broughton Gazette,” and could see also the length and outward show of the very article which he had been discussing with Mr Puddicombe. “Dr Wortle,” she said, if you don’t mind, I will go away from this.”

“But I do mind. Why should you go away?”

“They have been writing about me in the newspapers.”

“That was to be expected.”

“But they have been writing about you.”

“That was to have been expected also. You don’t suppose they can hurt me?” This was a false boast, but in such conversations he was almost bound to boast.

“It is I, then, am hurting you?”

“You — oh dear, no; not in the least.”

“But I do. They talk of boys going away from the school.”

“Boys will go and boys will come, but we run on for ever,” said the Doctor, playfully.

“I can well understand that it should be so,” said Mrs Peacocke, passing over the Doctor’s parody as though unnoticed; “and I perceive that I ought not to be here.”

“Where ought you to be, then?” said he, intending simply to carry on his joke.

“Where indeed! There is nowhere. But wherever I may do least injury to innocent people — to people who have not been driven by storms out of the common path of life. For this place I am peculiarly unfit.”

“Will you find any place where you will be made more welcome?”

“I think not.”

“Then let me manage the rest. You have been reading that dastardly article in the paper. It will have no effect upon me. Look here, Mrs Peacocke;’ — then he got up and held her hand as though he were going, but he remained some moments while he was still speaking to her — still holding her hand — “it was settled between your husband and me, when he went away, that you should remain here under my charge till his return. I am bound to him to find a home for you. I think you are as much bound to obey him — which you can only do by remaining here.”

“I would wish to obey him, certainly.”

“You ought to do so — from the peculiar circumstances more especially. Don’t trouble your mind about the school, but do as he desired. There is no question but that you must do so. Goodbye. Mrs Wortle or I will come and see you tomorrow.” Then, and not till then, he dropped her hand.

On the next day Mrs Wortle did call, though these visits were to her an intolerable nuisance. But it was certainly better that she should alternate the visits with the Doctor than that he should go every day. The Doctor had declared that charity required that one of them should see the poor woman daily. He was quite willing that they should perform the task day and day about — but should his wife omit the duty he must go in his wife’s place. What would all the world of Bowick say if the Doctor were to visit a lady, a young and a beautiful lady, every day, whereas his wife visited the lady not at all? Therefore they took it turn about, except that sometimes the Doctor accompanied his wife. The Doctor had once suggested that his wife should take the poor lady out in her carriage. But against this even Mrs Wortle had rebelled. “Under such circumstances as hers she ought not to be seen driving about,” said Mrs Wortle. The Doctor had submitted to this, but still thought that the world of Bowick was very cruel.

Mrs Wortle, though she made no complaint, thought that she was used cruelly in the matter. There had been an intention of going into Brittany during these summer holidays. The little tour had been almost promised. But the affairs of Mrs Peacocke were of such a nature as not to allow the Doctor to be absent. “You and Mary can go, and Henry will go with you.” Henry was a bachelor brother of Mrs Wortle, who was always very much at the Doctor’s disposal, and at hers. But certainly she was not going to quit England, not going to quit home at all, while her husband remained there, and while Mrs Peacocke was an inmate of the school. It was not that she was jealous. The idea was absurd. But she knew very well what Mrs Stantiloup would say.

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