Dr. Wortle's school, by Anthony Trollope

“‘Amo’ in the Cool of the Evening”

The Doctor went up to London, and was told by his lawyers that an action for damages probably would lie. ““Amo” in the cool of the evening” certainly meant making love. There could be no doubt that allusion was made to Mrs Peacocke. To accuse a clergyman of a parish, and a schoolmaster, of making love to a lady so circumstanced as Mrs Peacocke, no doubt was libellous. Presuming that the libel could not be justified, he would probably succeed. “Justified!” said the Doctor, almost shrieking, to his lawyers; “I never said a word to the lady in my life except in pure kindness and charity. Every word might have been heard by all the world.” Nevertheless, had all the world been present, he would not have held her hand so tenderly or so long as he had done on a certain occasion which has been mentioned.

“They will probably apologise,” said the lawyer. Shall I be bound to accept their apology?”

“No; not bound; but you would have to show, if you went on with the action, that the damage complained of was of so grievous a nature that the apology would not salve it.”

“The damage has been already done,” said the Doctor, eagerly. “I have received the Bishop’s rebuke — a rebuke in which he has said that I have brought scandal upon the diocese.”

“Rebukes break no bones,” said the lawyer. Can you show that it will serve to prevent boys from coming to your school?”

“It may not improbably force me to give up the living. I certainly will not remain there subject to the censure of the Bishop. I do not in truth want any damages. I would not accept money. I only want to set myself right before the world.” It was then agreed that the necessary communication should be made by the lawyer to the newspaper proprietors, so as to put the matter in a proper train for the action.

After this the Doctor returned home, just in time to open his school with his diminished forces. At the last moment there was another defaulter, so that there were now no more than twenty pupils. The school had not been so low as this for the last fifteen years. There had never been less than eight-and-twenty before, since Mrs Stantiloup had first begun her campaign. It was heartbreaking to him. He felt as though he were almost ashamed to go into his own school. In directing his housekeeper to send the diminished orders to the tradesmen he was thoroughly ashamed of himself; in giving his directions to the usher as to the redivided classes he was thoroughly ashamed of himself. He wished that there was no school, and would have been contented now to give it all up, and to confine Mary’s fortune to 10,000 instead of 20,000, had it not been that he could not bear to confess that he was beaten. The boys themselves seemed almost to carry their tails between their legs, as though even they were ashamed of their own school. If, as was too probable, another half-dozen should go at Christmas, then the thing must be abandoned. And how could he go on as rector of the parish with the abominable empty building staring him in the face every moment of his life?

“I hope you are not really going to law,” said his wife to him.

“I must, my dear. I have no other way of defending my honour.”

“Go to law with the Bishop?”

“No, not with the Bishop.”

“But the Bishop would be brought into it?”

“Yes; he will certainly be brought into it.”

“And as an enemy. What I mean is, that he will be brought in very much against his own will.”

“Not a doubt about it,” said the Doctor. But he will have brought it altogether upon himself. How he can have condescended to send that scurrilous newspaper is more than I can understand. That one gentleman should have so treated another is to me incomprehensible. But that a bishop should have done so to a clergyman of his own diocese shakes all my old convictions. There is a vulgarity about it, a meanness of thinking, an aptitude to suspect all manner of evil, which I cannot fathom. What! did he really think that I was making love to the woman; did he doubt that I was treating her and her husband with kindness, as one human being is bound to treat another in affliction; did he believe, in his heart, that I sent the man away in order that I might have an opportunity for a wicked purpose of my own? It is impossible. When I think of myself and of him, I cannot believe it. That woman who has succeeded at last in stirring up all this evil against me — even she could not believe it. Her malice is sufficient to make her conduct intelligible — but there is no malice in the Bishop’s mind against me. He would infinitely sooner live with me on pleasant terms if he could justify his doing so to his conscience. He has been stirred to do this in the execution of some presumed duty. I do not accuse him of malice. But I do accuse him of a meanness of intellect lower than what I could have presumed to have been possible in a man so placed. I never thought him clever; I never thought him great; I never thought him even to be a gentleman, in the fullest sense of the word; but I did think he was a man. This is the performance of a creature not worthy to be called so.”

“Oh, Jeffrey, he did not believe all that.”

“What did he believe? When he read that article, did he see in it a true rebuke against a hypocrite, or did he see in it a scurrilous attack upon a brother clergyman, a neighbour, and a friend? If the latter, he certainly would not have been instigated by it to write to me such a letter as he did. He certainly would not have sent the paper to me had he felt it to contain a foul-mouthed calumny.”

“He wanted you to know what people of that sort were saying.”

“Yes; he wanted me to know that, and he wanted me to know also that the knowledge had come to me from my bishop. I should have thought evil of anyone who had sent me the vile ribaldry. But coming from him, it fills me with despair.”

“Despair!” she said, repeating his word.

“Yes; despair as to the condition of the Church when I see a man capable of such meanness holding so high place. ““Amo” in the cool of the evening”! That words such as those should have been sent to me by the Bishop, as showing what the “metropolitan press” of the day was saying about my conduct! Of course, my action will be against him — against the Bishop. I shall be bound to expose his conduct. What else can I do? There are things which a man cannot bear and live. Were I to put up with this I must leave the school, leave the parish — nay, leave the country. There is a stain upon me which I must wash out, or I cannot remain here.”

“No, no, no,” said his wife, embracing him.

““Amo” in the cool of the evening”! And that when, as God is my judge above me, I have done my best to relieve what has seemed to me the unmerited sorrows of two poor sufferers! Had it come from Mrs Stantiloup, it would, of course, have been nothing. I could have understood that her malice should have condescended to anything, however low. But from the Bishop!”

“How will you be the worse? Who will know?”

“I know it,” said he, striking his breast. I know it. The wound is here. Do you think that when a coarse libel is welcomed in the Bishop’s palace, and treated there as true, that it will not be spread abroad among other houses? When the Bishop has thought it necessary to send it me, what will other people do — others who are not bound to be just and righteous in their dealings with me as he is? ““Amo” in the cool of the evening”! Then he seized his hat and rushed out into the garden.

The gentleman who had written the paragraph certainly had had no idea that his words would have been thus effectual. The little joke had seemed to him to be good enough to fill a paragraph, and it had gone from him without further thought. Of the Doctor or of the lady he had conceived no idea whatsoever. Somebody else had said somewhere that a clergyman had sent a lady’s reputed husband away to look for another husband, while he and the lady remained together. The joke had not been much of a joke, but it had been enough. It had gone forth, and had now brought the whole palace of Broughton into grief, and had nearly driven our excellent Doctor mad! ““Amo” in the cool of the evening”! The words stuck to him like the shirt of Nessus, lacerating his very spirit. That words such as those should have been sent to him in a solemn sober spirit by the bishop of his diocese! It never occurred to him that he had, in truth, been imprudent when paying his visits alone to Mrs Peacocke.

It was late in the evening, and he wandered away up through the green rides of a wood the borders of which came down to the glebe fields. He had been boiling over with indignation while talking to his wife. But as soon as he was alone he endeavoured — purposely endeavoured to rid himself for a while of his wrath. This matter was so important to him that he knew well that it behoved him to look at it all round in a spirit other than that of anger. He had talked of giving up his school, and giving up his parish, and had really for a time almost persuaded himself that he must do so unless he could induce the Bishop publicly to withdraw the censure which he felt to have been expressed against him.

And then what would his life be afterwards? His parish and his school had not been only sources of income to him. The duty also had been dear, and had been performed on the whole with conscientious energy. Was everything to be thrown up, and his whole life hereafter be made a blank to him, because the Bishop had been unjust and injudicious? He could see that it well might be so, if he were to carry this contest on. He knew his own temper well enough to be sure that, as he fought, he would grow hotter in the fight, and that when he was once in the midst of it nothing would be possible to him but absolute triumph or absolute annihilation. If once he should succeed in getting the Bishop into court as a witness, either the Bishop must be crushed or he himself. The Bishop must be got to say why he had sent that low ribaldry to a clergyman in his parish. He must be asked whether he had himself believed it, or whether he had not believed it. He must be made to say that there existed no slightest reason for believing the insinuation contained; and then, having confessed so much, he must be asked why he had sent that letter to Bowick parsonage. If it were false as well as ribald, slanderous as well as vulgar, malicious as well as mean, was the sending of it a mode of communication between a bishop and a clergyman of which he as a bishop could approve? Questions such as these must be asked him; and the Doctor, as he walked alone, arranging these questions within his own bosom, putting them into the strongest language which he could find, almost assured himself that the Bishop would be crushed in answering them. The Bishop had made a great mistake. So the Doctor assured himself. He had been entrapped by bad advisers, and had fallen into a pit. He had gone wrong, and had lost himself. When cross-questioned, as the Doctor suggested to himself that he should be cross-questioned, the Bishop would have to own all this — and then he would be crushed.

But did he really want to crush the Bishop? Had this man been so bitter an enemy to him that, having him on the hip, he wanted to strike him down altogether? In describing the man’s character to his wife, as he had done in the fury of his indignation, he had acquitted the man of malice. He was sure now, in his calmer moments, that the man had not intended to do him harm. If it were left in the Bishop’s bosom, his parish, his school, and his character would all be made safe to him. He was sure of that. There was none of the spirit of Mrs Stantiloup in the feeling that had prevailed at the palace. The Bishop, who had never yet been able to be masterful over him, had desired in a mild way to become masterful. He had liked the opportunity of writing that affectionate letter. That reference to the “metropolitan press” had slipt from him unawares; and then, when badgered for his authority, when driven to give an instance from the London newspapers, he had sent the objectionable periodical. He had, in point of fact, made a mistake — a stupid, foolish mistake, into which a really well-bred man would hardly have fallen. “Ought I to take advantage of it?” said the Doctor to himself when he had wandered for an hour or more alone through the wood. He certainly did not wish to be crushed himself. Ought he to be anxious to crush the Bishop because of this error?

“As for the paper,” he said to himself, walking quicker as his mind turned to this side of the subject — “as for the paper itself, it is beneath my notice. What is it to me what such a publication, or even the readers of it, may think of me? As for damages, I would rather starve than soil my hands with their money. Though it should succeed in ruining me, I could not accept redress in that shape.” And thus having thought the matter fully over, he returned home, still wrathful, but with mitigated wrath.

A Saturday was fixed on which he should again go up to London to see the lawyer. He was obliged now to be particular about his days, as, in the absence of Mr Peacocke, the school required his time. Saturday was a half-holiday, and on that day he could be absent on condition of remitting the classical lessons in the morning. As he thought of it all he began to be almost tired of Mr Peacocke. Nevertheless, on the Saturday morning, before he started, he called on Mrs Peacocke — in company with his wife — and treated her with all his usual cordial kindness. “Mrs Wortle”, he said, is going up to town with me; but we shall be home tonight, and we will see you on Monday if not tomorrow.” Mrs Wortle was going with him, not with the view of being present at his interview with the lawyer, which she knew would not be allowed, but on the pretext of shopping. Her real reason for making the request to be taken up to town was, that she might use the last moment possible in mitigating her husband’s wrath against the Bishop.

“I have seen one of the proprietors and the editor”, said the lawyer, “and they are quite willing to apologise. I really do believe they are very sorry. The words had been allowed to pass without being weighed. Nothing beyond an innocent joke was intended.”

“I dare say. It seems innocent enough to them. If soot be thrown at a chimney-sweeper the joke is innocent, but very offensive when it is thrown at you.

“They are quite aware that you have ground to complain. Of course you can go on if you like. The fact that they have offered to apologise will no doubt be a point in their favour. Nevertheless you would probably get a verdict.”

“We could bring the Bishop into court?”

“I think so. You have got his letter speaking of the “metropolitan press”?”

“Oh yes.”

“It is for you to think, Dr Wortle, whether there would not be a feeling against you among clergymen.”

“Of course there will. Men in authority always have public sympathy with them in this country. No man more rejoices that it should be so than I do. But not the less is it necessary that now and again a man shall make a stand in his own defence. He should never have sent me that paper.”

“Here”, said the lawyer, is the apology they propose to insert if you approve of it. They will also pay my bill — which, however, will not, I am sorry to say, be very heavy.” Then the lawyer handed to the Doctor a slip of paper, on which the following words were written —

“Our attention has been called to a notice which was made in our impression of the — ultimo on the conduct of a clergyman in the diocese of Broughton. A joke was perpetrated which, we are sorry to find, has given offence where certainly no offence was intended. We have since heard all the details of the case to which reference was made, and are able to say that the conduct of the clergyman in question has deserved neither censure nor ridicule. Actuated by the purest charity he has proved himself a sincere friend to persons in great trouble.”

“They’ll put in your name if you wish it,” said the lawyer, “or alter it in any way you like, so that they be not made to eat too much dirt.”

“I do not want them to alter it,” said the Doctor, sitting thoughtfully. “Their eating dirt will do no good to me. They are nothing to me. It is the Bishop.” Then, as though he were not thinking of what he did, he tore the paper and threw the fragments down on the floor. “They are nothing to me.”

“You will not accept their apology?” said the lawyer.

“Oh yes — or rather, it is unnecessary. You may tell them that I have changed my mind, and that I will ask for no apology. As far as the paper is concerned, it will be better to let the thing die a natural death. I should never have troubled myself about the newspaper if the Bishop had not sent it to me. Indeed I had seen it before the Bishop sent it, and thought little or nothing of it. Animals will after their kind. The wasp stings, and the polecat stinks, and the lion tears its prey asunder. Such a paper as that of course follows its own bent. One would have thought that a bishop would have done the same.”

“I may tell them that the action is withdrawn?”

“Certainly; certainly. Tell them also that they will oblige me by putting in no apology. And as for your bill, I would prefer to pay it myself. I will exercise no anger against them. It is not they who in truth have injured me.” As he returned home he was not altogether happy, feeling that the Bishop would escape him; but he made his wife happy by telling her the decision to which he had come.

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