Dr. Wortle's school, by Anthony Trollope

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 anyone 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 St 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-looking 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 eyebrows 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 bedside, 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 anyone. “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 or 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.

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