Dr. Wortle's school, by Anthony Trollope

Mr Peacocke’s Return

The Earl’s rejoinder to the Doctor was very short: “So let it be.” There was not another word in the body of the letter; but there was appended to it a postscript almost equally short; “Lady Bracy will write to Mary and settle with her some period for her visit.” And so it came to be understood by the Doctor, by Mrs Wortle, and by Mary herself, that Mary was engaged to Lord Carstairs.

The Doctor, having so far arranged the matter, said little or nothing more on the subject, but turned his mind at once to that other affair of Mr and Mrs Peacocke. It was evident to his wife, who probably alone understood the buoyancy of his spirit and its corresponding susceptibility to depression, that he at once went about Mr Peacocke’s affairs with renewed courage. Mr Peacocke should resume his duties as soon as he was remarried, and let them see what Mrs Stantiloup or the Bishop would dare to say then! It was impossible, he thought, that parents would be such asses as to suppose that their boys’ morals could be affected to evil by connection with a man so true, so gallant, and so manly as this. He did not at this time say anything further as to abandoning the school, but seemed to imagine that the vacancies would get themselves wed up as in the course of nature. He ate his dinner again as though he liked it, and abused the Liberals, and was anxious about the grapes and peaches, as was always the case with him when things were going well. All this, as Mrs Wortle understood, had come to him from the brilliancy of Mary’s prospects.

But though he held his tongue on the subject, Mrs Wortle did not. She found it absolutely impossible not to talk of it when she was alone with Mary, or alone with the Doctor. As he counselled her not to make Mary think too much about it, she was obliged to hold her peace when both were with her; but with either of them alone she was always full of it. To the Doctor she communicated all her fears and all her doubts, showing only too plainly that she would be altogether broken-hearted if anything should interfere with the grandeur and prosperity which seemed to be partly within reach, but not altogether within reach of her darling child. If he, Carstairs, should prove to be a recreant young lord! If Aristotle and Socrates should put love out of his heart! If those other wicked young lords at Christ-Church were to teach him that it was a foolish thing for a young lord to become engaged to his tutor’s daughter before he had taken his degree! If some better born young lady were to come in his way and drive Mary out of his heart! No more lovely or better girl could be found to do so — of that she was sure. To the latter assertion the Doctor agreed, telling her that, as it was so, she ought to have a stronger trust in her daughter’s charms — telling her also, with somewhat sterner voice, that she should not allow herself to be so disturbed by the glories of the Bracy coronet. In this there was, I think, some hypocrisy. Had the Doctor been as simple as his wife in showing her own heart, it would probably have been found that he was as much set upon the coronet as she.

Then Mrs Wortle would carry the Doctor’s wisdom to her daughter. “Papa says, my dear, that you shouldn’t think of it too much.”

“I do think of him, mamma. I do love him now, and of course I think of him.”

“Of course you do, my dear — of course you do. How should you not think of him when he is all in all to you? But papa means that it can hardly be called an engagement yet.”

“I don’t know what it should be called; but of course I love him. He can change it if he likes.”

“But you shouldn’t think of it, knowing his rank and wealth.”

“I never did, mamma; but he is what he is, and I must think of him.”

Poor Mrs Wortle did not know what special advice to give when this declaration was made. To have held her tongue would have been the wisest, but that was impossible to her. Out of the full heart the mouth speaks, and her heart was very full of Lord Carstairs and of Carstairs House, and of the diamonds which her daughter would certainly be called upon to wear before the Queen — if only that young man would do his duty.

Poor Mary herself probably had the worst of it. No provision was made either for her to see her lover or to write to him. The only interview which had ever taken place between them as lovers was that on which she had run by him into the house, leaving him, as the Earl had said, planted on the terrace. She had never been able to whisper one single soft word into his ear, to give him even one touch of her fingers in token of her affection. She did not in the least know when she might be allowed to see him — whether it had not been settled among the elders that they were not to see each other as real lovers till he should have taken his degree — which would be almost in a future world, so distant seemed the time. It had been already settled that she was to go to Carstairs in the middle of November and stay till the middle of December; but it was altogether settled that her lover was not to be at Carstairs during the time. He was to be at Oxford then, and would be thinking only of his Greek and Latin — or perhaps amusing himself, in utter forgetfulness that he had a heart belonging to him at Bowick Parsonage. In this way Mary, though no doubt she thought the most of it all, had less opportunity of talking of it than either her father or her mother.

In the mean time Mr Peacocke was coming home. The Doctor, as soon as he heard that the day was fixed, or nearly fixed, being then, as has been explained, in full good humour with all the world except Mrs Stantiloup and the Bishop, bethought himself as to what steps might best be taken in the very delicate matter in which he was called upon to give advice. He had declared at first that they should be married at his own parish church; but he felt that there would be difficulties in this. “She must go up to London and meet him there,” he said to Mrs Wortle. “And he must not show himself here till he brings her down as his actual wife.” Then there was very much to be done in arranging all this. And something to be done also in making those who had been his friends, and perhaps more in making those who had been his enemies, understand exactly how the matter stood. Had no injury been inflicted upon him, as though he had done evil to the world in general in befriending Mr Peacocke, he would have been quite willing to pass the matter over in silence among his friends; but as it was he could not afford to hide his own light under a bushel. He was being punished almost to the extent of ruin by the cruel injustice which had been done him by the evil tongue of Mrs Stantiloup, and, as he thought, by the folly of the Bishop. He must now let those who had concerned themselves know as accurately as he could what he had done in the matter, and what had been the effect of his doing. He wrote a letter, therefore, which was not, however, to be posted till after the Peacocke marriage had been celebrated, copies of which he prepared with his own hand in order that he might send them to the Bishop and to Lady Anne Clifford, and to Mr Talbot and — not, indeed, to Mrs Stantiloup, but to Mrs Stantiloup’s husband. There was a copy also made for Mr Momson, though in his heart he despised Mr Momson thoroughly. In this letter he declared the great respect which he had entertained, since he had first known them, both for Mr and Mrs Peacocke, and the distress which he had felt when Mr Peacocke had found himself obliged to explain to him the facts — the facts which need not be repeated, because the reader is so well acquainted with them. “Mr Peacocke”, he went on to say, has since been to America, and has found that the man whom he believed to be dead when he married his wife, has died since his calamitous reappearance. Mr Peacocke has seen the man’s grave, with the stone on it bearing his name, and has brought back with him certificates and evidence as to his burial.

“Under these circumstances, I have no hesitation in re-employing both him and his wife; and I think that you will agree that I could not do less. I think you will agree, also, that in the whole transaction I have done nothing of which the parent of any boy entrusted to me has a right to complain.”

Having done this, he went up to London, and made arrangements for having the marriage celebrated there as soon as possible after the arrival of Mr Peacocke. And on his return to Bowick, he went off to Mr Puddicombe with a copy of his letter in his pocket. He had not addressed a copy to his friend, nor had he intended that one should be sent to him. Mr Puddicombe had not interfered in regard to the boys, and had, on the whole, shown himself to be a true friend. There was no need for him to advocate his cause to Mr Puddicombe. But it was right, he thought, that that gentleman should know what he did; and it might be that he hoped that he would at length obtain some praise from Mr Puddicombe. But Mr Puddicombe did not like the letter. “It does not tell the truth,” he said.

“Not the truth!”

“Not the whole truth.”

“As how! Where have I concealed anything?”

“If I understand the question rightly, they who have thought proper to take their children away from your school because of Mr Peacocke have done so because that gentleman continued to live with that lady when they both knew that they were not man and wife.”

“That wasn’t my doing.”

“You condoned it. I am not condemning you. You condoned it, and now you defend yourself in this letter. But in your defence you do not really touch the offence as to which you are, according to your own showing, accused. In telling the whole story, you should say: “They did live together though they were not married — and, under all the circumstances, I did not think that they were on that account unfit to be left in charge of my boys.””

“But I sent him away immediately — to America.”

“You allowed the lady to remain.”

“Then what would you have me say?” demanded the Doctor.

“Nothing,” said Mr Puddicombe — not a word. Live it down in silence. There will be those, like myself, who, though they could not dare to say that in morals you were strictly correct, will love you the better for what you did.” The Doctor turned his face towards the dry, hard-looking man and showed that there was a tear in each of his eyes. “There are few of us not so infirm as sometimes to love best that which is not best. But when a man is asked a downright question, he is bound to answer the truth.”

“You would say nothing in your own defence.”

“Not a word. You know the French proverb: “Who excuses himself is his own accuser.” The truth generally makes its way. As far as I can see, a slander never lives long.”

“Ten of my boys are gone!” said the Doctor, who had not hitherto spoken a word of this to anyone out of his own family — “ten out of twenty.”

“That will only be a temporary loss.”

“That is nothing — nothing. It is the idea that the school should be failing.”

“They will come again. I do not believe that that letter would bring a boy. I am almost inclined to say, Dr Wortle, that a man should never defend himself.”

“He should never have to defend himself.”

“It is much the same thing. But I’ll tell you what I’ll do, Dr Wortle — if it will suit your plans. I will go up with you and will assist at the marriage. I do not for a moment think that you will require any countenance, or that if you did, that I could give it you.

“No man that I know so efficiently.”

“But it may be that Mr Peacocke will like to find that the clergymen from his neighbourhood are standing with him.” And so it was settled, that when the day should come on which the Doctor would take Mrs Peacocke up with him to London, Mr Puddicombe was to accompany them.

The Doctor when he left Mr Puddicombe’s parsonage had by no means pledged himself not to send the letters. When a man has written a letter, and has taken some trouble with it, and more especially when he has copied it several times himself so as to have made many letters of it — when he has argued his point successfully to himself, and has triumphed in his own mind, as was likely to be the case with Dr Wortle in all that he did, he does not like to make waste paper of his letters. As he rode home he tried to persuade himself that he might yet use them. He could not quite admit his friend’s point. Mr Peacocke, no doubt, had known his own condition, and him a strict moralist might condemn. But he — he — Dr Wortle — had known nothing. All that he had done was not to condemn the other man when he did know!

Nevertheless as he rode into his own yard, he made up his mind that he would burn the letters. He had shown them to no one else. He had not even mentioned them to his wife. He could burn them without condemning himself in the opinion of anyone. And he burned them. When Mr Puddicombe found him at the station at Broughton as they were about to proceed to London with Mrs Peacocke, he simply whispered the fate of the letters. “After what you said I destroyed what I had written.”

“Perhaps it was as well,” said Mr Puddicombe.

When the telegram came to say that Mr Peacocke was at Liverpool, Mrs Peacocke was anxious immediately to rush up to London. But she was restrained by the Doctor — or rather by Mrs Wortle under the Doctor’s orders. “No, my dear; no. You must not go till all will be ready for you to meet him in the church. The Doctor says so.”

“Am I not to see him till he comes up to the altar?”

On this there was another consultation between Mrs Wortle and the Doctor, at which she explained how impossible it would be for the woman to go through the ceremony with due serenity and propriety of manner unless she should be first allowed to throw herself into his arms, and to welcome him back to her. “Yes,” she said, he can come and see you at the hotel on the evening before, and again in the morning — so that if there be a word to say you can say it. Then when it is over he will bring you down here. The Doctor and Mr Puddicombe will come down by a later train. Of course it is painful,” said Mrs Wortle, “but you must bear up. To her it seemed to be so painful that she was quite sure that she could not have borne it. To be married for the third time, and for the second time to the same husband! To Mrs Peacocke, as she thought of it, the pain did not so much rest in that, as in the condition of life which these things had forced upon her.

“I must go up to town tomorrow, and must be away for two days,” said the Doctor out loud in the school, speaking immediately to one of the ushers, but so that all the boys present might hear him. “I trust that we shall have Mr Peacocke with us the day after tomorrow.”

“We shall be very glad of that,” said the usher.

“And Mrs Peacocke will come and eat her dinner again like before?” asked a little boy.

“I hope so, Charley.”

“We shall like that, because she has to eat it all by herself now.”

All the school, down even to Charley, the smallest boy in it, knew all about it. Mr Peacocke had gone to America, and Mrs Peacocke was going up to London to be married once more to her own husband — and the Doctor and Mr Puddicombe were both going to marry them. The usher of course knew the details more clearly than that — as did probably the bigger boys. There had even been a rumour of the photograph which had been seen by one of the maid-servants — who had, it is to be feared, given the information to the French teacher. So much, however, the Doctor had felt it wise to explain, not thinking it well that Mr Peacocke should make his reappearance among them without notice.

On the afternoon of the next day but one, Mr and Mrs Peacocke were driven up to the school in one of the Broughton flys. She went quickly up into her own house, when Mr Peacocke walked into the school. The boys clustered round him, and the three assistants, and every word said to him was kind and friendly — but in the whole course of his troubles there had never been a moment to him more difficult than this — in which he found it so nearly impossible to say anything or to say nothing. “Yes, I have been over very many miles since I saw you last.” This was an answer to young Talbot, who asked him whether he had not been a great traveller whilst he was away.

“In America,” suggested the French usher, who had heard of the photograph, and knew very well where it had been taken.

“Yes, in America.”

“All the way to San Francisco,” suggested Charley.

“All the way to San Francisco, Charley — and back again.”

“Yes; I know you’re come back again,” said Charley, “because I see you here.”

“There are only twenty boys this half,” said one of the twenty.

“Then I shall have more time to attend to you now.”

“I suppose so,” said the lad, not seeming to find any special consolation in that view of the matter.

Painful as this first re-introduction had been, there was not much more in it than that. No questions were asked, and no explanations expected. It may be that Mrs Stantiloup was affected with fresh moral horrors when she heard of the return, and that the Bishop said that the Doctor was foolish and headstrong as ever. It may be that there was a good deal of talk about it in the Close at Broughton. But at the school there was very little more said about it than what has been stated above.

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