Dr. Wortle's school, by Anthony Trollope

The Doctor Asks His Question

The Doctor, instigated by the Bishop, had determined to ask some questions of Mr Peacocke as to his American life. The promise had been given at the Palace, and the Doctor, as he returned home, repented himself in that he had made it. His lordship was a gossip, as bad as an old woman, as bad as Mrs Stantiloup, and wanted to know things in which a man should feel no interest. So said the Doctor to himself. What was it to him, the Bishop, or to him, the Doctor, what Mr Peacocke had been doing in America? The man’s scholarship was patent, his morals were unexceptional, his capacity for preaching undoubted, his peculiar fitness for his place at Bowick unquestionable. Who had a right to know more? That the man had been properly educated at Oxford, and properly ordained on entering his Fellowship, was doubted by no man. Even if there had been some temporary backslidings in America — which might be possible, for which of us have not backslided at some time of our life? — why should they be raked up? There was an uncharitableness in such a proceeding altogether opposed to the Doctor’s view of life. He hated severity. It may almost be said that he hated that state of perfection which would require no pardon. He was thoroughly human, quite content with his own present position, anticipating no millennium for the future of the world, and probably, in his heart, looking forward to heaven as simply the better alternative when the happiness of this world should be at an end. He himself was in no respect a wicked man, and yet a little wickedness was not distasteful to him.

And he was angry with himself in that he had made such a promise. It had been a rule of life with him never to take advice. The Bishop had his powers, within which he, as Rector of Bowick, would certainly obey the Bishop; but it had been his theory to oppose his Bishop, almost more readily than anyone else, should the Bishop attempt to exceed his power. The Bishop had done so in giving this advice, and yet he had promised. He was angry with himself, but did not on that account think that the promise should be evaded. Oh no! Having said that he would do it, he would do it. And having said that he would do it, the sooner that he did it the better. When three or four days had passed by, he despised himself because he had not yet made for himself a fit occasion. “It is such a mean, sneaking thing to do,” he said to himself. But still it had to be done.

It was on a Saturday afternoon that he said this to himself, as he returned back to the parsonage garden from the cricket-ground, where he had left Mr Peacocke and the three other ushers playing cricket with ten or twelve of the bigger boys of the school. There was a French master, a German master, a master for arithmetic and mathematics with the adjacent sciences, besides Mr Peacocke, as assistant classical master. Among them Mr Peacocke was facile princeps in rank and supposed ability; but they were all admitted to the delights of the playground. Mr Peacocke, in spite of those years of his spent in America where cricket could not have been familiar to him, remembered well his old pastime, and was quite an adept at the game. It was ten thousand pities that a man should be disturbed by unnecessary questionings who could not only teach and preach, but play cricket also. But nevertheless it must be done. When, therefore, the Doctor entered his own house, he went into his study and wrote a short note to his assistant —

MY DEAR PEACOCKE

Could you come over and see me in my study this evening for half an hour? I have a question or two which I wish to ask you. Any hour you may name will suit me after eight.

Yours most sincerely, JEFFREY WORTLE

In answer to this there came a note to say that at half past eight Mr Peacocke would be with the Doctor.

At half past eight Mr Peacocke came. He had fancied, on reading the Doctor’s note that some further question would be raised as to money. The Doctor had declared that he could no longer accept gratuitous clerical service in the parish, and had said that he must look out for someone else if Mr Peacocke could not oblige him by allowing his name to be referred in the usual way to the Bishop. He had now determined to say, in answer to this, that the school gave him enough to do, and that he would much prefer to give up the church — although he would always be happy to take a part occasionally if he should be wanted. The Doctor had been sitting alone for the last quarter of an hour when his assistant entered the room, and had spent the time in endeavouring to arrange the conversation that should follow. He had come at last to a conclusion. He would let Mr Peacocke know exactly what had passed between himself and the Bishop, and would then leave it to his usher either to tell his own story as to his past life, or to abstain from telling it. He had promised to ask the question, and he would ask it; but he would let the man judge for himself whether any answer ought to be given.

“The Bishop has been bothering me about you, Peacocke,” he said, standing up with his back to the fireplace, as soon as the other man had shut the door behind him. The Doctor’s face was always expressive of his inward feelings, and at this moment showed very plainly that his sympathies were not with the Bishop.

“I’m sorry that his lordship should have troubled himself,” said the other, “as I certainly do not intend to take any part in his diocese.”

“We’ll sink that for the present,” said the Doctor. I won’t let that be mixed up with what I have got to say just now. You have taken a certain part in the diocese already, very much to my satisfaction. I hope it may be continued; but I won’t bother about that now. As far as I can see, you are just the man that would suit me as a colleague in the parish.” Mr Peacocke bowed, but remained silent. “The fact is”, continued the Doctor, that certain old women have got hold of the Bishop, and made him feel that he ought to answer their objections. That Mrs Stantiloup has a tongue as loud as the town-crier’s bell.”

“But what has Mrs Stantiloup to say about me?”

“Nothing, except in so far as she can hit me through you.”

“And what does the Bishop say?”

“He thinks that I ought to know something of your life during those five years you were in America.”

“I think so also,” said Mr Peacocke.

“I don’t want to know anything for myself. As far as I am concerned, I am quite satisfied. I know where you were educated, how you were ordained, and I can feel sure, from your present efficiency, that you cannot have wasted your time. If you tell me that you do not wish to say anything, I shall be contented, and I shall tell the Bishop that, as far as I am concerned, there must be an end of it.”

“And what will he do?” asked Mr Peacocke.

“Well; as far as the curacy is concerned, of course he can refuse his licence.”

“I have not the slightest intention of applying to his lordship for a licence.”

This the usher said with a tone of self-assertion which grated a little on the Doctor’s ear, in spite of his good humour towards the speaker. “I don’t want to go into that,” he said. A man never can say what his intentions may be six months hence.”

“But if I were to refuse to speak of my life in America,” said Mr Peacocke, “and thus to decline to comply with what I must confess would be no more than a rational requirement on your part, how then would it be with myself and my wife in regard to the school?”

“It would make no difference whatever,” said the Doctor.

“There is a story to tell,” said Mr Peacocke, very slowly.

“I am sure that it cannot be to your disgrace.”

“I do not say that it is — nor do I say that it is not. There may be circumstances in which a man may hardly know whether he has done right or wrong. But this I do know — that, had I done otherwise, I should have despised myself. I could not have done otherwise and have lived.”

“There is no man in the world”, said the Doctor, earnestly, “less anxious to pry into the secrets of others than I am. I take things as I find them. If the cook sends me up a good dish I don’t care to know how she made it. If I read a good book, I am not the less gratified because there may have been something amiss with the author.”

“You would doubt his teaching,” said Mr Peacocke, who had gone astray himself.”

“Then I must doubt all human teaching, for all men have gone astray. You had better hold your tongue about the past, and let me tell those who ask unnecessary questions to mind their own business.”

“It is very odd, Doctor,” said Mr Peacocke, that all this should have come from you just now.”

“Why odd just now?”

“Because I had been turning it in my mind for the last fortnight whether I ought not to ask you as a favour to listen to the story of my life. That I must do so before I could formally accept the curacy I had determined. But that only brought me to the resolution of refusing the office. I think — I think that, irrespective of the curacy, it ought to be told. But I have not quite made up my mind.”

“Do not suppose that I am pressing you.”

“Oh no; nor would your pressing me influence me. Much as I owe to your undeserved kindness and forbearance, I am bound to say that. Nothing can influence me in the least in such a matter but the well-being of my wife, and my own sense of duty. And it is a matter in which I can unfortunately take counsel from no one. She, and she alone, besides myself, knows the circumstances, and she is so forgetful of herself that I can hardly ask her for an opinion.”

The Doctor by this time had no doubt become curious. There was a something mysterious with which he would like to become acquainted. He was by no means a philosopher, superior to the ordinary curiosity of mankind. But he was manly, and even at this moment remembered his former assurances. “Of course,” said he, I cannot in the least guess what all this is about. For myself I hate secrets. I haven’t a secret in the world. I know nothing of myself which you mightn’t know too for all that I cared. But that is my good fortune rather than my merit. It might well have been with me as it is with you; but, as a rule, I think that where there is a secret it had better be kept. No one, at any rate, should allow it to be wormed out of him by the impertinent assiduity of others. If there be anything affecting your wife which you do not wish all the world on this side of the water to know, do not tell it to anyone on this side of the water.”

“There is something affecting my wife that I do not wish all the world to know.”

“Then tell it to no one,” said Dr Wortle, authoritatively.

“I will tell you what I will do,” said Mr Peacocke; I will take a week to think of it, and then I will let you know whether I will tell it or whether I will not; and if I tell it I will let you know also how far I shall expect you to keep my secret, and how far to reveal it. I think the Bishop will be entitled to know nothing about me unless I ask to be recognised as one of the clergy of his diocese.”

“Certainly not; certainly not,” said the Doctor. And then the interview was at an end.

Mr Peacocke, when he went away from the rectory, did not at once return to his own house, but went off for a walk alone. It was now nearly midsummer, and there was broad daylight till ten o’clock. It was after nine when he left the Doctor’s, but still there was time for a walk which he knew well through the fields, which would take him round by Bowick Wood, and home by a path across the squire’s park and by the church. An hour would do it, and he wanted an hour to collect his thoughts before he should see his wife, and discuss with her, as he would be bound to do, all that had passed between him and the Doctor. He had said that he could not ask her advice. In this there had been much of truth. But he knew also that he would do nothing as to which he had not received at any rate her assent. She, for his sake, would have annihilated herself, had that been possible. Again and again, since that horrible apparition had showed itself in her room at St Louis, she had begged that she might leave him — not on her own behalf, not from any dread of the crime that she was committing, not from shame in regard to herself should her secret be found out, but because she felt herself to be an impediment to his career in the world. As to herself, she had no pricks of conscience. She had been true to the man — brutal, abominable as he had been to her — until she had in truth been made to believe that he was dead; and even when he had certainly been alive — for she and seen him — he had only again seen her, again to desert her. Duty to him she could owe never. There was no sting of conscience with her in that direction. But to the other man she owed, as she thought, everything that could be due from a woman to a man. He had come within her ken, and had loved her without speaking of his love. He had seen her condition, and had sympathised with her fully. He had gone out, with his life in his hand — he, a clergyman, a quiet man of letters — to ascertain whether she was free; and finding her, as he believed, to be free, he had returned to take her to his heart, and to give her all that happiness which other women enjoy, but which she had hitherto only seen from a distance. Then the blow had come. It was necessary, it was natural, that she should be ruined by such a blow. Circumstances had ruined her. That fate had betaken her which so often falls upon a woman who trusts herself and her life to a man. But why should he fall also with her fall? There was still a career before him. He might be useful; he might be successful; he might be admired. Everything might still be open to him — except the love of another woman. As to that, she did not doubt his truth. Why should he be doomed to drag her with him as a log tied to his foot, seeing that a woman with a misfortune is condemned by the general voice of the world, whereas for a man to have stumbled is considered hardly more than a matter of course? She would consent to take from him the means of buying her bread; but it would be better — she had said — that she should eat it on her side of the water, while he might earn it on the other.

We know what had come of these arguments. He had hitherto never left her for a moment since that man had again appeared before their eyes. He had been strong in his resolution. If it were a crime, then he would be a criminal. If it were a falsehood, then would he be a liar. As to the sin, there had no doubt been some divergence of opinion between him and her. The teaching that he had undergone in his youth had been that with which we, here, are all more or less acquainted, and that had been strengthened in him by the fact of his having become a clergyman. She had felt herself more at liberty to proclaim to herself a gospel of her own for the guidance of her own soul. To herself she had never seemed to be vicious or impure, but she understood well that he was not equally free from the bonds which religion had imposed upon him. For his sake — for his sake, it would be better that she should be away from him.

All this was known to him accurately, and all this had to be considered by him as he walked across the squire’s park in the gloaming of the evening. No doubt — he now said to himself — the Doctor should have been made acquainted with his condition before he or she had taken their place at the school. Reticence under such circumstances had been a lie. Against his conscience there had been many pricks. Living in his present condition he certainly should not have gone up into that pulpit to preach the Word of God. Though he had been silent, he had known that the evil and the deceit would work round upon him. But now what should he do? There was only one thing on which he was altogether decided — nothing should separate them. As he had said so often before, he said again now — “If there be sin, let it be sin.” But this was clear to him — were he to give Dr Wortle a true history of what had happened to him in America, then must he certainly leave Bowick. And this was equally certain, that before telling his tale, he must make known his purpose to his wife.

But as he entered his own house he had determined that he would tell the Doctor everything.

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