Dr. Wortle's school, by Anthony Trollope

The Story is Told

During the whole of that morning the Doctor did not come into the school. The school hours lasted from half past nine to twelve, during a portion of which time it was his practice to be there. But sometimes, on a Saturday, he would be absent, when it was understood generally that he was preparing his sermon for the Sunday. Such, no doubt, might be the case now; but there was a feeling among the boys that he was kept away by some other reason. It was known that during the hour of morning school Mr Peacocke had been occupied with that uncouth stranger, and some of the boys might have observed that the uncouth stranger had not taken himself altogether away from the premises. There was at any rate a general feeling that the uncouth stranger had something to do with the Doctor’s absence.

Mr Peacocke did his best to go on with the work as though nothing had occurred to disturb the usual tenor of his way, and as far as the boys were aware he succeeded. He was just as clear about his Greek verbs, just as incisive about that passage of Caesar, as he would have been had Colonel Lefroy remained on the other side of the water. But during the whole time he was exercising his mind in that painful process of thinking of two things at once. He was determined that Caesar should be uppermost; but it may be doubted whether he succeeded. At that very moment. Colonel Lefroy might be telling the Doctor that his Ella was in truth the wife of another man. At that moment the Doctor might be deciding in his anger that the sinful and deceitful man should no longer be “officer of his”. The hour was too important to him to leave his mind at his own disposal. Nevertheless he did his best. “Clifford, junior,” he said, “I shall never make you understand what Caesar says here or elsewhere if you do not give your entire mind to Caesar.”

“I do give my entire mind to Caesar,” said Clifford, junior.

“Very well; now go on and try again. But remember that Caesar wants all your mind.” As he said this he was revolving in his own mind how he would face the Doctor when the Doctor should look at him in his wrath. If the Doctor were in any degree harsh with him, he would hold his own against the Doctor as far as the personal contest might go. At twelve the boys went out for an hour before their dinner, and Lord Carstairs asked him to play a game of rackets.

“Not today, my lord,” he said.

“Is anything wrong with you?”

“Yes, something is very wrong.” They had strolled out of the building, and were walking up and down the gravel terrace in front when this was said.

“I knew something was wrong, because you called me my lord.”

“Yes, something is so wrong as to alter for me all the ordinary ways of my life. But I wasn’t thinking of it. It came by accident — just because I am so troubled.”

“What is it?”

“There has been a man here — a man whom I knew in America.”

“An enemy?”

“Yes — an enemy. One who is anxious to do me all the injury he can.”

“Are you in his power, Mr Peacocke?”

“No, thank God; not that. I am in no man’s power. He cannot do me any material harm. Anything which may happen would have happened whether he had come or not. But I am unhappy.”

“I wish I knew.”

“So do I— with all my heart. I wish you knew; I wish you knew. I would that all the world knew. But we shall live through it, no doubt. And if we do not, what matter. “Nil conscire sibi — nulla pallescere culpa.” That is all that is necessary to a man. I have done nothing of which I repent — nothing that I would not do again; nothing of which I am ashamed to speak as far as the judgment of other men is concerned. Go, now. They are making up sides for cricket. Perhaps I can tell you more before the evening is over.”

Both Mr and Mrs Peacocke were accustomed to dine with the boys at one, when Carstairs, being a private pupil, only had his lunch. But on this occasion she did not come into the dining-room. “I don’t think I can today,” she said, when he bade her to take courage, and not be altered more than she could help, in her outward carriage, by the misery of her present circumstances. “I could not eat if I were there, and then they would look at me.”

“If it be so, do not attempt it. There is no necessity. What I mean is, that the less one shrinks the less will be the suffering. It is the man who shivers on the brink that is cold, and not he who plunges into the water. If it were over — if the first brunt of it were over, I could find means to comfort you.”

He went through the dinner, as he had done the Caesar, eating the roast mutton and the baked potatoes, and the great plateful of currant pie that was brought to him. He was fed and nourished, no doubt, but it may be doubtful whether he knew much of the flavour of what he ate. But before the dinner was quite ended, before he had said the grace which it was always his duty to pronounce, there came a message to him from the rectory. “The Doctor would be glad to see him as soon as dinner was done.” He waited very calmly till the proper moment should come for the grace, and then, very calmly, he took his way over to the house. He was certain now that Lefroy had been with the Doctor, because he was sent for considerably before the time fixed for the interview.

It was his chief resolve to hold his own before the Doctor. The Doctor, who could read a character well, had so read that of Mr Peacocke as to have been aware from the first that no censure, no fault-finding, would be possible if the connection were to be maintained. Other ushers, other curates, he had occasionally scolded. He had been very careful never even to seem to scold Mr Peacocke. Mr Peacocke had been aware of it too — aware that he could not endure it, and aware also that the Doctor avoided any attempt at it. He had known that, as a consequence of this, he was bound to be more than ordinarily prompt in the performance of all his duties. The man who will not endure censure has to take care that he does not deserve it. Such had been this man’s struggle, and it had been altogether successful. Each of the two understood the other, and each respected the other. Now their position must be changed. It was hardly possible, Mr Peacocke thought, as he entered the house, that he should not be rebuked with grave severity, and quite out of the question that he should bear any rebuke at all.

The library at the rectory was a spacious and handsome room, in the centre of which stood a large writing-table, at which the Doctor was accustomed to sit when he was at work — facing the door, with a bow-window at his right hand. But he rarely remained there when anyone was summoned into the room, unless someone were summoned with whom he meant to deal in a spirit of severity. Mr Peacocke would be there perhaps three or four times a week, and the Doctor would always get up from his chair and stand, or seat himself elsewhere in the room, and would probably move about with vivacity, being a fidgety man of quick motions, who sometimes seemed as though he could not hold his own body still for a moment. But now when Mr Peacocke entered the room he did not leave his place at the table. “Would you take a chair?” he said; “there is something that we must talk about.”

“Colonel Lefroy has been with you, I take it.”

“A man calling himself by that name has been here. Will you not take a chair?”

“I do not know that it will be necessary. What he has told you — what I suppose he has told you — is true.”

“You had better at any rate take a chair. I do not believe that what he has told me is true.”

“But it is.”

“I do not believe that what he has told me is true. Some of it cannot, I think, be true. Much of it is not so — unless I am more deceived in you than I ever was in any man. At any rate sit down.” Then the schoolmaster did sit down. “He has made you out to be a perjured, wilful, cruel bigamist.”

“I have not been such,” said Peacocke, rising from his chair.

“One who has been willing to sacrifice a woman to his passion.”

“No; no.”

“Who deceived her by false witnesses.”

“Never.”

“And who has now refused to allow her to see her own husband’s brother, lest she should learn the truth.”

“She is there — at any rate for you to see.”

“Therefore the man is a liar. A long story has to be told, as to which at present I can only guess what may be the nature, I presume the story will be the same as that you would have told had the man never come here.”

“Exactly the same, Dr Wortle.”

“Therefore you will own that I am right in asking you to sit down. The story may be very long — that is, if you mean to tell it.”

“I do — and did. I was wrong from the first in supposing that the nature of my marriage need be of no concern to others, but to herself and to me.”

“Yes — Mr Peacocke; yes. We are, all of us, joined together too closely to admit of isolation such as that.” There was something in this which grated against the schoolmaster’s pride, though nothing had been said as to which he did not know that much harder things must meet his ears before the matter could be brought to an end between him and the Doctor. The “Mister” had been prefixed to his name, which had been omitted for the last three or four months in the friendly intercourse which had taken place between them; and then, though it had been done in the form of agreeing with what he himself had said, the Doctor had made his first complaint by declaring that no man had a right to regard his own moral life as isolated from the lives of others around him. It was as much as to declare at once that he had been wrong in bringing this woman to Bowick, and calling her Mrs Peacocke. He had said as much himself, but that did not make the censure lighter when it came to him from the mouth of the Doctor. “But come,” said the Doctor, getting up from his seat at the table, and throwing himself into an easy chair, so as to mitigate the austerity of the position; “let us hear the true story. So big a liar as that American gentleman probably never put his foot in this room before.”

Then Mr Peacocke told the story, beginning with all those incidents of the woman’s life which had seemed to be so cruel both to him and to others at St Louis before he had been in any degree intimate with her. Then came the departure of the two men, and the necessity for pecuniary assistance, which Mr Peacocke now passed over lightly, saying nothing specially of the assistance which he himself had rendered. “And she was left quite alone?” asked the Doctor.

“Quite alone.”

“And for how long?”

“Eighteen months had passed before we heard any tidings. Then there came news that Colonel Lefroy was dead.”

“The husband?”

“We did not know which. They were both Colonels.”

“And then?”

“Did he tell you that I went down into Mexico?”

“Never mind what he told me. All that he told me were lies. What you tell me I shall believe. But tell me everything.”

There was a tone of complete authority in the Doctor’s voice, but mixed with this there was a kindliness which made the schoolmaster determined that he would tell everything as far as he knew how. “When I heard that one of them was dead, I went away down to the borders of Texas, in order that I might learn the truth.”

“Did she know that you were going?”

“Yes — I told her the day I started.”

“And you told her why?”

“That I might find out whether her husband were still alive.”

“But — “ The Doctor hesitated as he asked the next question. He knew, however, that it had to be asked, and went on with it. “Did she know that you loved her?” To this the other made no immediate answer. The Doctor was a man who, in such a matter, was intelligent enough, and he therefore put his question in another shape. “Had you told her that you loved her?”

“Never — while I thought that other man was living.”

“She must have guessed it,” said the Doctor.

“She might guess what she pleased. I told her that I was going, and I went.”

“And how was it, then?”

“I went, and after a time I came across the very man who is here now, this Robert Lefroy. I met him and questioned him, and he told me that his brother had been killed while fighting. It was a lie.”

“Altogether a lie?” asked the Doctor.

“How altogether?”

“He might have been wounded and given over for dead. The brother might have thought him to be dead.”

“I do not think so. I believe it to have been a plot in order that the man might get rid of his wife. But I believed it. Then I went back to St Louis — and we were married.”

“You thought there was no obstacle but what you might become man and wife legally?”

“I thought she was a widow.”

“There was no further delay?”

“Very little. Why should there have been delay?”

“I only ask.”

“She had suffered enough, and I had waited long enough.”

“She owed you a great deal,” said the Doctor.

“It was not a case of owing,” said Mr Peacocke. At least I think not. I think she had learnt to love me as I had learnt to love her.”

“And how did it go with you then?”

“Very well — for some months. There was nothing to mar our happiness — till one day he came and made his way into our presence.”

“The husband?”

“Yes; the husband, Ferdinand Lefroy, the elder brother — he of whom I had been told that he was dead; he was there standing before us, talking to us — half drunk, but still well knowing what he was doing.”

“Why had he come?”

“In want of money, I suppose — as this other one has come here.”

“Did he ask for money?”

“I do not think he did then, though he spoke of his poor condition. But on the next day he went away. We heard that he had taken the steamer down the river for New Orleans. We have never heard more of him from that day to this.”

“Can you imagine what caused conduct such as that?”

“I think money was given to him that night to go; but if so, I do not know by whom. I gave him none. During the next day or two I found that many in St Louis knew that he had been there.”

“They knew then that you — ”

“They knew that my wife was not my wife. That is what you mean to ask?” The Doctor nodded his head. “Yes, they knew that.”

“And what then?”

“Word was brought to me that she and I must part if I chose to keep my place at the College.”

“That you must disown her?”

“The President told me that it would be better that she should go elsewhere. How could I send her from me?”

“No, indeed — but as to the facts?”

“You know them all pretty well now. I could not send her from me. Nor could I go and leave her. Had we been separated then, because of the law or because of religion, the burden, the misery, the desolation, would all have been upon her.”

“I would have clung to her, let the law say what it might,” said the Doctor, rising from his chair.

“You would?”

“I would — and I think that I could have reconciled it to my God. But I might have been wrong,” he added; “I might have been wrong. I only say what I should have done.”

“It was what I did.”

“Exactly; exactly. We are both sinners. Both might have been wrong. Then you brought her over here, and I suppose I know the rest?”

“You know everything now,” said Mr Peacocke.

“And believe every word I have heard. Let me say that, if that may be any consolation to you. Of my friendship you may remain assured. Whether you can remain here is another question.”

“We are prepared to go.”

“You cannot expect that I should have thought it all out during the hearing of the story. There is much to be considered — very much. I can only say this, as between man and man, that no man ever sympathized with another more warmly than I do with you. You had better let me have till Monday to think about it.”

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