Dr. Wortle's school, by Anthony Trollope

Mrs Wortle and Mr Puddicombe

In this way nothing was said at the first telling of the story to decide the fate of the schoolmaster and of the lady whom we shall still call his wife. There certainly had been no horror displayed by the Doctor. “Whether you can remain here is another question.” The Doctor, during the whole interview, had said nothing harder than that. Mr Peacocke, as he left the rectory, did feel that the Doctor had been very good to him. There had not only been no horror, but an expression of the kindest sympathy. And as to the going, that was left in doubt. He himself felt that he ought to go — but it would have been so very sad to have to go without a friend left with whom he could consult as to his future condition!

“He has been very kind, then?” said Mrs Peacocke to her husband when he related to her the particulars of the interview.

“Very kind.”

“And he did not reproach you.”

“Not a word.”

“Nor me?”

“He declared that had it been he who was in question he would have clung to you for ever and ever.”

“Did he? Then will he leave us here?”

“That does not follow. I should think not. He will know that others must know it. Your brother-in-law will not tell him only. Lefroy, when he finds that he can get no money here, from sheer revenge will tell the story everywhere. When he left the rectory, he was probably as angry with the Doctor as he is with me. He will do all the harm that he can to all of us.”

“We must go, then?”

“I should think so. Your position here would be insupportable even if it could be permitted. You may be sure of this — everybody will know it.”

“What do I care for everybody?” she said. It is not that I am ashamed of myself.”

“No, dearest; nor am I— ashamed of myself or of you. But there will be bitter words, and bitter words will produce bitter looks and scant respect. How would it be with you if the boys looked at you as though they thought ill of you?”

“They would not — oh, they would not!”

“Or the servants — if they reviled you?”

“Could it come to that?”

“It must not come to that. But it is as the Doctor said himself just now — a man cannot isolate the morals, the manners, the ways of his life from the morals of others. Men, if they live together, must live together by certain laws.”

“Then there can be no hope for us.”

“None that I can see, as far as Bowick is concerned. We are too closely joined in our work with other people. There is not a boy here with whose father and mother and sisters we are not more or less connected. When I was preaching in the church, there was not one in the parish with whom I was not connected. Would it do, do you think, for a priest to preach against drunkenness, whilst he himself was a noted drunkard?”

“Are we like that?”

“It is not what the drunken priest might think of himself, but what others might think of him. It would not be with us the position which we know that we hold together, but that which others would think it to be. If I were in Dr Wortle’s case, and another were to me as I am to him, I should bid him go.”

“You would turn him away from you; him and his — wife?”

“I should. My first duty would be to my parish and to my school. If I could befriend him otherwise I would do so — and that is what I expect from Dr Wortle. We shall have to go, and I shall be forced to approve of our dismissal.”

In this way Mr Peacocke came definitely and clearly to a conclusion in his own mind. But it was very different with Dr Wortle. The story so disturbed him, that during the whole of that afternoon he did not attempt to turn his mind to any other subject. He even went so far as to send over to Mr Puddicombe and asked for some assistance for the afternoon service on the following day. He was too unwell, he said, to preach himself, and the one curate would have the two entire services unless Mr Puddicombe could help him. Could Mr Puddicombe come himself and see him on the Sunday afternoon? This note he sent away by a messenger, who came back with a reply, saying that Mr Puddicombe would himself preach in the afternoon, and would afterwards call in at the rectory.

For an hour or two before his dinner, the Doctor went out on horseback, and roamed about among the lanes, endeavouring to make up his mind. He was hitherto altogether at a loss as to what he should do in this present uncomfortable emergency. He could not bring his conscience and his inclination to come square together. And even when he counselled himself to yield to his conscience, his very conscience — a second conscience, as it were — revolted against the first. His first conscience told him that he owed a primary duty to his parish, a second duty to his school, and a third to his wife and daughter. In the performance of all these duties he would be bound to rid himself of Mr Peacocke. But then there came that other conscience, telling him that the man had been more “sinned against than sinning,’ — that common humanity required him to stand by a man who had suffered so much, and had suffered so unworthily. Then this second conscience went on to remind him that the man was pre-eminently fit for the duties which he had undertaken — that the man was a God-fearing, moral, and especially intellectual assistant in his school — that were he to lose him he could not hope to find anyone that would be his equal, or at all approaching to him in capacity. This second conscience went further, and assured him that the man’s excellence as a schoolmaster was even increased by the peculiarity of his position. Do we not all know that if a man be under a cloud the very cloud will make him more attentive to his duties than another? If a man, for the wages which he receives, can give to his employer high character as well as work, he will think that he may lighten his work because of his character. And as to this man, who was the very phoenix of school assistants, there would really be nothing amiss with his character if only this piteous incident as to his wife were unknown. In this way his second conscience almost got the better of the first.

But then it would be known. It would be impossible that it should not be known. He had already made up his mind to tell Mr Puddicombe, absolutely not daring to decide in such an emergency without consulting some friend. Mr Puddicombe would hold his peace if he were to promise to do so. Certainly he might be trusted to do that. But others would know it; the Bishop would know it; Mrs Stantiloup would know it. That man, of course, would take care that all Broughton, with its close full of cathedral clergymen, would know it. When Mrs Stantiloup should know it there would not be a boy’s parent through all the school who would not know it. If he kept the man he must keep him resolving that all the world should know that he kept him, that all the world should know of what nature was the married life of the assistant in whom he trusted. And he must be prepared to face all the world, confiding in the uprightness and the humanity of his purpose.

In such case he must say something of this kind to all the world; “I know that they are not married. I know that their condition of life is opposed to the law of God and man. I know that she bears a name that is not, in truth, her own; but I think that the circumstances in this case are so strange, so peculiar, that they excuse a disregard even of the law of God and man.” Had he courage enough for this? And if the courage were there, was he high enough and powerful enough to carry out such a purpose? Could he beat down the Mrs Stantiloups? And, indeed, could he beat down the Bishop and the Bishop’s phalanx — for he knew that the Bishop and the Bishop’s phalanx would be against him? They could not touch him in his living, because Mr Peacocke would not be concerned in the services of the church; but would not his school melt away to nothing in his hands, if he were to attempt to carry it on after this fashion? And then would he not have destroyed himself without advantage to the man whom he was anxious to assist?

To only one point did he make up his mind certainly during that ride. Before he slept that night he would tell the whole story to his wife. He had at first thought that he would conceal it from her. It was his rule of life to act so entirely on his own will, that he rarely consulted her on matters of any importance. As it was, he could not endure the responsibility of acting by himself. People would say of him that he had subjected his wife to contamination, and had done so without giving her any choice in the matter. So he resolved that he would tell his wife.

“Not married,” said Mrs Wortle, when she heard the story.

“Married; yes. They were married. It was not their fault that the marriage was nothing. What was he to do when he heard that they had been deceived in this way?”

“Not married properly! Poor woman!”

“Yes, indeed. What should I have done if such had happened to me when we had been six months married?”

“It couldn’t have been.”

“Why not to you as well as to another?”

“I was only a young girl.”

“But if you had been a widow?”

“Don’t, my dear; don’t! It wouldn’t have been possible.”

“But you pity her?”

“Oh yes.

“And you see that a great misfortune has fallen upon her, which she could not help?”

“Not till she knew it,” said the wife who had been married quite properly.

“And what then? What should she have done then?”

“Gone,” said the wife, who had no doubt as to the comfort, the beauty, the perfect security of her own position.

“Gone?”

“Gone away at once.”

“Whither should she go? Who would have taken her by the hand? Who would have supported her? Would you have had her lay herself down in the first gutter and die?”

“Better that than what she did do,” said Mrs Wortle.

“Then, by all the faith I have in Christ, I think you are hard upon her. Do you think what it is to have to go out and live alone — to have to look for your bread in desolation?”

“I have never been tried, my dear,” said she, clinging close to him. “I have never had anything but what was good.”

“Ought we not to be kind to one to whom Fortune has been so unkind?”

“If we can do so without sin.”

“Sin! I despise the fear of sin which makes us think that its contact will soil us. Her sin, if it be sin, is so near akin to virtue, that I doubt whether we should not learn of her rather than avoid her.”

“A woman should not live with a man unless she be his wife.” Mrs Wortle said this with more of obstinacy than he had expected.

“She was his wife, as far as she knew.”

“But when she knew that it was not so any longer — then she should have left him.”

“And have starved?”

“I suppose she might have taken bread from him.”

“You think, then, that she should go away from here?”

“Do not you think so? What will Mrs Stantiloup say?”

“And I am to turn them out into the cold because of a virago such as she is? You would have no more charity than that?”

“Oh, Jeffrey! what would the Bishop say?”

“Cannot you get beyond Mrs Stantiloup and beyond the Bishop, and think what Justice demands?”

“The boys would all be taken away. If you had a son, would you send him where there was a schoolmaster living — living — . Oh, you wouldn’t.”

It is very clear to the Doctor that his wife’s mind was made up on the subject; and yet there was no softer-hearted woman than Mrs Wortle anywhere in the diocese, or one less likely to be severe upon a neighbour. Not only was she a kindly, gentle woman, but she was one who always had been willing to take her husband’s opinion on all questions of right and wrong. She, however, was decided that they must go.

On the next morning, after service, which the schoolmaster did not attend, the Doctor saw Mr Peacocke, and declared his intention of telling the story to Mr Puddicombe. “If you bid me hold my tongue,” he said, “I will do so. But it will be better that I should consult another clergyman. He is a man who can keep a secret.” Then Mr Peacocke gave him full authority to tell everything to Mr Puddicombe. He declared that the Doctor might tell the story to whom he would. Everybody might know it now. He had, he said, quite made up his mind about that. What was the good of affecting secrecy when this man Lefroy was in the country?

In the afternoon, after service, Mr Puddicombe came up to the house, and heard it all. He was a dry, thin, apparently unsympathetic man, but just withal, and by no means given to harshness. He could pardon whenever he could bring himself to believe that pardon would have good results; but he would not be driven by impulses and softness of heart to save the faulty one from the effect of his fault, merely because that effect would be painful. He was a man of no great mental calibre — not sharp, and quick, and capable of repartee as was the Doctor, but rational in all things, and always guided by his conscience. “He has behaved very badly to you,” he said, when he heard the story.

“I do not think so; I have no such feeling myself.”

“He behaved very badly in bringing her here without telling you all the facts. Considering the position that she was to occupy, he must have known that he was deceiving you.”

“I can forgive all that,” said the Doctor vehemently. “As far as I myself am concerned, I forgive everything.”

“You are not entitled to do so.”

“How — not entitled?”

“You must pardon me if I seem to take a liberty in expressing myself too boldly in this matter. Of course I should not do so unless you asked me.”

“I want you to speak freely — all that you think.”

“In considering his conduct, we have to consider it all. First of all there came a great and terrible misfortune which cannot but excite our pity. According to his own story, he seems, up to that time, to have been affectionate and generous.”

“I believe every word of it,” said the Doctor.

“Allowing for a man’s natural bias on his own side, so do I. He had allowed himself to become attached to another man’s wife; but we need not, perhaps, insist upon that.” The Doctor moved himself uneasily in his chair, but said nothing. “We will grant that he put himself right by his marriage, though in that, no doubt, there should have been more of caution. Then came his great misfortune. He knew that his marriage had been no marriage. He saw the man and had no doubt.”

“Quite so; quite so,” said the Doctor, impatiently.

“He should, of course, have separated himself from her. There can be no doubt about it. There is no room for any quibble.”

“Quibble!” said the Doctor.

“I mean that no reference in our own minds to the pity of the thing, to the softness of the moment — should make us doubt about it. Feelings such as these should induce us to pardon sinners, even to receive them back into our friendship and respect — when they have seen the error of their ways and have repented.”

“You are very hard.”

“I hope not. At any rate I can only say as I think. But, in truth, in the present emergency you have nothing to do with all that. If he asked you for counsel you might give it to him, but that is not his present position. He has told you his story, not in a spirit of repentance, but because such telling had become necessary.”

“He would have told it all the same though this man had never come.”

“Let us grant that it is so, there still remains his relation to you. He came here under false pretences, and has done you a serious injury.”

“I think not,” said the Doctor.

“Would you have taken him into your establishment had you known it all before? Certainly not. Therefore I say that he has deceived you. I do not advise you to speak to him with severity; but he should, I think, be made to know that you appreciate what he has done.”

“And you would turn him off — send him away at once, out about his business?”

“Certainly I would send him away.”

“You think him such a reprobate that he should not be allowed to earn his bread anywhere?”

“I have not said so. I know nothing of his means of earning his bread. Men living in sin earn their bread constantly. But he certainly should not be allowed to earn his here.”

“Not though that man who was her husband should now be dead, and he should again marry — legally marry — this woman to whom he has been so true and loyal?”

“As regards you and your school,” said Mr Puddicombe, “I do not think it would alter his position.”

With this the conference ended, and Mr Puddicombe took his leave. As he left the house the Doctor declared to himself that the man was a strait-laced, fanatical, hard-hearted bigot. But though he said so to himself, he hardly thought so; and was aware that the man’s words had had effect upon him.

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