Mr Peacocke had been quite right in saying that the secret would at once be known through the whole diocese. It certainly was so before he had been gone a week, and it certainly was the case also that the diocese generally did not approve of the Doctor’s conduct. The woman ought not to have been left there. So said the diocese. It was of course the case, that though the diocese knew much, it did not know all. It is impossible to keep such a story concealed, but it is quite as impossible to make known all its details. In the eyes of the diocese the woman was of course the chief sinner, and the chief sinner was allowed to remain at the school! When this assertion was made to him the Doctor became very angry, saying that Mrs Peacocke did not remain at the school; that, according to the arrangement as at present made, Mrs Peacocke had nothing to do with the school; that the house was his own, and that he might lend it to whom he pleased. Was he to turn the woman out houseless, when her husband had gone, on such an errand, on his advice? Of course the house was his own, but as clergyman of the parish he had not a right to do what he liked with it. He had no right to encourage evil. And the man was not the woman’s husband. That was just the point made by the diocese. And she was at the school — living under the same roof with the boys! The diocese was clearly of opinion that all the boys would be taken away.
The diocese spoke by the voice of its bishop, as a diocese should do. Shortly after Mr Peacocke’s departure, the Doctor had an interview with his lordship, and told the whole story. The doing this went much against the grain with him, but he hardly dared not to do it. He felt that he was bound to do it on the part of Mrs Peacocke if not on his own. And then the man, who had now gone, though he had never been absolutely a curate, had preached frequently in the diocese. He felt that it would not be wise to abstain from telling the bishop.
The bishop was a goodly man, comely in his person, and possessed of manners which had made him popular in the world. He was one of those who had done the best he could with his talent, not wrapping it up in a napkin, but getting from it the best interest which the world’s market could afford. But not on that account was he other than a good man. To do the best he could for himself and his family — and also to do his duty — was the line of conduct which he pursued. There are some who reverse this order, but he was not one of them. He had become a scholar in his youth, not from love of scholarship, but as a means to success. The Church had become his profession, and he had worked hard at his calling. He had taught himself to be courteous and urbane, because he had been clever enough to see that courtesy and urbanity are agreeable to men in high places. As a bishop he never spared himself the work which a bishop ought to do. He answered letters, he studied the characters of the clergymen under him, he was just with his patronage, he endeavoured to be efficacious with his charges, he confirmed children in cold weather as well as in warm, he occasionally preached sermons, and he was beautiful and decorous in his gait of manner, as it behoves a clergyman of the Church of England to be. He liked to be master; but even to be master he would not encounter the abominable nuisance of a quarrel. When first coming to the diocese he had had some little difficulty with our Doctor, but the Bishop had abstained from violent assertion, and they had, on the whole, been friends. There was, however, on the Bishop’s part, something of a feeling that the Doctor was the bigger man; and it was probable that, without active malignity, he would take advantage of any chance which might lower the Doctor a little, and bring him more within episcopal power. In some degree he begrudged the Doctor his manliness.
He listened with many smiles and with perfect courtesy to the story as it was told to him, and was much less severe on the unfortunates than Mr Puddicombe had been. It was not the wickedness of the two people in living together, or their wickedness in keeping their secret, which offended him so much as the evil which they were likely to do — and to have done. “No doubt,” he said, an ill-living man may preach a good sermon, perhaps a better one than a pious God-fearing clergyman, whose intellect may be inferior though his morals are much better — but coming from tainted lips, the better sermon will not carry a blessing with it.” At this the Doctor shook his head. “Bringing a blessing” was a phrase which the Doctor hated. He shook his head not too civilly, saying that he had not intended to trouble his lordship on so difficult a point in ecclesiastical morals. “But we cannot but remember”, said the Bishop, “that he has been preaching in your parish church, and the people will know that he has acted among them as a clergyman”.
“I hope the people, my lord, may never have the Gospel preached to them by a worse man.”
“I will not judge him; but I do think that it has been a misfortune. You, of course, were in ignorance.”
“Had I known all about it, I should have been very much inclined to do the same.”
This was, in fact, not true, and was said simply in a spirit of contradiction. The Bishop shook his head and smiled. “My school is a matter of more importance,” said the Doctor.
“Hardly, hardly, Dr Wortle.”
“Of more importance in this way, that my school may probably be injured, whereas neither the morals nor the faith of the parishioners will have been hurt.”
“But he has gone.”
“He has gone — but she remains.”
“What!” exclaimed the Bishop.
“He has gone, but she remains.” He repeated the words very distinctly, with a frown on his brow, as though to show that on that branch of the subject he intended to put up with no opposition — hardly even with an adverse opinion.
“She had a certain charge, as I understand — as to the school.”
“She had, my lord; and very well she did her work. I shall have a great loss in her — for the present.”
“But you said she remained.”
“I have lent her the use of the house till her husband shall come back.”
“Mr Peacocke, you mean,” said the Bishop, who was unable not to put in a contradiction against the untruth of the word which had been used.
“I shall always regard them as married.”
“But they are not.”
“I have lent her the house, at any rate, during his absence. I could not turn her into the street.”
“Would not a lodging here in the city have suited her better?”
“I thought not. People here would have refused to take her — because of her story. The wife of some religious grocer, who sands his sugar regularly, would have thought her house contaminated by such an inmate.”
“So it would have been, Doctor, to some extent.” At hearing this the Doctor made very evident signs of discontent. “You cannot alter the ways of the world suddenly, though by example and precept you may help to improve them slowly. In our present imperfect condition of moral culture, it is perhaps well that the company of the guilty should be shunned.”
“I am afraid that I must say so. The knowledge that such a feeling exists no doubt deters others from guilt. The fact that wrongdoing in women is scorned helps to maintain the innocence of women. Is it not so?”
“I must hesitate before I trouble your lordship by arguing such difficult questions. I thought it right to tell you the facts after what had occurred. He has gone, she is there — and there she will remain for the present. I could not turn her out. Thinking her, as I do, worthy of my friendship, I could not do other than befriend her.”
“Of course you must be the judge yourself.”
“I had to be the judge, my lord.”
“I am afraid that the parents of the boys will not understand it.”
“I also am afraid. It will be very hard to make them understand it. There will be some who will work hard to make them misunderstand it.”
“I hope not that.”
“There will. I must stand the brunt of it. I have had battles before this, and had hoped that now, when I am getting old, they might have been at an end. But there is something left of me, and I can fight still. At any rate, I have made up my mind about this. There she shall remain till he comes back to fetch her.” And so the interview was over, the Bishop feeling that he had in some slight degree had the best of it — and the Doctor feeling that he, in some slight degree, had had the worst. If possible, he would not talk to the Bishop on the subject again.
He told Mr Puddicombe also. “With your generosity and kindness of heart I quite sympathise,” said Mr Puddicombe, endeavouring to be pleasant in his manner.
“But not with my prudence.”
“Not with your prudence,” said Mr Puddicombe, endeavouring to be true at the same time.
But the Doctor’s greatest difficulty was with his wife, whose conduct it was necessary that he should guide, and whose feelings and conscience he was most anxious to influence. When she first heard his decision she almost wrung her hands in despair. If the woman could have gone to America, and the man have remained, she would have been satisfied. Anything wrong about a man was but of little moment — comparatively so, even though he were a clergyman; but anything wrong about a woman — and she so near to herself! O dear! And the poor dear boys — under the same roof with her! And the boys’ mammas! How would she be able to endure the sight of that horrid Mrs Stantiloup — or Mrs Stantiloup’s words, which would certainly be conveyed to her? But there was something much worse for her even than all this. The Doctor insisted that she should go and call upon the woman! “And take Mary?” asked Mrs Wortle.
“What would be the good of taking Mary? Who is talking of a child like that? It is for the sake of charity — for the dear love of Christ, that I ask you to do it. Do you ever think of Mary Magdalene?”
“This is no Magdalene. This is a woman led into no faults by vicious propensities. Here is one who has been altogether unfortunate — who has been treated more cruelly than any of whom you have ever read.”
“Why did she not leave him?”
“Because she was a woman, with a heart in her bosom.”
“I am to go to her?”
“I do not order it. I only ask it.” Such asking from her husband was, she knew, very near alike to ordering.
“What shall I say to her?”
“Bid her keep up her courage till he shall return. If you were all alone, as she is, would not you wish that some other woman should come to comfort you? Think of her desolation.”
Mrs Wortle did think of it, and after a day or two made up her mind to obey her husband’s — request. She made her call, but very little came of it, except that she promised to come again. “Mrs Wortle,” said the poor woman, “pray do not let me be a trouble to you. If you stay away I shall quite understand that there is sufficient reason. I know how good your husband has been to us.” Mrs Wortle said, however, as she took her leave, that she would come again in a day or two.
But there were other troubles in store for Mrs Wortle. Before she had repeated her visit to Mrs Peacocke, a lady who lived about ten miles off, the wife of the Rector of Buttercup, called upon her. This was the Lady Margaret Momson, a daughter of the Earl of Brigstock, who had, thirty years ago, married a young clergyman. Nevertheless, up to the present day, she was quite as much the Earl’s daughter as the parson’s wife. She was first cousin to that Mrs Stantiloup between whom and the Doctor internecine war was always being waged; and she was also aunt to a boy at the school, who, however, was in no way related to Mrs Stantiloup, young Momson being the son of the parson’s eldest brother. Lady Margaret had never absolutely and openly taken the part of Mrs Stantiloup. Had she done so, a visit even of ceremony would have been impossible. But she was supposed to have Stantiloup proclivities, and was not, therefore, much liked at Bowick. There had been a question indeed whether young Momson should be received at the school — because of the quasi connection with the arch-enemy; but Squire Momson of Buttercup, the boy’s father, had set that at rest by bursting out, in the Doctor’s hearing, into violent abuse against “the close-fisted, vulgar old faggot”. The son of a man imbued with such proper feelings was, of course, accepted.
But Lady Margaret was proud — especially at the present time. “What a romance this is, Mrs Wortle,” she said, that has gone all through the diocese!” The reader will remember that Lady Margaret was also the wife of a clergyman.
“You mean — the Peacockes?”
“Of course I do.”
“He has gone away.”
“We all know that, of course — to look for his wife’s husband. Good gracious me! What a story!”
“They think that he is — dead now.”
“I suppose they thought so before,” said Lady Margaret.
“Of course they did.”
“Though it does seem that no inquiry was made at all. Perhaps they don’t care about those things over there as we do here. He couldn’t have cared very much — nor she.”
“The Doctor thinks that they are very much to be pitied.”
“The Doctor always was a little quixotic — eh?”
“I don’t think that at all, Lady Margaret.”
“I mean in the way of being so very good-natured and kind. Her brother came — didn’t he?”
“Her first husband’s brother,” said Mrs Wortle, blushing.
“Her first husband!”
“Well — you know what I mean, Lady Margaret.”
“Yes; I know what you mean. It is so very shocking; isn’t it? And so the two men have gone off together to look for the third. Goodness me — what a party they will be if they meet! Do you think they’ll quarrel?”
“I don’t know, Lady Margaret.”
“And that he should be a clergyman of the Church of England! Isn’t it dreadful? What does the Bishop say? Has he heard all about it?”
“The Bishop has nothing to do with it. Mr Peacocke never held a curacy in the diocese.”
“But he has preached here very often — and has taken her to church with him! I suppose the Bishop has been told?”
“You may be sure that he knows it as well as you.”
“We are so anxious, you know, about dear little Gus.” Dear little Gus was Augustus Momson, the lady’s nephew, who was supposed to be the worst-behaved, and certainly the stupidest boy in the school.
“Augustus will not be hurt, I should say.”
“Perhaps not directly. But my sister has, I know, very strong opinions on such subjects. Now, I want to ask you one thing. Is it true that — she — remains here?”
“She is still living in the schoolhouse.”
“Is that prudent, Mrs Wortle?”
“If you want to have an opinion on that subject, Lady Margaret, I would recommend you to ask the Doctor.” By which she meant to assert that Lady Margaret would not, for the life of her, dare to ask the Doctor such a question. “He has done what he has thought best.”
“Most good-natured, you mean, Mrs Wortle.”
“I mean what I say, Lady Margaret. He has done what he has thought best, looking at all the circumstances. He thinks that they are very worthy people, and that they have been most cruelly ill-used. He has taken that into consideration. You call it good-nature. Others perhaps may call it — charity.” The wife, though she at her heart deplored her husband’s action in the matter, was not going to own to another lady that he had been imprudent.
“I am sure I hope they will,” said Lady Margaret. Then as she was taking her leave, she made a suggestion. “Some of the boys will be taken away, I suppose. The Doctor probably expects that.”
“I don’t know what he expects,” said Mrs Wortle. Some are always going, and when they go, others come in their places. As for me, I wish he would give the school up altogether.”
“Perhaps he means it,” said Lady Margaret; otherwise, perhaps he wouldn’t have been so good-natured.” Then she took her departure.
When her visitor was gone Mrs Wortle was very unhappy. She had been betrayed by her wrath into expressing that wish as to the giving up of the school. She knew well that the Doctor had no such intention. She herself had more than once suggested it in her timid way, but the Doctor had treated her suggestions as being worth nothing. He had his ideas about Mary, who was undoubtedly a very pretty girl. Mary might marry well, and 20,000 would probably assist her in doing so.
When he was told of Lady Margaret’s hints, he said in his wrath that he would send young Momson away instantly if a word was said to him by the boy’s mamma. “Of course,” said he, if the lad turns out a scapegrace, as is like enough, it will be because Mrs Peacocke had two husbands. It is often a question to me whether the religion of the world is not more odious than its want of religion.” To this terrible suggestion poor Mrs Wortle did not dare to make any answer whatever.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14