We will now pass for a moment out of Bowick parish, and go over to Buttercup. There, at Buttercup Hall, the squire’s house, in the drawing-room, were assembled Mrs Momson, the squire’s wife; Lady Margaret Momson, the Rector’s wife; Mrs Rolland, the wife of the Bishop; and the Hon. Mrs Stantiloup. A party was staying in the house, collected for the purpose of entertaining the Bishop; and it would perhaps not have been possible to have got together in the diocese, four ladies more likely to be hard upon our Doctor. For though Squire Momson was not very fond of Mrs Stantiloup, and had used strong language respecting her when he was anxious to send his boy to the Doctor’s school, Mrs Momson had always been of the other party, and had in fact adhered to Mrs Stantiloup from the beginning of the quarrel. “I do trust,” said Mrs Stantiloup, “that there will be an end to all this kind of thing now.”
“Do you mean an end to the school?” asked Lady Margaret.
“I do indeed. I always thought it matter of great regret that Augustus should have been sent there, after the scandalous treatment that Bob received.” Bob was the little boy who had drank the champagne and required the carriage exercise.
“But I always heard that the school was quite popular,” said Mrs Rolland.
“I think you’ll find”, continued Mrs Stantiloup, that there won’t be much left of its popularity now. Keeping that abominable woman under the same roof with the boys! No master of a school that wasn’t absolutely blown up with pride, would have taken such people as those Peacockes without making proper inquiry. And then to let him preach in the church! I suppose Mr Momson will allow you to send for Augustus at once?” This she said turning to Mrs Momson.
“Mr Momson thinks so much of the Doctor’s scholarship,” said the mother, apologetically. “And we are so anxious that Gus should do well when he goes to Eton.”
“What is Latin and Greek as compared to his soul? asked Lady Margaret.
“No, indeed,” said Mrs Rolland. She had found herself compelled, as wife of the Bishop, to assent to the self-evident proposition which had been made. She was a quiet, silent little woman, whom the Bishop had married in the days of his earliest preferment, and who, though she was delighted to find herself promoted to the society of the big people in the diocese, had never quite lifted herself up into their sphere. Though she had her ideas as to what it was to be a Bishop’s wife, she had never yet been quite able to act up to them.
“I know that young Talbot is to leave,” said Mrs Stantiloup. “I wrote to Mrs Talbot immediately when all this occurred, and I’ve heard from her cousin Lady Grogram that the boy is not to go back after the holidays.” This happened to be altogether untrue. What she probably meant was, that the boy should not go back if she could prevent his doing so.
“I feel quite sure,” said Lady Margaret, that Lady Anne will not allow her boys to remain when she finds out what sort of inmates the Doctor chooses to entertain.” The Lady Anne spoken of was Lady Anne Clifford, the widowed mother of two boys who were intrusted to the Doctor’s care.
“I do hope you’ll be firm about Gus,” said Mrs Stantiloup to Mrs Momson. “If we’re not to put down this kind of thing, what is the good of having any morals in the country at all? We might just as well live like pagans, and do without any marriage services, as they do in so many parts of the United States.”
“I wonder what the Bishop does think about it?” asked Mrs Momson of the Bishop’s wife.
“It makes him very unhappy; I know that,” said Mrs Rolland. “Of course he cannot interfere about the school. As for licensing the gentleman as a curate, that was of course quite out of the question.”
At this moment Mr Momson, the clergyman, and the Bishop came into the room, and were offered, as is usual on such occasions, cold tea and the remains of the buttered toast. The squire was not there. Had he been with the other gentlemen, Mrs Stantiloup, violent as she was, would probably have held her tongue; but as he was absent, the opportunity was not bad for attacking the Bishop on the subject under discussion. “We were talking, my lord, about the Bowick school.”
Now the Bishop was a man who could be very confidential with one lady, but was apt to be guarded when men are concerned. To any one of those present he might have said what he thought, had no one else been there to hear. That would have been the expression of a private opinion; but to speak before the four would have been tantamount to a public declaration.
“About the Bowick school?” said he; I hope there is nothing going wrong with the Bowick school.”
“You must have heard about Mr Peacocke,” said Lady Margaret.
“Yes; I have certainly heard of Mr Peacocke. He, I believe, has left Dr Wortle’s seminary.”
“But she remains!” said Mrs Stantiloup, with tragic energy.
“So I understand — in the house; but not as part of the establishment.”
“Does that make so much difference?” asked Lady Margaret.
“It does make a very great difference,” said Lady Margaret’s husband, the parson, wishing to help the Bishop in his difficulty.
“I don’t see it at all,” said Mrs Stantiloup. The main spirit in the matter is just as manifest whether the lady is or is not allowed to look after the boys’ linen. In fact, I despise him for making the pretence. Her doing menial work about the house would injure no one. It is her presence there — the presence of a woman who has falsely pretended to be married, when she knew very well that she had no husband.”
“When she knew that she had two,” said Lady Margaret.
“And fancy, Lady Margaret — Lady Bracy absolutely asked her to go to Carstairs! That woman was always infatuated about Dr Wortle. What would she have done if they had gone, and this other man had followed his sister-in-law there. But Lord and Lady Bracy would ask anyone to Carstairs — just anyone that they could get hold of!”
Mr Momson was one whose obstinacy was wont to give way when sufficiently attacked. Even he, after having been for two days subjected to the eloquence of Mrs Stantiloup, acknowledged that the Doctor took a great deal too much upon himself. “He does it”, said Mrs Stantiloup, “just to show that there is nothing that he can’t bring parents to assent to. Fancy — a woman living there as housekeeper with a man as usher, pretending to be husband and wife, when they knew all along that they were not married!”
Mr Momson, who didn’t care a straw about the morals of the man whose duty it was to teach his little boy his Latin grammar, or the morals of the woman who looked after his little boy’s waistcoats and trousers, gave a half-assenting grunt. “And you are to pay,” continued Mrs Stantiloup, with considerable emphasis — “you are to pay two hundred and fifty pounds a year for such conduct as that!”
“Two hundred,” suggested the squire, who cared as little for the money as he did for the morals.
“Two hundred and fifty — every shilling of it, when you consider the extras.”
“There are no extras, as far as I can see. But then my boy is strong and healthy, thank God,” said the squire, taking his opportunity of having one fling at the lady. But while all this was going on, he did give a half-assent that Gus should be taken away at midsummer, being partly moved thereto by a letter from the Doctor, in which he was told that his boy was not doing any good at the school.
It was a week after that that Mrs Stantiloup wrote the following letter to her friend Lady Grogram, after she had returned home from Buttercup Hall. Lady Grogram was a great friend of hers, and was first cousin to that Mrs Talbot who had a son at the school. Lady Grogram was an old woman of strong mind but small means, who was supposed to be potential over those connected with her. Mrs Stantiloup feared that she could not be efficacious herself, either with Mr or Mrs Talbot; but she hoped that she might carry her purpose through Lady Grogram. It may be remembered that she had declared at Buttercup Hall that young Talbot was not to go back to Bowick. But this had been a figure of speech, as has been already explained:
MY DEAR LADY GROGRAM
Since I got your last letter I have been staying with the Momsons at Buttercup. It was awfully dull. He and she are, I think, the stupidest people that ever I met. None of those Momsons have an idea among them. They are just as heavy and inharmonious as their name. Lady Margaret was one of the party. She would have been better, only that our excellent Bishop was there too, and Lady Margaret thought it well to show off all her graces before the Bishop and the Bishop’s wife. I never saw such a dowdy in all my life as Mrs Rolland. He is all very well, and looks at any rate like a gentleman. It was, I take it, that which got him his diocese. They say the Queen saw him once, and was taken by his manners.
But I did one good thing at Buttercup. I got Mr Momson to promise that that boy of his should not go back to Bowick. Dr Wortle has become quite intolerable. I think he is determined to show that whatever he does, people shall put up with it. It is not only the most expensive establishment of the kind in all England, but also the worst conducted. You know, of course, how all this matter about that woman stands now. She is remaining there at Bowick, absolutely living in the house, calling herself Mrs Peacocke, while the man she was living with has gone off with her brother-in-law to look for her husband! Did you ever hear of such a mess as that?
And the Doctor expects that fathers and mothers will still send their boys to such a place as that? I am very much mistaken if he will not find it altogether deserted before Christmas. Lord Carstairs is already gone. [This was at any rate disingenuous, as she had been very severe when at Buttercup on all the Carstairs family because of their declared and perverse friendship for the Doctor.] Mr Momson, though he is quite incapable of seeing the meaning of anything, has determined to take his boy away. She may thank me at any rate for that. I have heard that Lady Anne Clifford’s two boys will both leave. [In one sense she had heard it, because the suggestion had been made by herself at Buttercup.] I do hope that Mr Talbot’s dear little boy will not be allowed to return to such contamination as that! Fancy — the man and the woman living there in that way together; and the Doctor keeping the woman on after he knew it all! It is really so horrible that one doesn’t know how to talk about it. When the Bishop was at Buttercup I really felt almost obliged to be silent.
I know very well that Mrs Talbot is always ready to take your advice. As for him, men very often do not think so much about these things as they ought. But he will not like his boy to be nearly the only one left at the school. I have not heard of one who is to remain for certain. How can it be possible that any boy who has a mother should be allowed to remain there?
Do think of this, and do your best. I need not tell you that nothing ought to be so dear to us as a high tone of morals.
Most sincerely yours, JULIANA STANTILOUP
We need not pursue this letter further than to say that when it reached Mr Talbot’s hands, which it did through his wife, he spoke of Mrs Stantiloup in language which shocked his wife considerably, though she was not altogether unaccustomed to strong language on his part. Mr Talbot and the Doctor had been at school together, and at Oxford, and were friends.
I will give now a letter that was written by the Doctor to Mr Momson in answer to one in which that gentleman signified his intention of taking little Gus away from the school.
MY DEAR MR MOMSON
After what you have said, of course I shall not expect your boy back after the holidays. Tell his mamma, with my compliments, that he shall take all his things home with him. As a rule I do charge for a quarter in advance when a boy is taken away suddenly, without notice, and apparently without cause. But I shall not do so at the present moment either to you or to any parent who may withdraw his son. A circumstance has happened which, though it cannot impair the utility of my school, and ought not to injure its character, may still be held as giving offence to certain persons. I will not be driven to alter my conduct by what I believe to be foolish misconception on their part. But they have a right to their own opinions, and I will not mulct them because of their conscientious convictions.
Yours faithfully, JEFFREY WORTLE
If you come across any friend who has a boy here, you are perfectly at liberty to show him or her this letter.
The defection of the Momsons wounded the Doctor, no doubt. He was aware that Mrs Stantiloup had been at Buttercup, and that the Bishop also had been there — and he could put two and two together; but it hurt him to think that one so “staunch” though so “stupid” as Mrs Momson should be turned from her purpose by such a woman as Mrs Stantiloup. And he got other letters on the subject. Here is one from Lady Anne Clifford.
You know how safe I think my dear boys are with you, and how much obliged I am both to you and your wife for all your kindness. But people are saying things to me about one of the masters at your school and his wife. Is there any reason why I should be afraid? You will see how thoroughly I trust you when I ask you the question.
Yours very sincerely, ANNE CLIFFORD
Now Lady Anne Clifford was a sweet, confiding, affectionate, but not very wise woman. In a letter written not many days before to Mary Wortle, who had on one occasion been staying with her, she said that she was at that time in the same house with the Bishop and Mrs Rolland. Of course the Doctor knew again how to put two and two together.
Then there came a letter from Mr Talbot —
So you are boiling for yourself another pot of hot water. I never saw such a fellow as you are for troubles! Old Mother Shipton has been writing such a letter to our old woman, and explaining that no boy’s soul would any longer be worth looking after if he be left in your hands. Don’t you go and get me into a scrape more than you can help; but you may be quite sure of this that if I had as many sons as Priam I should send them all to you — only I think that the cheques would be very long in coming.
Yours always, JOHN TALBOT
The Doctor answered this at greater length than he had done in writing to Mr Momson, who was not specially his friend.
MY DEAR TALBOT
You may be quite sure that I shall not repeat to anyone what you have told me of Mother Shipton. I knew, however, pretty well what she was doing and what I had to expect from her. It is astonishing to me that such a woman should still have the power of persuading anyone — astonishing also that any human being should continue to hate as she hates me. She has often tried to do me an injury, but she has never succeeded yet. At any rate she will not bend me. Though my school should be broken up tomorrow, which I do not think probable, I should still have enough to live upon — which is more, by all accounts, than her unfortunate husband can say for himself.
The facts are these. More than twelve months ago I got an assistant named Peacocke, a clergyman, an Oxford man, and formerly a Fellow of Trinity — a man quite superior to anything I have a right to expect in my school. He had gone as a Classical Professor to a college in the United States — a rash thing to do, no doubt — and had there married a widow, which was rasher still. The lady came here with him and undertook the charge of the schoolhouse — with a separate salary; and an admirable person in the place she was. Then it turned out, as no doubt you have heard, that her former husband was alive when they were married. They ought probably to have separated, but they didn’t. They came here instead, and here they were followed by the brother of the husband — who I take it is now dead, though of that we know nothing certain.
That he should have told me his position is more than any man has a right to expect from another. Fortune had been most unkind to him, and for her sake he was bound to do the best that he could with himself. I cannot bring myself to be angry with him, though I cannot defend him by strict laws of right and wrong. I have advised him to go back to America and find out if the man be in truth dead. If so, let him come back and marry the woman again before all the world. I shall be ready to marry them and to ask him and her to my house afterwards.
In the mean time what was to become of her? “Let her go into lodgings,” said the Bishop. Go to lodgings at Broughton! You know what sort of lodgings she would get there among psalm-singing greengrocers who would tell her of her misfortune every day of her life! I would not subject her to the misery of going and seeking for a home. I told him, when I persuaded him to go, that she should have the rooms they were then occupying while he was away. In settling this, of course I had to make arrangements for doing in our own establishment the work which had lately fallen to her share. I mention this for the sake of explaining that she has got nothing to do with the school. No doubt the boys are under the same roof with her. Will your boy’s morals be the worse? It seems that Gustavus Momson’s will. You know the father; do you not? I wonder whether anything will ever affect his morals?
Now, I have told you everything. Not that I have doubted you; but, as you have been told so much, I have thought it well that you should have the whole story from myself. What effect it may have upon the school I do not know. The only boy of whose secession I have yet heard is young Momson. But probably there will be others. Four new boys were to have come, but I have already heard from the father of one that he has changed his mind. I think I can trace an acquaintance between him and Mother Shipton. If the body of the school should leave me I will let you know at once as you might not like to leave your boy under such circumstances.
You may be sure of this, that here the lady remains until her husband returns. I am not going to be turned from my purpose at this time of day by anything that Mother Shipton may say or do.
Yours always, JEFFREY WORTLE
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01