Mrs Wortle, when she perceived that her husband no longer called on Mrs Peacocke alone, became herself more assiduous in her visits, till at last she too entertained a great liking for the woman. When Mr Peacocke had been gone for nearly a month she had fallen into a habit of going across every day after the performance of her own domestic morning duties, and remaining in the schoolhouse for an hour. On one morning she found that Mrs Peacocke had just received a letter from New York, in which her husband had narrated his adventures so far. He had written from Southampton, but not after the revelation which had been made to him there as to the death of Ferdinand. He might have so done, but the information given to him had, at the spur of the moment, seemed to be so doubtful that he had refrained. Then he had been able to think of it all during the voyage, and from New York he had written at great length, detailing everything. Mrs Peacocke did not actually read out loud the letter, which was full of such terms of affection as are common between man and wife, knowing that her title to be called a wife was not admitted by Mrs Wortle; but she read much of it, and told all the circumstances as they were related.
“Then,” said Mrs Wortle, he certainly is — no more.” There came a certain accession of sadness to her voice, as she reflected that, after all, she was talking to this woman of the death of her undoubted husband.
“Yes; he is dead — at last.” Mrs Wortle uttered a deep sigh. It was dreadful to her to think that a woman should speak in that way of the death of her husband. “I know all that is going on in your mind,” said Mrs Peacocke, looking up into her face.
“Every thought. You are telling yourself how terrible it is that a woman should speak of the death of her husband without a tear in her eye, without a sob — without one word of sorrow.”
“It is very sad.”
“Of course it is sad. Has it not all been sad? But what would you have me do? It is not because he was always bad to me — because he marred all my early life, making it so foul a blotch that I hardly dare to look back upon it from the quietness and comparative purity of these latter days. It is not because he has so treated me as to make me feel that it has been a misfortune to me to be born, that I now receive these tidings with joy. It is because of him who has always been good to me as the other was bad, who has made me wonder at the noble instincts of a man, as the other has made me shudder at his possible meanness.”
“It has been very hard upon you,” said Mrs Wortle.
“And hard upon him, who is dearer to me than my own soul. Think of his conduct to me! How he went away to ascertain the truth when he first heard tidings which made him believe that I was free to become his! How he must have loved me then, when, after all my troubles, he took me to himself at the first moment that was possible! Think, too, what he has done for me since — and I for him! How I have marred his life, while he has striven to repair mine! Do I not owe him everything?”
“Everything,” said Mrs Wortle — except to do what is wrong.”
“I did do what was wrong. Would not you have done so under such circumstances? Would not you have obeyed the man who had been to you so true a husband while he believed himself entitled to the name? Wrong! I doubt whether it was wrong. It is hard to know sometimes what is right and what is wrong. What he told me to do, that to me was right. Had he told me to go away and leave him, I should have gone — and have died. I suppose that would have been right.” She paused as though she expected an answer. But the subject was so difficult that Mrs Wortle was unable to make one. “I have sometimes wished that he had done so. But as I think of it when I am alone, I feel how impossible that would have been to him. He could not have sent me away. That which you call right would have been impossible to him whom I regard as the most perfect of human beings. As far as I know him, he is faultless — and yet, according to your judgment, he has committed a sin so deep that he must stand disgraced before the eyes of all men.”
“I have not said so.”
“It comes to that. I know how good you are; how much I owe to you. I know that Dr Wortle and yourself have been so kind to us, that were I not grateful beyond expression I should be the meanest human creature. Do not suppose that I am angry or vexed with you because you condemn me. It is necessary that you should do so. But how can I condemn myself — or how can I condemn him?”
“If you are both free now, it may be made right.”
“But how about repentance? Will it be all right though I shall not have repented? I will never repent. There are laws in accordance with which I will admit that I have done wrong; but had I not broken those laws when he bade me, I should have hated myself through all my life afterwards.”
“It was very different.”
“If you could know, Mrs Wortle, how difficult it would have been to go away and leave him! It was not till he came to me and told me that he was going down to Texas, to see how it had been with my husband, that I ever knew what it was to love a man. He had never said a word. He tried not to look it. But I knew that I had his heart and that he had mine. From that moment I have thought of him day and night. When I gave him my hand then as he parted from me, I gave it him as his own. It has been his to do what he liked with it ever since, let who might live or who might die. Ought I not to rejoice that he is dead?” Mrs Wortle could not answer the question. She could only shudder. “It was not by any will of my own”, continued the eager woman, “that I married Ferdinand Lefroy. Everything in our country was then destroyed. All that we loved and all that we valued had been taken away from us. War had destroyed everything. When I was just springing out of childhood, we were ruined. We had to go, all of us; women as well as men, girls as well as boys — and be something else than we had been. I was told to marry him.”
“That was wrong.”
“When everything is in ruin about you, what room is there for ordinary well-doing? It seemed then that he would have some remnant of property. Our fathers had known each other long. The wretched man whom drink afterwards made so vile might have been as good a gentleman as another, if things had gone well with him. He could not have been a hero like him whom I will always call my husband; but it is not given to every man to be a hero.”
“Was he bad always from the first?”
“He always drank — from his wedding day; and then Robert was with him, who was worse than he. Between them they were very bad. My life was a burden to me. It was terrible. It was a comfort to me even to be deserted and to be left. Then came this Englishman in my way; and it seemed to me, on a sudden, that the very nature of mankind was altered. He did not lie when he spoke. He was never debased by drink. He had other care than for himself. For himself, I think, he never cared. Since he has been here, in the school, have you found any cause of fault in him?”
“No, indeed! nor ever will — unless it be a fault to love a woman as he loves me. See what he is doing now — where he has gone — what he has to suffer, coupled as he is with that wretch! And all for my sake!”
“For both your sakes.”
“He would have been none the worse had he chosen to part with me. He was in no trouble. I was not his wife; and he need only — bid me go. There would have been no sin with him then — no wrong. Had he followed out your right and your wrong, and told me that, as we could not be man and wife, we must just part, he would have been in no trouble — would he?”
“I don’t know how it would have been then,” said Mrs Wortle, who was by this time sobbing aloud in tears.
“No; nor I, nor I. I should have been dead — but he? He is a sinner now, so that he may not preach in your churches, or teach in your schools; so that your dear husband has to be ruined almost because he has been kind to him. He then might have preached in any church — have taught in any school. What am I to think that God will think of it? Will God condemn him?”
“We must leave that to Him,” sobbed Mrs Wortle.
“Yes; but in thinking of our souls we must reflect a little as to what we believe to be probable. He, you say, has sinned — is sinning still in calling me his wife. Am I not to believe that if he were called to his long account he would stand there pure and bright, in glorious garments — one fit for heaven, because he has loved others better than he has loved himself, because he has done to others as he might have wished that they should do to him? I do believe it! Believe! I know it. And if so, what am I to think of his sin, or of my own? Not to obey him, not to love him, not to do in everything as he counsels me — that, to me, would be sin. To the best of my conscience he is my husband and my master. I will not go into the rooms of such as you, Mrs Wortle, good and kind as you are; but it is not because I do not think myself fit. It is because I will not injure you in the estimation of those who do not know what is fit and what is unfit. I am not ashamed of myself. I owe it to him to blush for nothing that he has caused me to do. I have but two judges — the Lord in heaven, and he, my husband, upon earth.”
“Nobody has condemned you here.”
“Yes — they have condemned me. But I am not angry at that. You do not think, Mrs Wortle, that I can be angry with you — so kind as you have been, so generous, so forgiving — the more kind because you think that we are determined, headstrong sinners? Oh no! It is natural that you should think so — but I think differently. Circumstances have so placed me that they have made me unfit for your society. If I had no decent gown to wear, or shoes to my feet, I should be unfit also — but not on that account disgraced in my own estimation. I comfort myself by thinking that I cannot be altogether bad when a man such as he has loved me and does love me.”
The two women, when they parted on that morning, kissed each other, which they had not done before; and Mrs Wortle had been made to doubt whether, after all, the sin had been so very sinful. She did endeavour to ask herself whether she would not have done the same in the same circumstances. The woman, she thought, must have been right to have married the man whom she loved, when she heard that that first horrid husband was dead. There could, at any rate, have been no sin in that. And then, what ought she to have done when the dead man — dead as he was supposed to have been — burst into her room? Mrs Wortle — who found it indeed extremely difficult to imagine herself to be in such a position — did at last acknowledge that, in such circumstances, she certainly would have done whatever Dr Wortle had told her. She could not bring it nearer to herself than that. She could not suggest to herself two men as her own husbands. She could not imagine that the Doctor had been either the bad husband, who had unexpectedly come to life — or the good husband, who would not, in truth, be her husband at all; but she did determine, in her own mind, that, however all that might have been, she would clearly have done whatever the Doctor told her. She would have sworn to obey him, even though, when swearing, she should not have really married him. It was terrible to think of — so terrible that she could not quite think of it; but in struggling to think of it her heart was softened towards this other woman. After that day she never spoke further of the woman’s sin.
Of course she told it all to the Doctor — not indeed explaining the working of her own mind as to that suggestion that he should have been, in his first condition, a very bad man, and have been reported dead, and have come again, in a second shape, as a good man. She kept that to herself. But she did endeavour to describe the effect upon herself of the description the woman had given her of her own conduct.
“I don’t quite know how she could have done otherwise,” said Mrs Wortle.
“Nor I either; I have always said so.”
“It would have been so very hard to go away, when he told her not.”
“It would have been very hard to go away,” said the Doctor, “if he had told her to do so. Where was she to go? What was she to do? They had been brought together by circumstances, in such a manner that it was, so to say, impossible that they should part. It is not often that one comes across events like these, so altogether out of the ordinary course that the common rules of life seem to be insufficient for guidance. To most of us it never happens; and it is better for us that it should not happen. But when it does, one is forced to go beyond the common rules. It is that feeling which has made me give them my protection. It has been a great misfortune; but, placed as I was, I could not help myself. I could not turn them out. It was clearly his duty to go, and almost as clearly mine to give her shelter till he should come back.”
“A great misfortune, Jeffrey.”
“I am afraid so. Look at this.” Then he handed to her a letter from a nobleman living at a great distance — at a distance so great that Mrs Stantiloup would hardly have reached him there — expressing his intention to withdraw his two boys from the school at Christmas.
“He doesn’t give this as a reason.”
“No; we are not acquainted with each other personally, and he could hardly have alluded to my conduct in this matter. It was easier for him to give a mere notice such as this. But not the less do I understand it. The intention was that the elder Mowbray should remain for another year, and the younger for two years. Of course he is at liberty to change his mind; nor do I feel myself entitled to complain. A school such as mine must depend on the credit of the establishment. He has heard, no doubt, something of the story which has injured our credit, and it is natural that he should take the boys away.”
“Do you think that the school will be put an end to?”
“It looks very like it.”
“I shall not care to drag it on as a failure. I am too old now to begin again with a new attempt if this collapses. I have no offers to fill up the vacancies. The parents of those who remain, of course, will know how it is going with the school.”
“I shall not be disposed to let it die of itself. My idea at present is to carry it on without saying anything till the Christmas holidays, and then to give notice to the parents that the establishment will be closed at Midsummer.”
“Will it make you very unhappy?”
“No doubt it will. A man does not like to fail. I am not sure but what I am less able to bear such failure than most men.”
“But you have sometimes thought of giving it up.”
“Have I? I have not known it. Why should I give it up? Why should any man give up a profession while he has health and strength to carry it on?”
“You have another.”
“Yes; but it is not the one to which my energies have been chiefly applied. The work of a parish such as this can be done by one person. I have always had a curate. It is, moreover, nonsense to say that a man does not care most for that by which he makes his money. I am to give up over 2,000 a year, which I have had not a trouble but a delight in making! It is like coming to the end of one’s life.”
“It has to be looked in the face, you know.”
“I wish — I wish they had never come.”
“What is the good of wishing? They came, and according to my way of thinking I did my duty by them. Much as I am grieved by this, I protest that I would do the same again were it again to be done. Do you think that I would be deterred from what I thought to be right by the machinations of a she-dragon such as that?”
“Has she done it?”
“Well, I think so,” said the Doctor, after some little hesitation. “I think it has been, in truth, her doing. There has been a grand opportunity for slander, and she has used it with uncommon skill. It was a wonderful chance in her favour. She has been enabled without actual lies — lies which could be proved to be lies — to spread abroad reports which have been absolutely damming. And she has succeeded in getting hold of the very people through whom she could injure me. Of course all this correspondence with the Bishop has helped. The Bishop hasn’t kept it as a secret. Why should he?”
“The Bishop has had nothing to do with the school,” said Mrs Wortle.
“No; but the things have been mixed up together. Do you think it would have no effect with such a woman as Lady Anne Clifford, to be told that the Bishop had censured my conduct severely? If it had not been for Mrs Stantiloup, the Bishop would have heard nothing about it. It is her doing. And it pains me to feel that I have to give her credit for her skill and her energy.”
“Her wickedness, you mean.”
“What does it signify whether she has been wicked or not in this matter?”
“Her wickedness is a matter of course. We all knew that beforehand. If a person has to be wicked, it is a great thing for him to be successful in his wickedness. He would have to pay the final penalty even if he failed. To be wicked and to do nothing is to be mean all round. I am afraid that Mrs Stantiloup will have succeeded in her wickedness.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01