Mr Peacocke himself said that in this matter a great deal of fuss was made about nothing. Perhaps it was so. He got a ducking, but, being a strong swimmer, probably suffered no real danger. The boy, rolling down three or four feet of bank, had then fallen down six or eight feet into deep water. He might, no doubt, have been much hurt. He might have struck against a rock and have been killed — in which case Mr Peacocke’s prowess would have been of no avail. But nothing of this kind happened. Little Jack de Lawle was put to bed in one of the rectory bedrooms, and was comforted with sherry-negus and sweet jelly. For two days he rejoiced thoroughly in his accident, being freed from school, and subjected only to caresses. After that he rebelled, having become tired of his bed. But by that time his mother had been most unnecessarily summoned. Unless she was wanted to examine the forlorn condition of his clothes, there was nothing that she could do. But she came, and, of course, showered blessings on Mr Peacocke’s head — while Mrs Wortle went through to the school and showered blessings on Mrs Peacocke. What would they have done had the Peacockes not been there?
“You must let them have their way, whether for good or bad,” the Doctor said, when his assistant complained rather of the blessings — pointing out at any rate their absurdity. “One man is damned for ever, because, in the conscientious exercise of his authority, he gives a little boy a rap which happens to make a small temporary mark on his skin. Another becomes a hero because, when in the equally conscientious performance of a duty, he gives himself a ducking. I won’t think you a hero; but, of course, I consider myself very fortunate to have had beside me a man younger than myself, and quick and ready at such an emergence. Of course I feel grateful, but I shan’t bother you by telling you so.”
But this was not the end of it. Lady de Lawle declared that she could not be happy unless Mr and Mrs Peacocke would bring Jack home for the holidays to de Lawle Park. Of course she carried her blessings up into Mrs Peacocke’s little drawing-room, and became quite convinced, as was Mrs Wortle, that Mrs Peacocke was in all respects a lady. She heard of Mr Peacocke’s antecedents at Oxford, and expressed her opinion that they were charming people. She could not be happy unless they would promise to come to de Lawle Park for the holidays. Then Mrs Peacocke had to explain that in her present circumstances she did not intend to visit anywhere. She was very much flattered, and delighted to think that the dear little boy was none the worse for his accident; but there must be an end of it. There was something in her manner, as she said this, which almost overawed Lady de Lawle. She made herself, at any rate, understood, and no further attempt was made for the next six weeks to induce her or Mr Peacocke to enter the rectory dining-room. But a good deal was said about Mr Peacocke — generally in his favour.
Generally in his favour — because he was a fine scholar, and could swim well. His preaching perhaps did something for him, but the swimming did more. But though there was so much said of good, there was something also of evil. A man would not altogether refuse society for himself and his wife unless there were some cause for him to do so. He and she must have known themselves to be unfit to associate with such persons as they would have met at de Lawle Park. There was a mystery, and the mystery, when unravelled, would no doubt prove to be very deleterious to the character of the persons concerned. Mrs Stantiloup was quite sure that such must be the case. “It might be very well”, said Mrs Stantiloup, “for Dr Wortle to obtain the services of a well-educated usher for his school, but it became quite another thing when he put a man up to preach in the church, of whose life, for five years, no one knew anything.” Somebody had told her something as to the necessity of a bishop’s authority for the appointment of a curate; but no one had strictly defined to her what a curate is. She was, however, quite ready to declare that Mr Peacocke had no business to preach in that pulpit, and that something very disagreeable would come of it.
Nor was this feeling altogether confined to Mrs Stantiloup, though it had perhaps originated with what she had said among her own friends. “Don’t you think it well you should know something of his life during these five years?” This had been said to the Rector by the Bishop himself — who probably would have said nothing of the kind had not these reports reached his ears. But reports, when they reach a certain magnitude, and attain a certain importance, require to be noticed.
So much in this world depends upon character that attention has to be paid to bad character even when it is not deserved. In dealing with men and women, we have to consider what they believe, as well as what we believe ourselves. The utility of a sermon depends much on the idea that the audience has of the piety of the man who preaches it. Though the words of God should never have come with greater power from the mouth of man, they will come in vain if they be uttered by one who is known as a breaker of the Commandments — they will come in vain from the mouth of one who is even suspected to be so. To all this, when it was said to him by the Bishop in the kindest manner, Dr Wortle replied that such suspicions were monstrous, unreasonable, and uncharitable. He declared that they originated with that abominable virago; Mrs Stantiloup. “Look round the diocese,” said the Bishop in reply to this, “and see if you can find a single clergyman acting in it, of the details of whose life for the last five years you know absolutely nothing.” Thereupon the Doctor said that he would make inquiry of Mr Peacocke himself. It might well be, he thought, that Mr Peacocke would not like such inquiry, but the Doctor was quite sure that any story told to him would be true.
On returning home he found it necessary, or at any rate expedient, to postpone his questions for a few days. It is not easy to ask a man what he has been doing with five years of his life, when the question implies a belief that these five years have been passed badly. And it was understood that the questioning must in some sort apply to the man’s wife. The Doctor had once said to Mrs Wortle that he stood in awful dread of Mrs Peacocke. There had certainly come upon him an idea that she was a lady with whom it would not be easy to meddle. She was obedient, diligent, and minutely attentive to any wish that was expressed to her in regard to her duties; but it had become manifest to the Doctor that in all matters beyond the school she was independent, and was by no means subject to external influences. She was not, for instance, very constant in her own attendance at church, and never seemed to feel it necessary to apologise for her absence. The Doctor, in his many and familiar conversations with Mr Peacocke, had not found himself able to allude to this; and he had observed that the husband did not often speak of his own wife unless it were on matters having reference to the school. So it came to pass that he dreaded the conversation which he proposed to himself, and postponed it from day to day with a cowardice which was quite unusual to him.
And now, O kind-hearted reader, I feel myself constrained, in the telling of this little story, to depart altogether from those principles of story-telling to which you probably have become accustomed, and to put the horse of my romance before the cart. There is a mystery respecting Mr and Mrs Peacocke which, according to all laws recognised in such matters, ought not to be elucidated till, let us say, the last chapter but two, so that your interest should be maintained almost to the end — so near the end that there should be left only space for those little arrangements which are necessary for the well-being, or perhaps for the evil-being, of our personages. It is my purpose to disclose the mystery at once, and to ask you to look for your interest — should you choose to go on with my chronicle — simply in the conduct of my persons, during this disclosure, to others. You are to know it all before the Doctor or the Bishop — before Mrs Wortle or the Hon. Mrs Stantiloup, or Lady de Lawle. You are to know it all before the Peacockes become aware that it must necessarily be disclosed to anyone. It may be that when I shall have once told the mystery there will no longer be any room for interest in the tale to you. That there are many such readers of novels I know. I doubt whether the greater number be not such. I am far from saying that the kind of interest of which I am speaking — and of which I intend to deprive myself — is not the most natural and the most efficacious. What would the “Black Dwarf” be if every one knew from the beginning that he was a rich man and a baronet? or “The Pirate”, if all the truth about Norna of the Fitful Head had been told in the first chapter? Therefore, put the book down if the revelation of some future secret be necessary for your enjoyment. Our mystery is going to be revealed in the next paragraph — in the next half-dozen words. Mr and Mrs Peacocke were not man and wife.
The story how it came to be so need not be very long — nor will it, as I think, entail any great degree of odious criminality either upon the man or upon the woman. At St Louis Mrs Peacocke had become acquainted with two brothers named Lefroy, who had come up from Louisiana, and had achieved for themselves characters which were by no means desirable. They were sons of a planter who had been rich in extent of acres and number of slaves before the war of the Secession. General Lefroy had been in those days a great man in his State, had held command during the war, and had been utterly ruined. When the war was over the two boys — then seventeen and sixteen years of age — were old enough to remember and to regret all that they had lost, to hate the idea of Abolition, and to feel that the world had nothing left for them but what was to be got by opposition to the laws of the Union, which was now hateful to them. They were both handsome, and, in spite of the sufferings of their State, an attempt had been made to educate them like gentlemen. But no career of honour had been open to them, and they had fallen by degrees into dishonour, dishonesty, and brigandage.
The elder of these, when he was still little more than a stripling, had married Ella Beaufort, the daughter of another ruined planter in his State. She had been only sixteen when her father died, and not seventeen when she married Ferdinand Lefroy. It was she who afterwards came to England under the name of Mrs Peacocke.
Mr Peacocke was Vice-President of the College at Missouri when he first saw her, and when he first became acquainted with the two brothers, each of whom was called Colonel Lefroy. Then there arose a great scandal in the city as to the treatment which the wife received from her husband. He was about to go away South, into Mexico, with the view of pushing his fortune there with certain desperadoes, who were maintaining a perpetual war against the authorities of the United States on the borders of Texas, and he demanded that his wife should accompany him. This she refused to do, and violence was used to force her. Then it came to pass that certain persons in St Louis interfered on her behalf, and among these was the Reverend Mr Peacocke, the Vice-President of the College, upon whose feelings the singular beauty and dignified demeanor of the woman, no doubt, had had much effect. The man failed to be powerful over his wife, and then the two brothers went away together. The woman was left to provide for herself, and Mr Peacocke was generous in the aid he gave to her in doing so.
It may be understood that in this way an intimacy was created, but it must not be understood that the intimacy was of such a nature as to be injurious to the fair fame of the lady. Things went on in this way for two years, during which Mrs Lefroy’s conduct drew down upon her reproaches from no one. Then there came tidings that Colonel Lefroy had perished in making one of those raids in which the two brothers were continually concerned. But which Colonel Lefroy had perished? If it were the younger brother, that would be nothing to Mr Peacocke. If it were the elder, it would be everything. If Ferdinand Lefroy were dead, he would not scruple at once to ask the woman to be his wife. That which the man had done, and that which he had not done, had been of such a nature as to solve all bonds of affection. She had already allowed herself to speak of the man as one whose life was a blight upon her own; and though there had been no word of out-spoken love from her lips to his ears, he thought that he might succeed if it could be made certain that Ferdinand Lefroy was no longer among the living.
“I shall never know,” she said in her misery. What I do hear I shall never believe. How can one know anything as to what happens in a country such as that?”
Then he took up his hat and staff, and, vice-president, professor, and clergyman as he was, started off for the Mexican border. He did tell her that he was going, but barely told her: “It’s a thing that ought to be found out,” he said, “and I want a turn of travelling. I shall be away three months.” She merely bade God bless him, but said not a word to hinder or to encourage his going.
He was gone just the three months which he had himself named, and then returned elate with his news. He had seen the younger brother, Robert Lefroy, and had learnt from him that the elder Ferdinand had certainly been killed. Robert had been most ungracious to him, having even on one occasion threatened his life; but there had been no doubt that he, Robert, was alive, and that Ferdinand had been killed by a party of United States soldiers.
Then the clergyman had his reward, and was accepted by the widow with a full and happy heart. Not only had her release been complete, but so was her present joy; and nothing seemed wanting to their happiness during the six first months after their union. Then one day, all of a sudden, Ferdinand Lefroy was standing within her little drawing-room at the College of St Louis.
Dead? Certainly he was not dead! He did not believe that anyone had said that he was dead! She might be lying or not — he did not care; he, Peacocke, certainly had lied — so said the Colonel. He did not believe that Peacocke had ever seen his brother Robert. Robert was dead — must have been dead, indeed, before the date given for that interview. The woman was a bigamist — that is, if any second marriage had ever been perpetrated. Probably both had wilfully agreed to the falsehood. For himself he should resolve at once what steps he meant to take. Then he departed, it being at that moment after nine in the evening. In the morning he was gone again, and from that moment they had never either heard of him or seen him.
How was it to be with them? They could have almost brought themselves to think it a dream, were it not that others besides themselves had seen the man, and known that Colonel Ferdinand Lefroy had been in St Louis. Then there came to him an idea that even she might disbelieve the words which he had spoken — that even she might think his story to have been false. But to this she soon put an end. “Dearest,” she said, I never knew a word that was true to come from his mouth, or a word that was false from yours.”
Should they part? There is no one who reads this but will say that they should have parted. Every day passed together as man and wife must be a falsehood and a sin. There would be absolute misery for both in parting — but there is no law from god or man entitling a man to escape from misery at the expense of falsehood and sin. Though their hearts might have burst in the doing of it, they should have parted. Though she would have been friendless, alone, and utterly despicable in the eyes of the world, abandoning the name which she cherished, as not her own, and going back to that which she utterly abhorred, still she should have done it. And he, resolving, as no doubt he would have done under any circumstances, that he must quit the city of his adoption — he should have left her with such material sustenance as her spirit would have enabled her to accept, should have gone his widowed way, and endured as best he might the idea that he had left the woman whom he loved behind, in the desert, all alone! That he had not done so the reader is aware. That he had lived a life of sin — that he and she had continued in one great falsehood — is manifest enough. Mrs Stantiloup, when she hears it all, will have her triumph. Lady de Lawle’s soft heart will rejoice because that invitation was not accepted. The Bishop will be unutterably shocked; but, perhaps, to the good man there will be some solace in the feeling that he had been right in his surmises. How the Doctor bore it this story is to tell — and how also Mr and Mrs Peacocke bore it, when the sin and the falsehood were made known to all the world around them. The mystery has at any rate been told, and they who feel that on this account all hope of interest is at an end had better put down the book.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01