“I thought you were never going to have done with that old Jupiter,” said Mrs Peacocke, as she began at that late hour of the evening to make tea for herself and her husband.
“Why have you waited for me?”
“Because I like company. Did you ever know me go to tea without you when there was a chance of your coming? What has Jupiter been talking about all this time?”
“Jupiter has not been talking all this time. Jupiter only talked for half an hour. Jupiter is a very good fellow.”
“I always thought so. Otherwise I should never have consented to have been one of his satellites, or have been to see you doing chief moon. But you have been with him an hour and a half.”
“Since I left him I have walked around by Bowick Lodge. I had something to think of before I could talk to you — something to decide upon, indeed, before I could return to the house.”
“What have you decided?” she asked. Her voice was altogether changed. Though she was seated in her chair and had hardly moved, her appearance and her carriage of herself were changed. She still held the cup in her hand which she had been about to fill, but her face was turned towards his, and her large brown speaking eyes were fixed upon him.
“Let me have my tea,” he said, and then I will tell you.” While he drank his tea she remained quite quiet, not touching her own, but waiting patiently to speak. “Ella,” he said, “I must tell it all to Dr Wortle.”
“Why, dearest?” As he did not answer her at once, she went on with her question. “Why now more than before?”
“Nay, it is not now more than before. As we have let the before go by, we can only do it now.”
“But why at all, dear? Has the argument, which was strong when we came, lost any of its force?”
“It should have had no force. We should not have taken the man’s good things, and have subjected him to the injury which may come to him by our bad name.”
“Have we not given him good things in return?”
“Not the good things which he had a right to expect — not that respectability which is all the world to such an establishment as this.”
“Let me go,” she said, rising from her chair and almost shrieking.
“Nay, Ella, nay; if you and I cannot talk as though we were one flesh, almost with one soul between us, as though that which is done by one is done by both, whether for weal or woe — if you and I cannot feel ourselves to be in a boat together either for swimming or for sinking, then I think that no two persons on this earth ever can be bound together after that fashion. “Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge. The Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.”” Then she rose from her chair, and flinging herself on her knees at his feet, buried her face in his lap. “Ella,” he said, the only injury you can do me is to speak of leaving me. And it is an injury which is surely unnecessary because you cannot carry it beyond words. Now, if you will sit up and listen to me, I will tell you what passed between me and the Doctor.” Then she raised herself from the ground and took her seat at the tea-table, and listened patiently as he began his tale. “They have been talking about us here in the county.”
“Who has found it necessary to talk about one so obscure as I?”
“What does it matter who they might be? The Doctor in his kindly wrath — for he is very wroth — mentions this name and the other. What does it matter? Obscurity itself becomes mystery, and mystery of course produces curiosity. It was bound to be so. It is not they who are in fault, but we. If you are different from others, of course you will be inquired into.”
“Am I so different?”
“Yes — different in not eating the Doctor’s dinners when they are offered to you; different in not accepting Lady de Lawle’s hospitality; different in contenting yourself simply with your duties and your husband. Of course we are different. How could we not be different? And as we are different, so of course there will be questions and wonderings, and that sifting and searching which always at last finds out the facts. The Bishop says that he knows nothing of my American life.”
“Why should he want to know anything?”
“Because I have been preaching in one of his churches. It is natural — natural that the mothers of the boys should want to know something. The Doctor says that he hates secrets. So do I.”
“Oh, my dearest!”
“A secret is always accompanied by more or less of fear, and produces more or less of cowardice. But it can no more be avoided than a sore on the flesh or a broken bone. Who would not go about, with all his affairs such as the world might know, if it were possible? But there come gangrenes in the heart, or perhaps in the pocket. Wounds come, undeserved wounds, as those did to you, my darling; but wounds which may not be laid bare to all eyes. Who has a secret because he chooses it?”
“But the Bishop?”
“Well — yes, the Bishop. The Bishop has told the Doctor to examine me, and the Doctor has done it. I give him the credit of saying that the task has been most distasteful to him. I do him the justice of acknowledging that he has backed out of the work he had undertaken. He has asked the question, but has said in the same breath that I need not answer it unless I like.”
“And you? You have not answered it yet?”
“No; I have answered nothing as yet. But I have, I think, made up my mind that the question must be answered.”
“That everything should be told?”
“Everything — to him. My idea is to tell everything to him, and to leave it to him to decide what should be done. Should he refuse to repeat the story any further, and then bid us go away from Bowick, I should think that his conduct had been altogether straightforward and not uncharitable.”
“And you — what would you do then?”
“I should go. What else?”
“Ah! on that we must decide. He would be friendly with me. Though he might think it necessary that I should leave Bowick, he would not turn against me violently.”
“He could do nothing.”
“I think he would assist me rather. He would help me, perhaps, to find some place where I might still earn my bread by such skill as I possess — where I could do so without dragging in aught of my domestic life, as I have been forced to do here.”
“I have been a curse to you,” exclaimed the unhappy wife.
“My dearest blessing,” he said. That which you call a curse has come from circumstances which are common to both of us. There need be no more said about it. That man has been a source of terrible trouble to us. The trouble must be discussed from time to time, but the necessity of enduring it may be taken for granted.”
“I cannot be a philosopher such as you are,” she said.
“There is no escape from it. The philosophy is forced upon us. When an evil thing is necessary, there remains only the consideration how it may be best borne.”
“You must tell him, then?”
“I think so. I have a week to consider of it; but I think so. Though he is very kind at this moment in giving me the option, and means what he says in declaring that I shall remain even though I tell him nothing, yet his mind would become uneasy, and he would gradually become discontented. Think how great is his stake in the school! How would he feel towards me, were its success to be gradually diminished because he kept a master here of whom people believed some unknown evil?”
“There has been no sign of any such falling off?”
“There has been no time for it. It is only now that people are beginning to talk. Had nothing of the kind been said, had this Bishop asked no questions, had we been regarded as people simply obscure, to whom no mystery attached itself, the thing might have gone on; but as it is, I am bound to tell him the truth.”
“Then we must go?”
“When it has been so decided, the sooner the better. How could we endure to remain here when our going shall be desired?”
“We must flit, and again seek some other home. Though he should keep our secret — and I believe he will if he be asked — it will be known that there is a secret, and a secret of such a nature that its circumstances have driven us hence. If I could get literary work in London, perhaps we might live there.”
“But how — how would you set about it? The truth is, dearest, that for work such as yours you should either have no wife at all, or else a wife of whom you need not be ashamed to speak the whole truth before the world.”
“What is the use of it?” he said, rising from his chair as in anger. “Why go back to all that which should be settled between us, as fixed by fate? Each of us has given to the other all that each has to give, and the partnership is complete. As far as that is concerned, I at any rate am contented.”
“Ah, my darling!” she exclaimed, throwing her arms round his neck.
“Let there be an end to distinctions and differences, which, between you and me, can have no effect but to increase our troubles. You are a woman, and I am a man; and therefore, no doubt, your name, when brought in question, is more subject to remark than mine — as is my name, being that of a clergyman, more subject to remark than that of one not belonging to a sacred profession. But not on that account do I wish to unfrock myself; nor certainly on that account do I wish to be deprived of my wife. For good or bad, it has to be endured together; and expressions of regret as to that which is unavoidable, only aggravate our trouble.” After that, he seated himself, and took up a book as though he were able at once to carry off his mind to other matters. She probably knew that he could not do so, but she sat silent by him for a while, till he bade her take herself to bed, promising that he would follow without delay.
For three days nothing further was said between them on the subject, nor was any allusion made to it between the Doctor and his assistant. The school went on the same as ever, and the intercourse between the two men was unaltered as to its general mutual courtesy. But there did undoubtedly grow in the Doctor’s mind a certain feverish feeling of insecurity. At any rate, he knew this, that there was a mystery, that there was something about the Peacockes — something referring especially to Mrs Peacocke — which, if generally known, would be held to be deleterious to their character. So much he could not help deducing from what the man had already told him. No doubt he had undertaken, in his generosity, that although the man should decline to tell his secret, no alteration should be made as to the school arrangements; but he became conscious that in so promising he had in some degree jeopardised the well-being of the school. He began to whisper to himself that persons in such a position as that filled by this Mr Peacocke and his wife should not be subject to peculiar remarks from ill-natured tongues. A weapon was afforded by such a mystery to the Stantiloups of the world, which the Stantiloups would be sure to use with all their virulence. To such an establishment as his school, respectability was everything. Credit, he said to himself, is a matter so subtle in its essence, that, as it may be obtained almost without reason, so, without reason, may it be made to melt away. Much as he liked Mr Peacocke, much as he approved of him, much as there was in the man of manliness and worth which was absolutely dear to him — still he was not willing to put the character of his school in peril for the sake of Mr Peacocke. Were he to do so, he would be neglecting a duty much more sacred than any he could owe to Mr Peacocke. It was thus that, during these three days, he conversed with himself on the subject, although he was able to maintain outwardly the same manner and the same countenance as though all things were going well between them. When they parted after the interview in the study, the Doctor, no doubt, had so expressed himself as rather to dissuade his usher from telling his secret than to encourage him to do so. He had been free in declaring that the telling of the secret should make no difference in his assistant’s position at Bowick. But in all that, he had acted from his habitual impulse. He had since told himself that the mystery ought to be disclosed. It was not right that his boys should be left to the charge of one who, however competent, dared not speak of his own antecedents. It was thus he thought of the matter, after consideration. He must wait, of course, till the week should be over before he made up his mind to anything further.
“So Peacocke isn’t going to take the curacy?”
This was said to the Doctor by Mr Pearson, the squire, in the course of those two or three days of which we are speaking. Mr Pearson was an old gentleman, who did not live often at Bowick, being compelled, as he always said, by his health, to spend the winter and spring of every year in Italy, and the summer months by his family in London. In truth, he did not much care for Bowick, but had always been on good terms with the Doctor, and had never opposed the school. Mr Pearson had been good also as to Church matters — as far as goodness can be shown by generosity — and had interested himself about the curates. So it had come to pass that the Doctor did not wish to snub his neighbour when the question was asked. “I rather think not,” said the Doctor. “I fear I shall have to look out for someone else.” He did not prolong the conversation; for, though he wished to be civil, he did not wish to be communicative. Mr Pearson had shown his parochial solicitude, and did not trouble himself with further questions.
“So Mr Peacocke isn’t going to take the curacy?” This, the very same question in the very same words, was put to the Doctor on the next morning by the vicar of the next parish. The Rev. Mr Puddicombe, a clergyman without a flaw who did his duty excellently in every station of life, was one who would preach a sermon or take a whole service for a brother parson in distress, and never think of reckoning up that return sermons or return services were due to him — one who gave dinners, too, and had pretty daughters — but still our Doctor did not quite like him. He was a little too pious, and perhaps given to ask questions. “So Mr Peacocke isn’t going to take the curacy?”
There was a certain animation about the asking of this question by Mr Puddicombe very different from Mr Pearson’s listless manner. It was clear to the Doctor that Mr Puddicombe wanted to know. It seemed to the Doctor that something of condemnation was implied in the tone of the question, not only against Mr Peacocke, but against himself also, for having employed Mr Peacocke. “Upon my word I can’t tell you,” he said, rather crossly.
“I thought that it had been all settled. I heard that it was decided.”
“Then you have heard more than I have.”
“It was the Bishop told me.”
Now it certainly was the case that in that fatal conversation which had induced the Doctor to interrogate Mr Peacocke about his past life, the Doctor himself had said that he intended to look out for another curate. He probably did not remember that at the moment. “I wish the Bishop would confine himself to asserting things that he knows,” said the Doctor, angrily.
“I am sure the Bishop intends to do so,” said Mr Puddicombe, very gravely. “But I apologise. I had not intended to touch a subject on which there may perhaps be some reserve. I was only going to tell you of an excellent young man of whom I have heard. But, good morning.” Then Mr Puddicombe withdrew.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14