Ferdinand Lefroy, the man who had in truth been the woman’s husband, had, during that one interview which had taken place between him and the man who had married his wife, on his return to St Louis, declared that his brother Robert was dead. But so had Robert, when Peacocke encountered him down at Texas, declared that Ferdinand was dead. Peacocke knew that no word of truth could be expected from the mouths of either of them. But seeing is believing. He had seen Ferdinand alive at St Louis after his marriage, and by seeing him, had been driven away from his home back to his old country. Now he also saw this other man, and was aware that his secret was no longer in his own keeping.
“Yes, I know you now. Why, when I saw you last, did you tell me that your brother was dead? Why did you bring so great an injury on your sister-in-law?”
“I never told you anything of the kind.”
“As God is above us you told me so.”
“I don’t know anything about that, my friend. Maybe I was cut. I used to be drinking a good deal them days. Maybe I didn’t say anything of the kind — only it suited you to go back and tell her so. Anyways I disremember it altogether. Anyways he wasn’t dead. And I ain’t dead now.”
“I can see that.”
“And I ain’t drunk now. But I am not quite so well off as a fellow would wish to be. Can you get me breakfast?”
“Yes, I can get you breakfast,” he said, after pausing for a while. Then he rang the bell and told the girl to bring some breakfast for the gentleman as soon as possible into the room in which they were sitting. This was in a little library in which he was in the habit of studying and going through lessons with the boys. He had brought the man here so that his wife might not come across him. As soon as the order was given, he ran upstairs to her room, to save her from coming down.
“A man — what man?” she asked.
“Robert Lefroy. I must go to him at once. Bear yourself well and boldly, my darling. It is he, certainly. I know nothing yet of what he may have to say, but it will be well that you should avoid him if possible. When I have heard anything I will tell you all.” Then he hurried down and found the man examining the book-shelves.
“You have got yourself up pretty tidy again, Peacocke,” said Lefroy.
“The old game, I suppose. Teaching the young idea. Is this what you call a college, now, in your country?”
“It is a school.”
“And you’re one of the masters.”
“I am the second master.”
“It ain’t as good, I reckon, as the Missouri College.”
“It’s not so large, certainly.”
“What’s the screw?” he said.
“The payment, you mean. It can hardly serve us now to go into matters such as that. What is it that has brought you here, Lefroy?”
“Well, a big ship, an uncommonly bad sort of railway car, and the ricketiest little buggy that ever a man trusted his life to. Them’s what’s brought me here.”
“I suppose you have something to say, or you would not have come,” said Peacocke.
Yes, I’ve a good deal to say of one kind or another. But here’s the breakfast, and I’m well-nigh starved. What, cold meat! I’m darned if I can eat cold meat. Haven’t you got anything hot, my dear? Then it was explained to him that hot meat was not to be had, unless he would choose to wait, to have some lengthened cooking accomplished. To this, however, he objected, and then the girl left the room.
“I’ve a good many things to say of one kind or another,” he continued. “It’s difficult to say, Peacocke, how you and I stand with each other.”
“I do not know that we stand with each other at all, as you call it.”
“I mean as to relationship. Are you my brother-in-law, or are you not?” This was a question which in very truth the schoolmaster found it hard to answer. He did not answer it at all, but remained silent. “Are you my brother-in-law, or are you not? You call her Mrs Peacocke, eh?”
“Yes, I call her Mrs Peacocke.”
“And she is here living with you?”
“Yes, she is here.”
“Had she not better come down and see me? She is my sister-in-law, anyway.”
“No,” said Mr Peacocke; I think, on the whole, that she had better not come down and see you.”
“You don’t mean to say she isn’t my sister-in-law? She’s that, whatever else she is. She’s that, whatever name she goes by. If Ferdinand had been ever so much dead, and that marriage at St Louis had been ever so good, still she’d been my sister-in-law.”
“Not a doubt about it,” said Mr Peacocke. But still, under all the circumstances, she had better not see you.”
“Well, that’s a queer beginning, anyway. But perhaps you’ll come round by and by. She goes by Mrs Peacocke?”
“She is regarded as my wife,” said the husband, feeling himself to become more and more indignant at every word, but knowing at the same time how necessary it was that he should keep his indignation hidden.
“Whether true or false?” asked the brother-in-law.
“I will answer no such question as that.”
“You ain’t very well disposed to answer any question, as far as I can see. But I shall have to make you answer one or two before I’ve done with you. There’s a Doctor here, isn’t there, as this school belongs to?”
“Yes, there is. It belongs to Dr Wortle.”
“It’s him these boys are sent to?”
“Yes, he is the master; I am only his assistant.”
“It’s him they comes to for education, and morals, and religion?”
“And he knows, no doubt, all about you and my sister-in-law — how you came and married her when she was another man’s wife, and took her away when you knew as that other man was alive and kicking?” Mr Peacocke, when these questions were put to him, remained silent, because literally he did not know how to answer them. He was quite prepared to take his position as he found it. He had told himself before this dreadful man had appeared, that the truth must be made known at Bowick, and that he and his wife must pack up and flit. It was not that the man could bring upon him any greater evil than he had anticipated. But the questions which were asked him were in themselves so bitter! The man, no doubt, was his wife’s brother-in-law. He could not turn him out of the house as he would a stranger, had a stranger come there asking such questions without any claim of family. Abominable as the man was to him, still he was there with a certain amount of right upon his side.
“I think,” said he, that questions such as those you’ve asked can be of no service to you. To me they are intended only to be injurious.”
“They’re as a preface to what is to come,” said Robert Lefroy, with an impudent leer upon his face. “The questions, no doubt, are disagreeable enough. She ain’t your wife no more than she’s mine. You’ve no business with her; and that you knew when you took her away from St Louis. You may, or you mayn’t, have been fooled by someone down in Texas when you went back and married her in all that hurry. But you knew what you were doing well enough when you took her away. You won’t dare to tell me that you hadn’t seen Ferdinand when you two mizzled off from the College?” Then he paused, waiting again for a reply.
“As I told you before,” he said, no further conversation on the subject can be of avail. It does not suit me to be cross-examined as to what I knew or what I did not know. If you have anything for me to hear, you can say it. If you have anything to tell to others, go and tell it to them.”
“That’s just it,” said Lefroy.
“Then go and tell it.”
“You’re in a terrible hurry, Mister Peacocke. I don’t want to drop in and spoil your little game. You’re making money of your little game. I can help you as to carrying on your little game, better than you do at present. I don’t want to blow upon you. But as you’re making money out of it, I’d like to make a little too. I am precious hard up — I am.”
“You will make no money of me,” said the other.
“A little will go a long way with me; and remember, I have got tidings now which are worth paying for.”
“If they’re worth paying for, it’s not likely that you are going to get them for nothing.”
“Look here, Colonel Lefroy; whatever you may have to say about me will certainly not be prevented by my paying you money. Though you might be able to ruin me tomorrow I would not give you a dollar to save myself.”
“But her,” said Lefroy, pointing as it were upstairs, with his thumb over his shoulder.
“Nor her,” said Peacocke.
“You don’t care very much about her, then?”
“How much I may care I shall not trouble myself to explain to you. I certainly shall not endeavour to serve her after that fashion. I begin to understand why you have come, and can only beg you to believe that you have come in vain.”
Lefroy turned to his food, which he had not yet finished, while his companion sat silent at the window, trying to arrange in his mind the circumstances of the moment as best he might. He declared to himself that had the man come but one day later, his coming would have been matter of no moment. The story, the entire story, would then have been told to the Doctor, and the brother-in-law, with all his malice, could have added nothing to the truth. But now it seemed as though there would be a race which should tell the story first. Now the Doctor would, no doubt, be led to feel that the narration was made because it could no longer be kept back. Should this man be with the Doctor first, and should the story be told as he would tell it, then it would be impossible for Mr Peacocke, in acknowledging the truth of it all, to bring his friend’s mind back to the condition in which it would have been had this intruder not been in the way. And yet he could not make a race of it with the man. He could not rush across, and, all but out of breath with his energy, begin his narration while Lefroy was there knocking at the door. There would be an absence of dignity in such a mode of proceeding which alone was sufficient to deter him. He had fixed an hour already with the Doctor. He had said that he would be there in the house at a certain time. Let the man do what he would he would keep exactly to his purpose, unless the Doctor should seek an earlier interview. He would, in no tittle, be turned from his purpose by the unfortunate coming of this wretched man. “Well!” said Lefroy, as soon as he had eaten his last mouthful.
“I have nothing to say to you,” said Peacocke.
“Nothing to say?”
“Not a word.”
“Well, that’s queer. I should have thought there’d have been a many words. I’ve got a lot to say to somebody, and mean to say it — precious soon too. Is there any hotel here, where I can put this horse up? I suppose you haven’t got stables of your own? I wonder if the Doctor would give me accommodation?”
“I haven’t got a stable, and the Doctor certainly will not give you accommodation. There is a public house less than a quarter of a mile further on, which no doubt your driver knows very well. You had better go there yourself, because after what has taken place, I am bound to tell you that you will not be admitted here.”
“No. You must leave this house, and will not be admitted into it again as long as I live in it.”
“The Doctor will admit me.”
“Very likely. I, at any rate, shall do nothing to dissuade him. If you go down to the road you’ll see the gate leading up to his house. I think you’ll find that he is downstairs by this time.”
“You take it very cool, Peacocke.”
“I only tell you the truth. With you I will have nothing more to do. You have a story which you wish to tell to Dr Wortle. Go and tell it to him.”
“I can tell it to all the world,” said Lefroy.
“Go and tell it to all the world.”
“And I ain’t to see my sister?”
“No; you will not see your sister-in-law here. Why should she wish to see one who has only injured her?”
“I ain’t injured her — at any rate not as yet. I ain’t done nothing — not as yet. I’ve been as dark as the grave — as yet. Let her come down, and you go away for a moment, and let us see if we can’t settle it.”
“There is nothing for you to settle. Nothing that you can do, nothing that you can say, will influence either her or me. If you have anything to tell, go and tell it.”
“Why should you smash up everything in that way, Peacocke? You’re comfortable here; why not remain so? I don’t want to hurt you. I want to help you — and I can. Three hundred dollars wouldn’t be much to you. You were always a fellow as had a little money by you.”
“If this box were full of gold,” said the schoolmaster, laying his hand upon a black desk which stood on the table, “I would not give you one cent to induce you to hold your tongue for ever. I would not condescend even to ask it of you as a favour. You think that you can disturb our happiness by telling what you know of us to Dr Wortle. Go and try.”
Mr Peacocke’s manner was so firm that the other man began to doubt whether in truth he had a secret to tell. Could it be possible that Dr Wortle knew it all, and that the neighbours knew it all, and that, in spite of what had happened, the position of the man and of the woman was accepted among them? They certainly were not man and wife, and yet they were living together as such. Could such a one as this Dr Wortle know that it was so? He, when he had spoken of the purposes for which the boys were sent there, asking whether they were not sent for education, for morals and religion, had understood much of the Doctor’s position. He had known the peculiar value of his secret. He had been aware that a schoolmaster with a wife to whom he was not in truth married must be out of place in an English seminary such as this. But yet he now began to doubt. “I am to be turned out, then?” he asked.
“Yes, indeed, Colonel Lefroy. The sooner you go the better.”
“That’s a pretty sort of welcome to your wife’s brother-in-law, who has just come over all the way from Mexico to see her.”
“To get what he can out of her by his unwelcome presence,” said Peacocke. “Here you can get nothing. Go and do your worst. If you remain much longer I shall send for the policeman to remove you.
“Yes, I shall. My time is not my own, and I cannot go over to my work leaving you in my house. You have nothing to get by my friendship. Go and see what you can do as my enemy.”
“I will,” said the Colonel, getting up from his chair; “I will. If I’m to be treated in this way it shall not be for nothing. I have offered you the right hand of an affectionate brother-in-law.”
“Bosh,” said Mr Peacocke.
“And you tell me that I am an enemy. Very well; I will be an enemy. I could have put you altogether on your legs, but I’ll leave you without an inch of ground to stand upon. You see if I don’t.” Then he put his hat on his head, and stalked out of the house, down the road towards the gate.
Mr Peacocke, when he was left alone, remained in the room collecting his thoughts, and then went upstairs to his wife.
“Has he gone?” she asked.
“Yes, he has gone.”
“And what has he said?”
“He has asked for money — to hold his tongue.”
“Have you given him any?”
“Not a cent. I have given him nothing but hard words. I have bade him go and do his worst. To be at the mercy of such a man as that would be worse for you and for me than anything that fortune has sent us even yet.”
“Did he want to see me?”
“Yes; but I refused. Was it not better?”
“Yes; certainly, if you think so. What could I have said to him? Certainly it was better. His presence would have half killed me. But what will he do, Henry?”
“He will tell it all to everybody that he sees.”
“Oh, my darling!”
“What matter though he tells it at the towncross? It would have been told today by myself.”
“But only to one.”
“It would have been the same. For any purpose of concealment it would have been the same. I have got to hate the concealment. What have we done but clung together as a man and woman should who have loved each other, and have had a right to love? What have we done of which we should be ashamed? Let it be told. Let it all be known. Have you not been good and pure? Have not I been true to you? Bear up your courage, and let the man do his worst. Not to save even you would I cringe before such a man as that. And were I to do so I should save you from nothing.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01