The Wisdom of the Serpent

George Allen meanwhile, at Cowfold, languished in love with Priscilla Broad, who was now a comely girl of eighteen. Mrs. Broad had, of course, discovered what was in the wind, and her pride suffered a severe shock. She had destined Priscilla, as the daughter of a Flavel, for a London minister, and that she should marry a tradesman was intolerable. Worse still, a tradesman in Cowfold! What would become of their influence in the town, she continually argued with Mr. Broad, if they became connected with a member of their congregation? She thought it would be a serious hindrance to their usefulness. But Mr. Broad was not so sure, although he hated the Allens; and Priscilla, somehow or other, was not so sure, for, despite her mother’s constant hints about their vulgarity, she not infrequently discovered that something was wanted from the shop, and bought it herself.

One Monday afternoon, Mr. Broad having thrown the silk handkerchief off his face and bestirred himself at the sight of the radishes, watercresses, tea, and hot buttered toast, thus addressed his wife:

“My love, I am not altogether inclined to discountenance the attentions which George pays to Priscilla. There are so many circumstances to be taken into account.”

“It is a great trouble to me, John, and I really think if anything of the kind were to happen, at least you would have to seek another cause. Just consider the position in which I should stand towards Mrs. Allen. Besides, I am sure it will interfere with your duties here if we are obliged to take notice of the Allens more than of other people in the town.”

“To seek for another cause, my love? That is a very grave matter at my time of life. You remember too, that there is an endowment here.”

“Quite so; and that is the more reason why we should not permit the attachment.”

“But, my love, as I observed, there are so many circumstances to be taken into account. You know as well as I do in what aspect I view the Allens, and what my sentiments with regard to them are⁠—personally that is to say, and not as minister of the gospel. Perhaps Providence, my dear, intends this opportunity as a means whereby the emotions of my poor sinful nature⁠—emotions which may have been uncharitable⁠—may be converted into brotherly love. Then we must recollect that Isaac is a prominent member of the church and a deacon. Thirdly, in all probability, if we do not permit Priscilla to marry George, offence will be taken and they may withdraw their subscription, which, I believe, comes altogether to twenty pounds per annum. Fourthly, the Allens have been blessed with an unusual share of worldly prosperity, and George is about to become a partner. Fifthly and lastly”⁠—Mr. Broad had acquired a habit of dividing his most ordinary conversation into heads⁠—“it is by no means improbable that I may need a co-pastor before long, and we shall secure the Allens’ powerful influence in favour of Thomas.”

Mrs. Broad felt the full force of these arguments.

“I should think,” she added, “that George, after marriage, cannot live at the shop.”

“No, that will not be possible; they must take a private house.”

So it was agreed, without any reference to the question whether Priscilla and George cared for one another, that no opposition should be offered. The Allens themselves, father and mother, were by no means so eager for the honour of the match as Mrs. Broad supposed them to be, for Mrs. Isaac, particularly proud of her husband, and a little proud of their comfortable business and their comfortable property, was not dazzled by the Flavel ancestry.

When George formally asked permission of Mr. Broad to sanction his addresses, a meeting between the parents became necessary, and Mrs. Broad called on Mrs. Allen. She was asked into the dining-room at the back of the shop. At that time, at any rate in Cowfold, the drawing-room, which was upstairs, was an inaccessible sanctuary, save on Sunday and on high tea-party days. Mrs. Broad looked round at the solid mahogany furniture; cast her eyes on the port and sherry standing on the sideboard, in accordance with Cowfold custom; observed that not a single thing in the room was worn or shabby; that everything was dusted with absolute nicety, for the Allens kept two servants; and became a little reconciled to her lot.

Mrs. Allen presently appeared in her black silk dress, with her gold watch hanging in front, and saluted the minister’s wife with the usual good-humoured, slightly democratic freedom which always annoyed Mrs. Broad.

“My dear Mrs. Allen,” began Mrs. Broad, “I have called to announce to you a surprising piece of intelligence, although I dare say you know it all. Your son George has asked Mr. Broad to be allowed to consider himself as Priscilla’s suitor. We have discussed the matter together, and I have come to know what your views are. I may say that we had destined⁠—hoped⁠—that⁠—er⁠—Priscilla would find her sphere as a minister’s wife in the metropolis; but it is best, perhaps, to follow the leadings of Providence.”

“Well, Mrs. Broad, I must say I was a little bit disappointed myself⁠—to tell you the plain truth; but it is of no use to contradict young people in love with one another.”

Mrs. Broad was astonished. Disappointed! But she remembered her husband’s admonitions. So she contented herself with an insinuation.

“What I meant, my dear Mrs. Allen, was that, as the Flavels have been a ministerial family for so long, it would have been gratifying to me, of course, if Priscilla had bestowed herself upon⁠—upon somebody occupying the same position.”

“That is just what my mother used to say. I was a Burton, you remember. They were large tanners in Northamptonshire, and she did not like my going to a shop. But you know, Mrs. Broad, you had better be in a shop and have plenty of everything, and not have to pinch and screw, than have a brass knocker on your door, and not be able to pay for the clothes you wear. That’s my belief, at any rate.”

The dart entered Mrs. Broad’s soul. She remembered some “procrastination”⁠—to use her husband’s favourite word⁠—in settling a draper’s bill, even when it was diminished by the pew rent, and she wondered if Mrs. Allen knew the facts. Of course she did; all Cowfold knew every fact connected with everybody in the town. She discerned it was best to retreat.

“I wished to tell you, Mrs. Allen, that we do not intend to offer the least objection”⁠—she thought that perhaps a little professional unction might reduce her antagonist⁠—“and I am sure I pray that God will bless their union.”

“As I said before, Mrs. Broad, neither shall we object. We shall let George do as he likes. He is a real good boy, worth a princess, and if he chooses to have Miss Broad, we shan’t hinder him. She will always be welcome here, and it will be a consolation to you to know she will never want anything.” Mrs. Allen shook her silk dress out a little, and offered Mrs. Broad a glass of wine. Her feelings were a little flustered, and she needed support, but she refused.

“No thank you, Mrs. Allen. I must be going.”