The Oracle Warns⁠—After the Event

It is no part of my business to tell the story of the lovemaking between George and Priscilla. Such stories have been told too often. Every weakness in her was translated by George into some particularly attractive virtue. He saw nothing, heard nothing, which was not to her advantage. Once, indeed, when he was writing the letter that was forever to decide his destiny, it crossed his mind that this was an epoch⁠—a parting of the ways⁠—and he hesitated as he folded it up. But no warning voice was heard; nothing smote him; he was doing what he believed to be the best; he was allowed to go on without a single remonstrant sign. The messenger was despatched, and his fate was sealed. His mother and father had held anxious debate. They believed Priscilla to be silly, and the question was whether they should tell George so. The more they reflected on the affair the less they liked it; but it was agreed that they could do nothing, and that to dissuade their son would only embitter him against them.

“Perhaps,” said Mrs. Allen, “when she has a family she will be better.”

Mrs. Allen had a belief that children cured a woman of many follies.

Nevertheless the mother could not refrain, when she had to talk to George about his engagement, from “letting out” just a word.

“I hope you will be happy, my dear boy. The great thing is not to have a fool for a wife. There has never, to my knowledge, been a woman amongst the Burtons or the Allens who was a fool.”

George felt nothing at the time, for he suspected nothing; but the words somehow remained with him, and reappeared later on in black intensity like invisible writing under heat.

So they were married, and went to live in a cottage, small, but very respectable, in the Shott Road. For the first six months both were in bliss. Priscilla was constantly backwards and forwards to her mother, who took upon herself at once the whole direction of her affairs; but there was no rupture with the Allens, for, whatever her other faults might be, Priscilla was not given to making quarrels, and there was little or no bitterness or evil temper in her. George came home after his work was over at the shop, and sometimes went out to supper with his wife, or read to her the newspaper, which came once a week. Like his father, he was an ardent politician, and, from the very beginning of the struggle, an enthusiastic Free Trader. The Free Trade creed was, indeed, the cause of serious embarrassment, for not only were the customers agricultural and Protectionist, but the deacons at Tanner’s Lane, being nearly all either farmers or connected with the land, were also Protectionist, and Mr. Broad had a hard time of it. For himself, he expressed no opinion; but once, at a deacons’ meeting, when it looked as if some controversy would arise, he begged Brother Allen to remember that, though we might be wise as serpents, we were also commanded to be harmless as doves. There was a small charity connected with the chapel, which was distributed, not in money, but in bread, and Brother Allen, not being able to contain himself, had let fall a word or two about the price of bread which would have raised a storm if Mr. Broad had not poured on the troubled waters that oil of which he was a perfect reservoir.

George did his best to instruct his wife in the merits of the controversy, and when he found anything in his newspaper read it aloud to her.

“You see, Priscilla,” he said one evening, “it stands to reason that if foreign corn pays a duty, the price of every quarter grown here is raised, and this increased price goes into the farmer’s or landlord’s pocket: Why should I, or why should my men, pay twopence more for every loaf to buy Miss Wootton a piano?”

“Really, George, do you mean to say that they are going to buy Miss Wootton a piano?”

“My dear, I said that when they buy a loaf of bread twopence out of it goes to buy Miss Wootton’s piano!” repeated George, laying an emphasis on every word. “I did not mean, of course, that they put their twopences in her pocket. The point is, that the duty enables Wootton to get more for his corn.”

“Well,” said Priscilla triumphantly, “I can tell you she is not going to have a piano. She’s going to have a little organ instead, because she can play tunes better on an organ, and it’s more suitable for her; so there’s an end of that.”

“It doesn’t matter whether it is an organ or piano,” said George, “the principle is the same.”

“Well, but you said a piano; I don’t think the principle is the same. If I were she I would sooner have the piano.”

A shade of perplexed trouble crossed George’s face, and some creases appeared in his forehead; but he smoothed them away and laid down his paper.

“Priscilla, put away your work for a moment and just listen.”

Priscilla was making something in the shape of netting by means of pins and a long loop which was fastened under her foot.

“I can listen, George; there is no occasion to put it away.”

“Well then,” he answered, placing both his elbows on the table, and resting his face upon them, “all corn which comes into this country pays a duty⁠—that you understand. Consequently it cannot be sold here for less than sixty shillings a quarter. Of course, if that is the case, English wheat is kept up to a higher price than it would fetch it there was no duty. Therefore bread is, as I calculate, about twopence a loaf dearer than it ought to be. And why should it be? That’s what I want to know.”

“I believe,” said Priscilla, “we might save a good bit by baking at home.”

“Yes, yes; but never mind that now. You know that foreign corn pays a duty. You do know that?”

“Yes,” said Priscilla, because there was nothing else to be said.

“Well, then, you must see that, if that be so, farmers can obtain a higher price for English corn.”

Poor Priscilla really did her best to comprehend. She stopped her knitting for a moment, put her knitting-pin to her lips, and answered very slowly and solemnly “Ye‑es.”

“Ah; but I know when you say ‘Ye‑es’ like that you do not understand.”

“I do understand,” she retorted, with a little asperity.

“Well then, repeat it, and let us see.”

“No, I shall not.”

“Dear Priscilla, I am not vexed: but I only wanted to make it quite plain to you. The duty on foreign corn is a tax in favour of the farmer, or perhaps the landlord, just as distinctly as if the tax-collector carried the coin from our till and gave it them.”

“Of course it is quite plain,” she responded, making a bold stroke for her life. “Of course it is quite plain we are taxed”⁠—George’s face grew bright, for he thought the truth had dawned upon her⁠—“because the farmers have to pay the duty on foreign corn.”

He took up his newspaper, held it open so as to cover his face, was silent for a few minutes, and then, pulling out his watch, declared it was time to go to bed. She gathered up her netting, looked at him doubtfully as she passed, and went upstairs.

The roof of George’s house had a kind of depression or well in the middle of it, whence ran a rainwater pipe, which passed down inside, and so, under the floor, to the soft-water cistern. A bad piece of construction, thought he, and he wished, if he could have done so, to improve it; but there was no way of altering it without pulling the whole place to pieces. One day, a very short time after the talk about Free Trade, a fearful storm of rain broke over Cowfold, and he was startled by Ellen, his servant, running into the shop and telling him that the staircase was flooded, and missis wanted him at once. He put on his coat and was off in a moment. When he got there Priscilla met him at the door crying, and in a great fright. The well up aloft was full of water, and it was pouring in torrents through the little window. It had gone through the floor of the bedroom and into the dining-room, pulling down with it about half the ceiling, which lay in a horrid mess upon the dining table and the carpet, George saw in an instant what was the matter. He ran up the steps to the well, pulled out a quantity of straw and dirt which blocked up the entrance to the pipe; the water disappeared in two minutes, and all further danger was arrested.

“Why on earth,” he cried in half a passion, “did not you think to clear away the rubbish, instead of wasting your time in sending for me? It ought to have entered into anybody’s head to do such a simple thing as that.”

“How was I to know?” replied Mrs. George. “I am not an ironmonger. What have I to do with pipes? You shouldn’t have had such a thing.”

Ellen stood looking at the wreck.

“We don’t want you;” said George savagely; “go into the kitchen,” and he shut the dining-room door. There the husband and wife stood face to face with one another, with the drip, drip, drip still proceeding, the ruined plaster, and the spoilt furniture.

“I don’t care,” he broke out, “one brass farthing for it all; but what I do care for is that you should not have had the sense to unstop that pipe.”

She said nothing, but cried bitterly. At last she sat down and sobbed out: “O George, George, you are in a rage with me; you are tired of me; you are disappointed with me. Oh! what shall I do, what shall I do?” Poor child! her pretty curls fell over her face as she covered it with her long white hands. George was touched with pity in an instant, and his arms were round her neck. He kissed her fervently, and besought her not to think anything of what he had said. He took out his handkerchief, wiped her eyes tenderly, lifted one of her arms and put it round his neck as he pulled a chair towards him and sat down beside her. Nothing she loved like caresses! She knew what their import was, though she could not follow his economical logic, and she clung to him, and buried her face on his shoulder. At that moment, as he drew her heavy brown tresses over him, smothered his eyes and mouth in them, and then looked down through them on the white, sweet beauty they shadowed, he forgot or overlooked everything, and was once more completely happy.

Suddenly she released herself. “What shall we do tonight, George, the bedroom will be so damp?”

He recovered himself, and admitted that they could not sleep there. There was the spare bedroom; but the wet had come in there too.

“I will sleep at father’s, and you sleep at home too. We will have fires alight, and we shall be dry enough tomorrow. You be off now, my dear; I will see about it all.”

So George had the fires alight, got in a man to help him, and they swept and scoured and aired till it was dark. In a day or two the plasterer could mend the ceiling.

Priscilla had left, and, excepting the servant, who was upstairs, George was alone. He looked round, walked about⁠—what was it? Was he tired? It could not be that; he was never tired. He left as soon as he could and went back to the shop. After telling the tale of the calamity which had befallen him he announced⁠—it was now suppertime⁠—that he was going to stay all night. Mother, father, and sister were delighted to have him⁠—“It looked like old times again;” but George was not in much of a mood for talking, and at ten o’clock went upstairs; his early departure being, of course, set down to the worry he had gone through. He turned into bed. Generally speaking he thought no more of sleep than he did of breathing; it came as naturally as the air into his lungs; but what was this new experience? Half an hour, an hour, after he had laid down he was still awake, and worse than awake; for his thoughts were of a different cast from his waking thoughts; fearful forebodings; a horror of great darkness. He rose and bathed his head in cold water, and lay down again; but it was of no use, and he walked about his room. What an epoch is the first sleepless night⁠—the night when the first wrench has been given us by the Destinies to loosen us from the love of life; when we have first said to ourselves that there are worse things than death!

George’s father always slept well, but the mother stirred at the slightest sound. She heard her boy on the other side of the wall pacing to and fro, and she slipped out of bed, put on her dressing-gown, and went to listen. Presently she knocked gently.

“George, my dear, aren’t you well?”

“Yes, mother; nothing the matter.”

“Let me in.”

He let her in, and sat down. The moon shone brightly, and there was no need for any other light.

The mother came and sat beside her child.

“George, my dear, there is something on you mind? What is it?⁠—tell me.”

“Nothing, mother; nothing indeed.”

She answered by taking his cold hand in both her own and putting it on her lap. Presently he disengaged himself and went to the window. She sat still for a moment, and followed him. She looked up in his face; the moonlight was full upon it; there was no moisture in his eyes, but his lips quivered. She led him away, and got him to sit down again, taking his hand as before, but speaking no word. Suddenly, without warning, his head was on his mother’s bosom, and he was weeping as if his heart would break. Another first experience to him and to her; the first time he had ever wept since he was a child and cried over a fall or because it was dark. She supported that heavy head with the arm which had carried him before he could walk alone; she kissed him, and her tears flowed with his; but still she was silent. There was no reason why she should make further inquiry; she knew it all. By themselves there they remained till he became a little calmer, and then he begged her to leave him. She wished to stay, but he would not permit it, and she withdrew. When she reached her bedroom her husband was still asleep, and although she feared to wake him, she could no longer contain herself, and falling on her knees with her face in the bedclothes, so that she might not be heard, she cried to her Maker to have mercy on her child. She was not a woman much given to religious exercises, but she prayed that night such a prayer as had not been prayed in Tanner’s Lane since its foundation was laid. For this cause shall a man leave father and mother and cleave to his wife? Ah, yes! he does leave them; but in his heart does he never go back? And if he never does, does his mother ever leave him?

In the morning Mrs. Allen was a little pale, and was asked by her husband if she was unwell, but she held her peace. George, too, rose, went about his work, and in the afternoon walked up to the cottage to meet his wife there. She was bright and smiling, and had a thousand things to tell him about what her mamma said, and how mamma hoped that the nasty pipe would be altered and never ought to have been there; and how she was coming after tea to talk to him, and how she herself, Priscilla, had got a plan.

“What is it?” said George.

“Why, I would put a grating, or something, over the pipe, so that it shouldn’t get stopped up.”

“But if the grating got stopped up that would be just as bad.”

“Well then, I wouldn’t have a well there at all. Why don’t you cover it over?”

“But what are you to do with the window? You cannot block out the light.”

So Priscilla’s “plans,” as she called them, were nothing. And though George had a plan which he thought might answer, he did not consult her about it.