XXIII

Further Development

Six months afterwards Priscilla was about to give birth to her firstborn. At Mrs. Allen’s earnest request old nurse Barton had been engaged, who nursed Mrs. Allen when George came into the world, and loved him like her own child. As a counterpoise, Mrs. Broad, who had desired a nurse from a distance, whom she knew, installed herself with Priscilla. Nurse Barton had a great dislike to Mrs. Broad, although she attended Mr. Broad’s ministrations at Tanner’s Lane. She was not a member of the church, and never could be got to propose herself for membership. There was, in fact, a slight flavour of Paganism about her. She was considered to belong to the “world,” and it was only her age and undoubted skill which saved her practice amongst the Tanner’s Lane ladies. There was a rival in the town; but she was a younger woman, and never went out to any of the respectable houses, save when Mrs. Barton was not available.

The child was safely born, and as soon as nurse Barton could be spared for an hour or two she went to Mrs. Allen, whom she found alone. The good woman then gave Mrs. Allen her opinions, which, by the way, she always gave with prefect frankness.

“Thank the Lord-i-mercy this ’ere job, Mrs. Allen, is near at an end. If it ’adn’t been my dear boy George’s wife, never would I have set foot in that ’ouse.”

“Why not?”

“Why not? Now, Mrs. Allen, you know as well as I do. To see that there Mrs. Broad! She might ’ave ordered me about; that wouldn’t a been nothin’; but to see ’er a orderin’ ’im, and a ridin’ on ’im like a wooden rockin’-’orse, and with no more feelin’! A nasty, prancin’, ’igh-’eaded creatur’. Thinks I to myself, often and often, if things was different I’d let yer know, that I would; but I ’eld my tong. It ’ud a been wuss for us all, p’r’aps, if I ’adn’t.”

“I should think so,” said Mrs. Allen; “remember she is the minister’s wife.”

“Minister’s wife!” repeated Mrs. Barton, and with much scorn. “And then them children of hern. Lord be praised I never brought such things as them into the world. That was her fine nuss as she must get down from London; and pretty creaturs they are!”

“Hush, hush; George has one of them, and she is mine.”

“I can’t ’elp it, ma’am, I must speak out. I say as he ought to ’ave married somebody better nor ’er; though I don’t mind a tellin’ of yer she’s the best of the lot. Why did the Lord in heaven, as sent Jesus Christ to die for our souls, let my George ’ave such a woman as that? What poor silly creaturs we all are!” and the old woman, bending her head down, shook it mournfully and rubbed her knees with her hand. She was thinking of him as he lay in her lap years and years ago, and pondering, in her disconnected, incoherent way, over the mysteries which are mysteries to us as much as to her.

Mrs. Broad, who was in constant attendance upon Priscilla, at the very earliest moment pronounced the baby a Flavel, and made haste to tell father and mother so. There was no mistaking a refinement, so to say, in the features and an expression in the eye. George, of course, was nearly banished for a time, and was much with his father and mother. At length, however, the hour arrived when the nurse took her departure, and, Mrs. Broad having also somewhat retired, he began to see a little more of his wife; but it was very little. She was altogether shut up in maternal cares⁠—closed round, apparently, from the whole world. He was not altogether displeased, but he did at times think that she might give him a moment now and then, especially as he was greatly interested in the coming county election. It was rather too early in the day for a Free Trader to stand as a candidate, but two Whigs, of whom they had great hopes, had been put up, and both George and his father were most energetic in canvassing and on committees.

Mr. Broad had decided not to vote. He did not deny that his sympathies were not with the Tories, but as a minister of religion it would be better for him to remain neutral. This annoyed the Allens and damaged their cause. At a meeting held by the Tories one of the speakers called upon the audience to observe that all the respectable people, with very few exceptions, were on their side. “Why,” cried he, “I’ll bet you, my friends, all Lombard Street to a china orange that they don’t get even the Dissenting parson to vote for the Radicals. Of course he won’t, and why? Just because he’s a cut above his congregation, and knows a little more than they do, and belongs to the intelligent classes.”

George bethought himself that perhaps he might do something through Priscilla to influence her mother, and he determined to speak to her about it. He came home one evening after attending a committee, and found supper ready. Priscilla was downstairs, sitting with the door open.

“Hadn’t we better shut the door?” said George; “it is rather cold.”

“No, no, George; I shouldn’t hear the baby.”

“But Ellen is upstairs.”

“Yes; but then she might go to sleep.”

“My dear,” began George, “I wish your father could be got to vote straight. You see that by not doing so he goes against all the principles of the Independents. Ever since they have been in existence they have always stood up for freedom, and we are having the large yellow flag worked with the words, Civil and Religious Liberty. It will be a bad thing for us if he holds aloof. I cannot understand,” he continued, getting eloquent, “how a Dissenting minister can make up his mind not to vote against a party which has been answerable for all the oppression and all the wrongs in English history, and for all our useless wars, and actually persecuted his predecessors in this very meetinghouse in which he now preaches. Besides, to say nothing about the past, just look at what we have before us now. The Tories are the most bitter opponents of Free Trade. I can’t tell you how I feel about it, and I do think that if you were to speak to your mother she would perhaps induce him to change his mind.”

It was a long time since he had said so much all at once to his wife.

“George, George, I am sure he’s awake!” and she was off out of the room in an instant. Presently she returned.

“Mamma came here this afternoon and brought his hood⁠—a new one⁠—such a lovely hood!⁠—and she says he looks more than ever like a Flavel in it.”

“I don’t believe you listened to a word of what I was saying.”

“Oh yes, I did; you always think I don’t listen; but I can listen to you and watch for him too.”

“What did I say?”

“Never mind, I know.”

“I cannot understand,” he said sullenly, and diverted for a moment from his subject, “why mamma should be always telling you he is a Flavel.”

“Well, really, George, why shouldn’t she? Tryphosa said the other day that if you were to take away grandpapa Flavel’s wig and bands from the picture in the Evangelical Magazine he would be just like him.”

“It seems to me,” replied George, “that if there’s any nonsense going about the town, it always comes to you. People don’t talk such rubbish to me.”

What the effect of this speech might have been cannot be told, for at this moment the baby did really cry, and Priscilla departed hastily for the night. She never spoke to her mother about the election, for, as George suspected, she had not paid the slightest attention to him; and as to exchanging with her mother a single word upon such a subject as politics, or upon any other subject which was in any way impersonal⁠—she never did such a thing in her life.

It was the uniform practice of the Reverend John Broad to walk down the main Street of Cowfold on Monday morning, and to interchange a few words with any of his congregation whom he might happen to meet. This pastoral perambulation not only added importance to him, and made him a figure in Cowfold, but, coming always on Monday, served to give people some notion of a preoccupation during the other days of the week which was forbidden, for mental reasons, on the day after Sunday. On this particular Monday Mr. Broad was passing Mr. Allen’s shop, and seeing father and son there, went in. Mr. Allen himself was at a desk which stood near the window, and George was at the counter, in a black apron, weighing nails.

After an unimportant remark or two about the weather, Mr. Allen began in a cheery tone, so as to prevent offence:

Mr. Broad, we are sorry we cannot persuade you to vote for the good cause.”

Mr. Broad’s large mouth lengthened itself, and his little eyes had an unpleasant light in them.

“Brother Allen, I have made this matter the subject of much meditation, and I may even say of prayer, and I have come to the conclusion it will be better for me to occupy a neutral position.”

“Why, Mr. Broad? You cannot doubt on which side the right lies.”

“No; but then there are so many things to be considered, so many responsibilities, and my first care, you see, must be the ministerial office and the church which Providence has placed in my charge.”

“But, Mr. Broad, there are only two or three of them who are Tory.”

“Only old Bushel and another farmer or two,” interrupted George.

Mr. Broad looked severely at George, but did not condescend to answer him.

“Those two or three, Brother Allen, require consideration as much as ourselves. Brother Bushel is, I may say, a pillar of the cause, a most faithful follower of the Lord; and what are political questions compared with that? How could I justify myself if my liberty were to become a stumbling-block to my brother. The house of God without Brother Bushel to give out the hymns on Sunday would, I am sure, not be the same house of God to any of us.”

“But, Mr. Broad, do you think he will be so silly as to be offended because you exercise the same right which he claims for himself?”

“Ah, Brother Allen⁠—offended! You remember, no doubt, the text, ‘Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth.’ ”

It is a very good thing to have at one’s elbow a Bible of rules for our guidance; but unfortunately we relieve ourselves very often of the most necessary inquiry whether the rule applies to the particular case in hand. Mr. Allen had the greatest possible respect for St. Paul, but he felt sure the apostle was where he had no business to be just at that particular moment. George also saw the irrelevance of the quotation, and discerned exactly where it did not fit.

Mr. Broad, I am sure I don’t pretend to know what St. Paul thought as well as you do⁠—of course not⁠—but do you think that voting is like eating meat? Is it not a duty to express our convictions on such questions as those now before the country? It didn’t much matter whether a man ate meat which had been offered to an idol or not, but it does matter how we are governed.”

Mr. Broad turned round on George, and smiled with a smile which was certainly not a sign of affection, but otherwise did not notice him.

“Well, Mr. Broad,” continued Mr. Allen, “all I can say is, I regret it; and I am sure you will excuse me if I also say that we too deserve some consideration. You forget that your refusal to declare yourself may be stumbling-block to us.”

“I hope not, I hope not. George, how is Priscilla, and how is her child? Are they both quite well?” and with a pontifical benediction the minister moved away. When he got home he consulted the oracle; not on his knees, but sitting in his armchair; that is to say, Mrs. Broad at the Monday afternoon tea, and she relieved his anxiety. There was no fear of any secession on the part of the Allens, connected as they were with them through Priscilla. On the other hand, Brother Bushel, although he gave out the hymns, had already had a quarrel with the singing pew because they would not more frequently perform a tune with a solo for the double bass, which he always accompanied with his own bass voice, and Mr. Broad had found it difficult to restore peace; the flute and clarinet justly urging that they never had solos, and why the double bass, who only played from ear, and not half as many notes as they played, should be allowed to show off they didn’t know. Mr. Bushel, too, contributed ten pounds a year to the cause, and Piddingfold Green Chapel was but a mile farther off from him than Cowfold. There were allies of the Allens in Tanner’s Lane, no doubt; but none of them would be likely to desert so long as the Allens themselves remained. Therefore Providence seemed to point out to Mr. and Mrs. Broad that their course was clear.