XXV

“And a Man’s Foes Shall Be They of His Own Household”

The county polling day meanwhile drew near, and with its approach party spirit rose and the mutual exasperation of both sides increased. George and his father were out every evening at the Institute or canvassing, and George’s first attempts at public speaking were a success. At length the day dawned which was to decide their fate. Cowfold was the polling station for a large district, and both sides fully recognised its importance. The Democratic colour was orange, and the Tory was purple. Everybody wore rosettes, and bands of music went about the town, carrying flags and banners, which had such an effect upon the Cowfold population, more particularly upon that portion of it which knew nothing whatever of the questions at issue, that the mere sound of the instruments or sight of a bit of bunting tied to a pole was sufficient to enable them to dare a broken head, or even death. Beer may have been partly the cause of this peculiar mental condition, but not entirely, for sober persons felt the contagion. We may laugh at it if we please, and no doubt it is evidence of the weakness of human nature; but, like much more evidence of the same order, it is double-voiced, and testifies also to our strength.

Priscilla was staying that night with her mother. Mr. Broad’s house, at the end of the town, was very quiet, and George did not care to leave her alone with the servant. Those were the days when the state of the poll was published every hour, and as Cowfold lay near the centre of the county a very fair opinion could be formed of the progress of the voting. By three o’clock it was known that up to eleven parties were neck and neck, and the excitement grew more and more intense. Every public-house in Cowfold was free, and soon after dinnertime there was not a single person in the place who was ever drunk before who had not found it necessary to get drunk then in order to support the strain on his nerves. Four o’clock came, and the polling-booth was shut; the numbers were made up, and the two committees now anxiously awaited the news from the outlying districts. The general impression seemed to be that the popular candidate would win by about a dozen, and by eight o’clock a crowd had assembled before the Cross Keys to give due welcome to the desired announcement. Ten o’clock came, and the mob began to get impatient and unruly. Then there was a stir and a roar, and the whole assemblage rushed off to the Angel, in the square. On the balcony was a huge placard, with the purple hero at the top⁠—1837⁠—and below was the orange favourite, in small and ignominious figures⁠—1831. Bushel stood at the open window waving his hat, apparently half frantic. Just underneath him was a smaller crowd of the purple faction, who were cheering and bawling with all their might as the enemy came in sight. In an instant the conflict had begun. The purple banners were the first objects of attack, and disappeared every one of them, in less than five minutes, underfoot. Seen from one of the upper storeys of the houses, the square looked like a great pot full of boiling confusion. By degrees the wearers of purple were driven hard against the Angel yard-gates, which opened to receive them; some who were not successful in securing admittance escaping, with bloody heads, down the side lane, and so out across the fields. There was great difficulty in shutting the gates again; but the Angel hostlers appeared on the scene with pitchforks and other weapons, which caused an ebb of the tide for a moment. They managed in the nick of time to swing the gates together, and the heavy wooden bar was thrown across them. The orange party was now triumphant, but very unhappy, because it was able to do no further mischief. Suddenly Bushel was seen again at the window, and, as it was afterwards averred, made some insulting gesture. A stone was the prompt response, and in five minutes there was not a whole pane of glass left in the front of the building. “Have old Bushel out! Smoke ’em out!” was shouted, and a rush followed towards the door. But the insurgents had no siege train for such a fortress, and the sight of two or three fowling-pieces somewhat damped their courage. They therefore turned off, wrecked the brewer’s house, and forced the Angel tap, which was separated from the main building. The spirit-casks were broached, and men turned the gin and brandy taps into their mouths without waiting for glasses. Many of them, especially those who first entered, were at once overcome and dropped, lying about in the room and in the gutter perfectly insensible. The remainder, who could only drink what was left, became more and more riotous, and a general sack of all purple property was imminent. Mr. Allen was at the Cross Keys, but George was at home, and as he watched the scene he saw the mob take a kind of lurch and sway along the street which led to Mr. Broad’s. He thought he heard Mr. Broad’s name, and in an instant he had buttoned-up his coat, taken the heaviest stick he could find, and was off. He had the greatest difficulty in forcing his way, and he did not reach the front of the crowd till it was opposite Mr. Broad’s and the destruction of the windows had begun. He leaped over the iron railing, and presented himself at the gate with the orange rosette on his coat and the stick in his right hand. He was just in time, for yells of “Psalm-singing old hypocrite!” were already in the air, and the fence was being stormed. George administered to the foremost ruffian a blow on the shoulder which felled him on the path outside, and then, standing on the low brick wall on which the railings rested, showed his rosette, brandished his club, and made some kind of inarticulate expostulation, which, happily for him and Mr. Broad, was received with cheers. Whether taken by itself it would have been effectual or not cannot be said, for just at that moment a more powerful auxiliary appeared. When the Angel was abandoned the imprisoned garrison, amongst whom were one or two county magistrates, held a brief consultation. They organised their force and marched out, the well-to-do folk in front and abreast, armed with bludgeons, the Angel dependents⁠—and about fifty more of the refugees coming in the rear, every garden and stable weapon of offence being distributed amongst them. They had the advantage, of course, of being sober. They advanced at a run, and their tramp was heard just as George was beginning to try the effect of his eloquence. Panic and scattering flight at once followed, not, however, before some dozen or so of the fugitives had recovered what little sense they ever had by virtue of sundry hard knocks on their skulls, and a dozen more or so had been captured. By twelve o’clock Cowfold was quiet and peaceable.

Citizens were left to wonder how their town, lying usually so sleepily still, like a farmyard on a summer Sunday afternoon, could ever transform itself after this fashion. Men unknown and never before seen seemed suddenly to spring out of the earth, and as suddenly to disappear. Who were they? Respectable Cowfold, which thought it knew everybody in the place, could not tell. There was no sign of their existence on the next day. People gathered together and looked at the mischief wrought the night before, and talked everlastingly about it; but the doers of it vanished, rapt away apparently into an invisible world. On Sunday next, at one o’clock, Cowfold Square, save for a few windows not yet mended, looked just as it always looked; that is to say, not a soul was visible in it, and the pump was, as usual, chained.

The band of rescuers had passed George as he stood in the garden, and when they had gone he knocked at the door. It was a long time before anybody came, but at last it was partly opened, just as far as the chain would permit, and the Reverend John Broad, looking very white and with a candle in his hand appeared.

“It is I, George, Mr. Broad. Please tell me how Priscilla is, and⁠—how you all are after your fright. I will not come in if you are all well.”

“No, Mr. George, you will not come in. I little thought that a member of Tanner’s Lane Church, and my daughter’s husband, would associate himself with such disgraceful proceedings as those we have witnessed this evening.”

“But, Mr. Broad, you are quite mistaken. I was not with the mob. I came here as soon as I could to protect you.”

Mr. Broad, terrified and wrathful, had, however, disappeared, and George heard the bolts drawn. He was beside himself with passion, and knocked again and again, but there was no answer. He was inclined to try and break open the door at first, or seek an entrance through a window, but he thought of Priscilla, and desisted.

He was turning homewards, when he reflected that it would be useless to attempt to go to sleep, and he wandered out into the country towards Piddingfold, pondering over many things. The reaction of that night had been too severe. His ardour was again almost entirely quenched when he saw the men for whom he had worked, and who professed themselves his supporters, filthily drunk. A noble sentence, however, from The Idler came into his mind⁠—his mother had a copy of The Idler in her bedroom, and read and reread it, and oftentimes quoted it to her husband and her son⁠—“He that has improved the virtue or advanced the happiness of one fellow-creature⁠ ⁠… may be contented with his own performance; and, with respect to mortals like himself, may demand, like Augustus, to be dismissed at his departure with applause.” He reflected that he, an ironmonger’s son, was not born to save the world, and if the great Dr. Johnson could say what he did, with how little ought not a humble Cowfold tradesman to be satisfied! We all of us have too vast a conception of the duty which Providence has imposed upon us; and one great service which modern geology and astronomy have rendered is the abatement of the fever by which earnest people are so often consumed. But George’s meditations all through that night were in the main about his wife, and as soon as he reached his shop in the morning, the first thing he did was to write a note to her telling her to come home. This she did, although her mother and father objected, and George found her there at dinnertime. She looked pale and careworn, but this, of course, was set down to fright. She was unusually quiet, and George forbore to say anything about her father’s behaviour. He dreaded rather to open the subject; he could not tell to what it might lead. Priscilla knew all about George’s repulse from her father’s door, and George could tell she knew it.

His father and he had determined that Cowfold would not be a pleasant place for them on the following Sunday, and that business, moreover, demanded their presence in London. Thither, accordingly, they went on the Saturday, as usual; and Priscilla naturally communicating their intention to her mother, Mr. Thomas Broad received an epistle from his father something like one we have already read, but still more imperative in its orders that the dutiful son should see whether the Allens made Zachariah’s house their headquarters. That they did not sleep there was well-known, but it was believed they had constant intercourse with that unregenerate person, a disciple of Voltaire, as the Reverend John Broad firmly believed, and it would be “advantageous to possess accumulated evidence of the fact.” Priscilla knew that they lodged always at the George and Blue Boar; but how they spent their time on Sunday she did not know. There was also a postscript, this time with a new import:

It has been reported that Coleman’s daughter is a young female not without a certain degree of attractiveness. It may perhaps, my dear Thomas, be some day of service to me and to the church if you were to inform me whether you have observed any tendencies towards familiarity between George and this person. I need not at the present moment give you my reasons for this inquiry. It will be sufficient to say that I have nothing more in view than the welfare of the flock which Divine Providence has committed to my charge.

Mr. Thomas did his duty, and a letter was received by his father on the following Tuesday, which was carefully locked up in the drawer in which the sermons were preserved.

The next day⁠—that is to say, on Wednesday⁠—George was at work, as usual, when his little maid came to say that her mistress was very bad, and would he go home directly? She had been unwell for some days, but it was not thought that there was anything serious the matter with her. George followed the girl at once, and found Priscilla in bed with a violent headache and very feverish. The doctor came, and pronounced it a case of “low fever,” a disease well enough known in Cowfold. Let us make the dismal story as brief as possible. Nurse Barton, hearing of her “dear boy’s” trouble, presented herself uninvited that evening at ten o’clock, and insisted that George should not sit up. She remained in the house, notwithstanding Mrs. Broad’s assurances that she really was not wanted, and watched over Priscilla till the end came.

About a week afterwards, just when Priscilla seemed to be getting a little better⁠—she had been delirious, but her senses had returned⁠—and Mrs. Allen, who had been in the house all day, had departed, a change for the worse took place, and the doctor was summoned. George, sitting in the parlour alone, heard Nurse Barton come downstairs.

“My dear boy,” she said as she entered, “God in His mercy strengthen you in this trial as He has laid upon you, but I thought I’d just come and tell you myself. The doctor wor a-comm’, but I said ‘No; my boy shall hear it from me.’ I don’t think as your wife will get better; she don’t seem to pull herself up a bit. She a’nt got no strength no more than a fly. You’d better see her, I think.”

“Who is there?”

“Her mother and the doctor.”

“Can’t you get rid of them?”

“All right, my dear. I must stay with you both, but you won’t mind me⁠—God bless you!” and the woman put her arms round George’s neck and kissed him tenderly.

She returned, and presently she redeemed her promise, for she actually got Mrs. Broad away. At first she was obstinate, but Priscilla whispered that she wished to see her husband alone, and the doctor took upon him to warn Mrs. Broad that resistance on her part might be dangerous. She then retreated with him, and George found himself by the bedside. His wife was so prostrate that she was hardly able to make herself heard, but she lifted up her finger and made a sign that he should bend his head down to her. He bent it down, and her damp brown hair⁠—the beautiful brown hair he had loved so⁠—lay on his forehead, and its scent was all about him once more.

“George, my dear,” she just breathed out, “I am a poor silly girl, but I always loved you.”

He stopped her instantly with his kisses, but Death had stopped her too. He recoiled for a moment, and with a sudden scream. “O God, she’s gone!” he fell into the arms of his nurse, who stood behind him.