Janet's Repentance, by George Eliot

Chapter 11

Mr. Tryan’s most unfriendly observers were obliged to admit that he gave himself no rest. Three sermons on Sunday, a night-school for young men on Tuesday, a cottage-lecture on Thursday, addresses to school-teachers, and catechizing of school-children, with pastoral visits, multiplying as his influence extended beyond his own district of Paddiford Common, would have been enough to tax severely the powers of a much stronger man. Mr. Pratt remonstrated with him on his imprudence, but could not prevail on him so far to economize time and strength as to keep a horse. On some ground or other, which his friends found difficult to explain to themselves, Mr. Tryan seemed bent on wearing himself out. His enemies were at no loss to account for such a course. The Evangelical curate’s selfishness was clearly of too bad a kind to exhibit itself after the ordinary manner of a sound, respectable selfishness. ‘He wants to get the reputation of a saint,’ said one; ‘He’s eaten up with spiritual pride,’ said another; ‘He’s got his eye on some fine living, and wants to creep up the Bishop’s sleeve,’ said a third.

Mr. Stickney, of Salem, who considered all voluntary discomfort as a remnant of the legal spirit, pronounced a severe condemnation on this self-neglect, and expressed his fear that Mr. Tryan was still far from having attained true Christian liberty. Good Mr. Jerome eagerly seized this doctrinal view of the subject as a means of enforcing the suggestions of his own benevolence; and one cloudy afternoon, in the end of November, he mounted his roan mare with the determination of riding to Paddiford and ‘arguying’ the point with Mr. Tryan.

The old gentleman’s face looked very mournful as he rode along the dismal Paddiford lanes, between rows of grimy houses, darkened with hand-looms, while the black dust was whirled about him by the cold November wind. He was thinking of the object which had brought him on this afternoon ride, and his thoughts, according to his habit when alone, found vent every now and then in audible speech. It seemed to him, as his eyes rested on this scene of Mr. Tryan’s labours, that he could understand the clergyman’s self-privation without resorting to Mr. Stickney’s theory of defective spiritual enlightenment. Do not philosophic doctors tell us that we are unable to discern so much as a tree, except by an unconscious cunning which combines many past and separate sensations; that no one sense is independent of another, so that in the dark we can hardly taste a fricassee, or tell whether our pipe is alight or not, and the most intelligent boy, if accommodated with claws or hoofs instead of fingers, would be likely to remain on the lowest form? If so, it is easy to understand that our discernment of men’s motives must depend on the completeness of the elements we can bring from our own susceptibility and our own experience. See to it, friend, before you pronounce a too hasty judgement, that your own moral sensibilities are not of a hoofed or clawed character. The keenest eye will not serve, unless you have the delicate fingers, with their subtle nerve filaments, which elude scientific lenses, and lose themselves in the invisible world of human sensations.

As for Mr. Jerome, he drew the elements of his moral vision from the depths of his veneration and pity. If he himself felt so much for these poor things to whom life was so dim and meagre, what must the clergyman feel who had undertaken before God to be their shepherd?

‘Ah!’ he whispered, interruptedly, ‘it’s too big a load for his conscience, poor man! He wants to mek himself their brother, like; can’t abide to preach to the fastin’ on a full stomach. Ah! he’s better nor we are, that’s it — he’s a deal better nor we are.’

Here Mr. Jerome shook his bridle violently, and looked up with an air of moral courage, as if Mr. Stickney had been present, and liable to take offence at this conclusion. A few minutes more brought him in front of Mrs. Wagstaff’s, where Mr. Tryan lodged. He had often been here before, so that the contrast between this ugly square brick house, with its shabby bit of grass-plot, stared at all round by cottage windows, and his own pretty white home, set in a paradise of orchard and garden and pasture was not new to him; but he felt it with fresh force today, as he slowly fastened his roan by the bridle to the wooden paling, and knocked at the door. Mr. Tryan was at home, and sent to request that Mr. Jerome would walk up into his study, as the fire was out in the parlour below.

At the mention of a clergyman’s study, perhaps, your too active imagination conjures up a perfect snuggery, where the general air of comfort is rescued from a secular character by strong ecclesiastical suggestions in the shape of the furniture, the pattern of the carpet, and the prints on the wall; where, if a nap is taken, it is an easy-chair with a Gothic back, and the very feet rest on a warm and velvety simulation of church windows; where the pure art of rigorous English Protestantism smiles above the mantelpiece in the portrait of an eminent bishop, or a refined Anglican taste is indicated by a German print from Overbeck; where the walls are lined with choice divinity in sombre binding, and the light is softened by a screen of boughs with a grey church in the background.

But I must beg you to dismiss all such scenic prettiness, suitable as they may be to a clergyman’s character and complexion; for I have to confess that Mr. Tryan’s study was a very ugly little room indeed, with an ugly slapdash pattern on the walls, an ugly carpet on the floor, and an ugly view of cottage roofs and cabbage-gardens from the window. His own person his writing-table, and his book-case, were the only objects in the room that had the slightest air of refinement; and the sole provision for comfort was a clumsy straight-backed arm-chair covered with faded chintz. The man who could live in such a room, unconstrained by poverty, must either have his vision fed from within by an intense passion, or he must have chosen that least attractive form of self-mortification which wears no haircloth and has no meagre days, but accepts the vulgar, the commonplace, and the ugly, whenever the highest duty seems to lie among them.

‘Mr. Tryan, I hope you’ll excuse me disturbin’ on you,’ said Mr. Jerome. ‘But I’d summat partickler to say.’

‘You don’t disturb me at all, Mr. Jerome; I’m very glad to have a visit from you,’ said Mr. Tryan, shaking him heartily by the hand, and offering him the chintz-covered ‘easy’ chair; ‘it is some time since I’ve had an opportunity of seeing you, except on a Sunday.’

‘Ah, sir! your time’s so taken up, I’m well aware o’ that; it’s not only what you hev to do, but it’s goin’ about from place to place; an’ you don’t keep a hoss, Mr. Tryan. You don’t take care enough o’ yourself — you don’t indeed, an’ that’s what I come to talk to y’ about.’

‘That’s very good of you, Mr. Jerome; but I assure you I think walking does me no harm. It is rather a relief to me after speaking or writing. You know I have no great circuit to make. The farthest distance I have to walk is to Milby Church, and if ever I want a horse on a Sunday, I hire Radley’s, who lives not many hundred yards from me.’

‘Well, but now! the winter’s comin’ on, an’ you’ll get wet i’ your feet, an’ Pratt tells me as your constitution’s dillicate, as anybody may see, for the matter o’ that, wi’out bein’ a doctor. An’ this is the light I look at it in, Mr. Tryan: who’s to fill up your place, if you was to be disabled, as I may say? Consider what a valyable life yours is. You’ve begun a great work i’ Milby, and so you might carry it on, if you’d your health and strength. The more care you take o’ yourself, the longer you’ll live, belike, God willing, to do good to your fellow-creaturs.’

‘Why, my dear Mr. Jerome, I think I should not be a long-lived man in any case; and if I were to take care of myself under the pretext of doing more good, I should very likely die and leave nothing done after all.’

‘Well! but keepin’ a hoss wouldn’t hinder you from workin’. It ‘ud help you to do more, though Pratt says as it’s usin’ your voice so constant as does you the most harm. Now, isn’t it — I’m no scholard, Mr. Tryan, an’ I’m not a-goin’ to dictate to you — but isn’t it a’most a-killin’ o’ yourself, to go on a’ that way beyond your strength? We mustn’t fling ower lives away.’

‘No, not fling them away lightly, but we are permitted to lay down our lives in a right cause. There are many duties, as you know, Mr. Jerome, which stand before taking care of our own lives.’

‘Ah! I can’t arguy wi’ you, Mr. Tryan; but what I wanted to say’s this — There’s my little chacenut hoss; I should take it quite a kindness if you’d hev him through the winter an’ ride him. I’ve thought o’ sellin’ him a many times, for Mrs. Jerome can’t abide him; and what do I want wi’ two nags? But I’m fond o’ the little chacenut, an’ I shouldn’t like to sell him. So if you’ll only ride him for me, you’ll do me a kindness — you will, indeed, Mr. Tryan.’

‘Thank you, Mr. Jerome. I promise you to ask for him, when I feel that I want a nag. There is no man I would more gladly be indebted to than you; but at present I would rather not have a horse. I should ride him very little, and it would be an inconvenience to me to keep him rather than otherwise.’

Mr. Jerome looked troubled and hesitating, as if he had something on his mind that would not readily shape itself into words. At last he said, ‘You’ll excuse me, Mr. Tryan, I wouldn’t be takin’ a liberty, but I know what great claims you hev on you as a clergyman. Is it th’ expense, Mr. Tryan? is it the money?’

‘No, my dear sir. I have much more than a single man needs. My way of living is quite of my own choosing, and I am doing nothing but what I feel bound to do, quite apart from money considerations. We cannot judge for one another, you know; we have each our peculiar weaknesses and temptations. I quite admit that it might be right for another man to allow himself more luxuries, and I assure you I think it no superiority in myself to do without them. On the contrary, if my heart were less rebellious, and if I were less liable to temptation, I should not need that sort of self-denial. But,’ added Mr. Tryan, holding out his hand to Mr. Jerome, ‘I understand your kindness, and bless you for it. If I want a horse, I shall ask for the chesnut.’

Mr. Jerome was obliged to rest contented with this promise, and rode home sorrowfully, reproaching himself with not having said one thing he meant to say when setting out, and with having ‘clean forgot’ the arguments he had intended to quote from Mr. Stickney.

Mr. Jerome’s was not the only mind that was seriously disturbed by the idea that the curate was over-working himself. There were tender women’s hearts in which anxiety about the state of his affections was beginning to be merged in anxiety about the state of his health. Miss Eliza Pratt had at one time passed through much sleepless cogitation on the possibility of Mr. Tryan’s being attached to some lady at a distance — at Laxeter, perhaps, where he had formerly held a curacy; and her fine eyes kept close watch lest any symptom of engaged affections on his part should escape her. It seemed an alarming fact that his handkerchiefs were beautifully marked with hair, until she reflected that he had an unmarried sister of whom he spoke with much affection as his father’s companion and comforter. Besides, Mr. Tryan had never paid any distant visit, except one for a few days to his father, and no hint escaped him of his intending to take a house, or change his mode of living. No! he could not be engaged, though he might have been disappointed. But this latter misfortune is one from which a devoted clergyman has been known to recover, by the aid of a fine pair of grey eyes that beam on him with affectionate reverence. Before Christmas, however, her cogitations began to take another turn. She heard her father say very confidently that ‘Tryan was consumptive, and if he didn’t take more care of himself, his life would not be worth a year’s purchase;’ and shame at having speculated on suppositions that were likely to prove so false, sent poor Miss Eliza’s feelings with all the stronger impetus into the one channel of sorrowful alarm at the prospect of losing the pastor who had opened to her a new life of piety and self-subjection. It is a sad weakness in us, after all, that the thought of a man’s death hallows him anew to us; as if life were not sacred too — as if it were comparatively a light thing to fail in love and reverence to the brother who has to climb the whole toilsome steep with us, and all our tears and tenderness were due to the one who is spared that hard journey.

The Miss Linnets, too, were beginning to take a new view of the future, entirely uncoloured by jealousy of Miss Eliza Pratt.

‘Did you notice,’ said Mary, one afternoon when Mrs. Pettifer was taking tea with them —‘did you notice that short dry cough of Mr. Tryan’s yesterday? I think he looks worse and worse every week, and I only wish I knew his sister; I would write to her about him. I’m sure something should be done to make him give up part of his work, and he will listen to no one here.’

‘Ah,’ said Mrs. Pettifer, ‘it’s a thousand pities his father and sister can’t come and live with him, if he isn’t to marry. But I wish with all my heart he could have taken to some nice woman as would have made a comfortable home for him. I used to think he might take to Eliza Pratt; she’s a good girl, and very pretty; but I see no likelihood of it now.’

‘No, indeed.’ said Rebecca, with some emphasis: ‘Mr. Tryan’s heart is not for any woman to win; it is all given to his work; and I could never wish to see him with a young inexperienced wife who would be a drag on him instead of a help-mate.’

‘He’d need have somebody, young or old,’ observed Mrs. Linnet, ‘to see as he wears a flannel wescoat, an’ changes his stockins when he comes in. It’s my opinion he’s got that cough wi’ sittin i’ wet shoes and stockins; an’ that Mrs. Wagstaff’s a poor addle-headed thing; she doesn’t half tek care on him.’

‘O mother!’ said Rebecca, ‘she’s a very pious woman. And I’m sure she thinks it too great a privilege to have Mr. Tryan with her, not to do the best she can to make him comfortable. She can’t help her rooms being shabby.’

‘I’ve nothing to say again’ her piety, my dear; but I know very well I shouldn’t like her to cook my victual. When a man comes in hungry an’ tired, piety won’t feed him, I reckon. Hard carrots ‘ull lie heavy on his stomach, piety or no piety. I called in one day when she was dishin’ up Mr. Tryan’s dinner, an’ I could see the potatoes was as watery as watery. It’s right enough to be speritial — I’m no enemy to that; but I like my potatoes mealy. I don’t see as anybody ‘ull go to heaven the sooner for not digestin’ their dinner — providin’ they don’t die sooner, as mayhap Mr. Tryan will, poor dear man!’

‘It will be a heavy day for us all when that comes to pass,’ said Mrs. Pettifer. ‘We shall never get anybody to fill up that gap. There’s the new clergyman that’s just come to Shepperton — Mr. Parry; I saw him the other day at Mrs. Bond’s. He may be a very good man, and a fine preacher; they say he is; but I thought to myself, What a difference between him and Mr. Tryan! He’s a sharp-sort-of-looking man, and hasn’t that feeling way with him that Mr. Tryan has. What is so wonderful to me in Mr. Tryan is the way he puts himself on a level with one, and talks to one like a brother. I’m never afraid of telling him anything. He never seems to look down on anybody. He knows how to lift up those that are cast down, if ever man did.’

‘Yes,’ said Mary. ‘And when I see all the faces turned up to him in Paddiford Church. I often think how hard it would be for any clergyman who had to come after him; he has made the people love him so.’

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 21:42