Janet's Repentance, by George Eliot

Chapter 22

It was probably a hard saying to the Pharisees, that ‘there is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, than over ninety and nine just persons that need no repentance.’ And certain ingenious philosophers of our own day must surely take offence at a joy so entirely out of correspondence with arithmetical proportion. But a heart that has been taught by its own sore struggles to bleed for the woes of another — that has ‘learned pity through suffering’— is likely to find very imperfect satisfaction in the ‘balance of happiness,’ ‘doctrine of compensations,’ and other short and easy methods of obtaining thorough complacency in the presence of pain; and for such a heart that saying will not be altogether dark. The emotions, I have observed, are but slightly influenced by arithmetical considerations: the mother, when her sweet lisping little ones have all been taken from her one after another, and she is hanging over her last dead babe, finds small consolation in the fact that the tiny dimpled corpse is but one of a necessary average, and that a thousand other babes brought into the world at the same time are doing well, and are likely to live; and if you stood beside that mother — if you knew her pang and shared it — it is probable you would be equally unable to see a ground of complacency in statistics.

Doubtless a complacency resting on that basis is highly rational; but emotion, I fear, is obstinately irrational: it insists on caring for individuals; it absolutely refuses to adopt the quantitative view of human anguish, and to admit that thirteen happy lives are a set-off against twelve miserable lives, which leaves a clear balance on the side of satisfaction. This is the inherent imbecility of feeling, and one must be a great philosopher to have got quite clear of all that, and to have emerged into the serene air of pure intellect, in which it is evident that individuals really exist for no other purpose than that abstractions may be drawn from them — abstractions that may rise from heaps of ruined lives like the sweet savour of a sacrifice in the nostrils of philosophers, and of a philosophic Deity. And so it comes to pass that for the man who knows sympathy because he has known sorrow, that old, old saying about the joy of angels over the repentant sinner outweighing their joy over the ninety-nine just, has a meaning which does not jar with the language of his own heart. It only tells him, that for angels too there is a transcendent value in human pain, which refuses to be settled by equations; that the eyes of angels too are turned away from the serene happiness of the righteous to bend with yearning pity on the poor erring soul wandering in the desert where no water is: that for angels too the misery of one casts so tremendous a shadow as to eclipse the bliss of ninety-nine.

Mr. Tryan had gone through the initiation of suffering: it is no wonder, then, that Janet’s restoration was the work that lay nearest his heart; and that, weary as he was in body when he entered the vestry after the evening service, he was impatient to fulfil the promise of seeing her. His experience enabled him to divine — what was the fact — that the hopefulness of the morning would be followed by a return of depression and discouragement; and his sense of the inward and outward difficulties in the way of her restoration was so keen, that he could only find relief from the foreboding it excited by lifting up his heart in prayer. There are unseen elements which often frustrate our wisest calculations — which raise up the sufferer from the edge of the grave, contradicting the prophecies of the clear-sighted physician, and fulfilling the blind clinging hopes of affection; such unseen elements Mr. Tryan called the Divine Will, and filled up the margin of ignorance which surrounds all our knowledge with the feelings of trust and resignation. Perhaps the profoundest philosophy could hardly fill it up better.

His mind was occupied in this way as he was absently taking off his gown, when Mr. Landor startled him by entering the vestry and asking abruptly, ‘Have you heard the news about Dempster?’

‘No,’ said Mr. Tryan, anxiously; ‘what is it?’

‘He has been thrown out of his gig in the Bridge Way, and he was taken up for dead. They were carrying him home as we were coming to church, and I stayed behind to see what I could do. I went in to speak to Mrs. Dempster, and prepare her a little, but she was not at home. Dempster is not dead, however, he was stunned with the fall. Pilgrim came in a few minutes, and he says the right leg is broken in two places. It’s likely to be a terrible case, with his state of body. It seems he was more drunk than usual, and they say he came along the Bridge Way flogging his horse like a madman, till at last it gave a sudden wheel, and he was pitched out. The servants said they didn’t know where Mrs. Dempster was: she had been away from home since yesterday morning; but Mrs. Raynor knew.’

‘I know where she is,’ said Mr. Tryan; ‘but I think it will be better for her not to be told of this just yet.’

‘Ah, that was what Pilgrim said, and so I didn’t go round to Mrs. Raynor’s. He said it would be all the better if Mrs. Dempster could be kept out of the house for the present. Do you know if anything new has happened between Dempster and his wife lately? I was surprised to hear of her being at Paddiford Church this morning.’

‘Yes, something has happened; but I believe she is anxious that the particulars of his behaviour towards her should not be known. She is at Mrs. Pettifer’s — there is no reason for concealing that, since what has happened to her husband; and yesterday, when she was in very deep trouble, she sent for me. I was very thankful she did so: I believe a great change of feeling has begun in her. But she is at present in that excitable state of mind — she has been shaken by so many painful emotions during the last two days, that I think it would be better, for this evening at least, to guard her from a new shock, if possible. But I am going now to call upon her, and I shall see how she is.’

‘Mr. Tryan,’ said Mr. Jerome, who had entered during the dialogue, and had been standing by, listening with a distressed face, ‘I shall take it as a favour if you’ll let me know if iver there’s anything I can do for Mrs. Dempster. Eh, dear, what a world this is! I think I see ’em fifteen year ago — as happy a young couple as iver was; and now, what it’s all come to! I was in a hurry, like, to punish Dempster for pessecutin’, but there was a stronger hand at work nor mine.’

‘Yes, Mr. Jerome; but don’t let us rejoice in punishment, even when the hand of God alone inflicts it. The best of us are but poor wretches just saved from shipwreck: can we feel anything but awe and pity when we see a fellow-passenger swallowed by the waves?’

‘Right, right, Mr. Tryan. I’m over hot and hasty, that I am. But I beg on you to tell Mrs. Dempster — I mean, in course, when you’ve an opportunity — tell her she’s a friend at the White House as she may send for any hour o’ the day.’

‘Yes; I shall have an opportunity, I dare say, and I will remember your wish. I think,’ continued Mr. Tryan, turning to Mr. Landor, ‘I had better see Mr. Pilgrim on my way, and learn what is exactly the state of things by this time. What do you think?’

‘By all means: if Mrs. Dempster is to know, there’s no one can break the news to her so well as you. I’ll walk with you to Dempster’s door. I dare say Pilgrim is there still. Come, Mr. Jerome, you’ve got to go our way too, to fetch your horse.’

Mr. Pilgrim was in the passage giving some directions to his assistant, when, to his surprise, he saw Mr. Tryan enter. They shook hands; for Mr. Pilgrim, never having joined the party of the Anti-Tryanites, had no ground for resisting the growing conviction, that the Evangelical curate was really a good fellow, though he was a fool for not taking better care of himself.

‘Why, I didn’t expect to see you in your old enemy’s quarters,’ he said to Mr. Tryan. ‘However, it will be a good while before poor Dempster shows any fight again.’

‘I came on Mrs. Dempster’s account,’ said Mr. Tryan. ‘She is staying at Mrs. Pettifer’s; she has had a great shock from some severe domestic trouble lately, and I think it will be wiser to defer telling her of this dreadful event for a short time.’

‘Why, what has been up, eh?’ said Mr. Pilgrim, whose curiosity was at once awakened. ‘She used to be no friend of yours. Has there been some split between them? It’s a new thing for her to turn round on him.’

‘O, merely an exaggeration of scenes that must often have happened before. But the question now is, whether you think there is any immediate danger of her husband’s death; for in that case, I think, from what I have observed of her feelings, she would be pained afterwards to have been kept in ignorance.’

‘Well, there’s no telling in these cases, you know. I don’t apprehend speedy death, and it is not absolutely impossible that we may bring him round again. At present he’s in a state of apoplectic stupor; but if that subsides, delirium is almost sure to supervene, and we shall have some painful scenes. It’s one of those complicated cases in which the delirium is likely to be of the worst kind — meningitis and delirium tremens together — and we may have a good deal of trouble with him. If Mrs. Dempster were told, I should say it would be desirable to persuade her to remain out of the house at present. She could do no good, you know. I’ve got nurses.’

‘Thank you,’ said Mr. Tryan. ‘That is what I wanted to know. Good-bye.’

When Mrs. Pettifer opened the door for Mr. Tryan, he told her in a few words what had happened, and begged her to take an opportunity of letting Mrs. Raynor know, that they might, if possible, concur in preventing a premature or sudden disclosure of the event to Janet.

‘Poor thing!’ said Mrs. Pettifer. ‘She’s not fit to hear any bad news; she’s very low this evening — worn out with feeling; and she’s not had anything to keep her up, as she’s been used to. She seems frightened at the thought of being tempted to take it.’

‘Thank God for it; that fear is her greatest security.’

When Mr. Tryan entered the parlour this time, Janet was again awaiting him eagerly, and her pale sad face was lighted up with a smile as she rose to meet him. But the next moment she said, with a look of anxiety — ‘How very ill and tired you look! You have been working so hard all day, and yet you are come to talk to me. O, you are wearing yourself out. I must go and ask Mrs. Pettifer to come and make you have some supper. But this is my mother; you have not seen her before, I think.’

While Mr. Tryan was speaking to Mrs. Raynor, Janet hurried out, and he, seeing that this good-natured thoughtfulness on his behalf would help to counteract her depression, was not inclined to oppose her wish, but accepted the supper Mrs. Pettifer offered him, quietly talking the while about a clothing club he was going to establish in Paddiford, and the want of provident habits among the poor.

Presently, however, Mrs. Raynor said she must go home for an hour, to see how her little maiden was going on, and Mrs. Pettifer left the room with her to take the opportunity of telling her what had happened to Dempster. When Janet was left alone with Mr. Tryan, she said — ‘I feel so uncertain what to do about my husband. I am so weak — my feelings change so from hour to hour. This morning, when I felt so hopeful and happy, I thought I should like to go back to him, and try to make up for what has been wrong in me. I thought, now God would help me, and I should have you to teach and advise me, and I could bear the troubles that would come. But since then — all this afternoon and evening — I have had the same feelings I used to have, the same dread of his anger and cruelty, and it seems to me as if I should never be able to bear it without falling into the same sins, and doing just what I did before. Yet, if it were settled that I should live apart from him, I know it would always be a load on my mind that I had shut myself out from going back to him. It seems a dreadful thing in life, when any one has been so near to one as a husband for fifteen years, to part and be nothing to each other any more. Surely that is a very strong tie, and I feel as if my duty can never lie quite away from it. It is very difficult to know what to do: what ought I to do?’

‘I think it will be well not to take any decisive step yet. Wait until your mind is calmer. You might remain with your mother for a little while; I think you have no real ground for fearing any annoyance from your husband at present; he has put himself too much in the wrong; he will very likely leave you unmolested for some time. Dismiss this difficult question from your mind just now, if you can. Every new day may bring you new grounds for decision, and what is most needful for your health of mind is repose from that haunting anxiety about the future which has been preying on you. Cast yourself on God, and trust that He will direct you; he will make your duty clear to you, if you wait submissively on Him.’

‘Yes; I will wait a little, as you tell me. I will go to my mother’s tomorrow, and pray to be guided rightly. You will pray for me, too.’

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