Janet's Repentance, by George Eliot

Chapter 23

The next morning Janet was so much calmer, and at breakfast spoke so decidedly of going to her mother’s, that Mrs. Pettifer and Mrs. Raynor agreed it would be wise to let her know by degrees what had befallen her husband, since as soon as she went out there would be danger of her meeting some one who would betray the fact. But Mrs. Raynor thought it would be well first to call at Dempster’s, and ascertain how he was: so she said to Janet — ‘My dear, I’ll go home first, and see to things, and get your room ready. You needn’t come yet, you know. I shall be back again in an hour or so, and we can go together.’

‘O no,’ said Mrs. Pettifer. ‘Stay with me till evening. I shall be lost without you. You needn’t go till quite evening.’

Janet had dipped into the ‘Life of Henry Martyn,’ which Mrs. Pettifer had from the Paddiford Lending Library, and her interest was so arrested by that pathetic missionary story, that she readily acquiesced in both propositions, and Mrs. Raynor set out.

She had been gone more than an hour, and it was nearly twelve o’clock, when Janet put down her book; and after sitting meditatively for some minutes with her eyes unconsciously fixed on the opposite wall, she rose, went to her bedroom, and, hastily putting on her bonnet and shawl, came down to Mrs. Pettifer, who was busy in the kitchen.

‘Mrs. Pettifer,’ she said, ‘tell mother, when she comes back, I’m gone to see what has become of those poor Lakins in Butchers Lane. I know they’re half starving, and I’ve neglected them so, lately. And then, I think, I’ll go on to Mrs. Crewe. I want to see the dear little woman, and tell her myself about my going to hear Mr. Tryan. She won’t feel it half so much if I tell her myself.’

‘Won’t you wait till your mother comes, or put it off till tomorrow?’ said Mrs. Pettifer, alarmed. ‘You’ll hardly be back in time for dinner, if you get talking to Mrs. Crewe. And you’ll have to pass by your husband’s, you know; and yesterday, you were so afraid of seeing him.’

‘O, Robert will be shut up at the office now, if he’s not gone out of the town. I must go — I feel I must be doing something for some one — not be a mere useless log any longer. I’ve been reading about that wonderful Henry Martyn; he’s just like Mr. Tryan — wearing himself out for other people, and I sit thinking of nothing but myself. I must go. Good-bye; I shall be back soon.’

She ran off before Mrs. Pettifer could utter another word of dissuasion, leaving the good woman in considerable anxiety lest this new impulse of Janet’s should frustrate all precautions to save her from a sudden shock.

Janet having paid her visit in Butcher Lane, turned again into Orchard Street on her way to Mrs. Crewe’s, and was thinking, rather sadly, that her mother’s economical housekeeping would leave no abundant surplus to be sent to the hungry Lakins, when she saw Mr. Pilgrim in advance of her on the other side of the street. He was walking at a rapid pace, and when he reached Dempster’s door he turned and entered without knocking.

Janet was startled. Mr. Pilgrim would never enter in that way unless there were some one very ill in the house. It was her husband; she felt certain of it at once. Something had happened to him. Without a moment’s pause, she ran across the street, opened the door, and entered. There was no one in the passage. The dining-room door was wide open — no one was there. Mr. Pilgrim, then, was already up-stairs. She rushed up at once to Dempster’s room — her own room. The door was open, and she paused in pale horror at the sight before her, which seemed to stand out only with the more appalling distinctness because the noonday light was darkened to twilight in the chamber.

Two strong nurses were using their utmost force to hold Dempster in bed, while the medical assistant was applying a sponge to his head, and Mr. Pilgrim was busy adjusting some apparatus in the background. Dempster’s face was purple and swollen, his eyes dilated, and fixed with a look of dire terror on something he seemed to see approaching him from the iron closet. He trembled violently, and struggled as if to jump out of bed.

‘Let me go, let me go,’ he said in a loud, hoarse whisper; ‘she’s coming . . . she’s cold . . . she’s dead . . . she’ll strangle me with her black hair. Ah!’ he shrieked aloud, ‘her hair is all serpents . . . they’re black serpents . . . they hiss . . . they hiss . .. let me go . . . let me go . . . she wants to drag me with her cold arms . . . her arms are serpents . . . they are great white serpents . . . they’ll twine round me . . . she wants to drag me into the cold water . . . her bosom is cold . . . it is black . . . it is all serpents . . . ’

‘No, Robert,’ Janet cried, in tones of yearning pity, rushing to the side of the bed, and stretching out her arms towards him, ‘no, here is Janet. She is not dead — she forgives you.’

Dempster’s maddened senses seemed to receive some new impression from her appearance. The terror gave way to rage.

‘Ha! you sneaking hypocrite!’ he burst out in a grating voice, ‘you threaten me . . . you mean to have your revenge on me, do you? Do your worst! I’ve got the law on my side . . . I know the law . . . I’ll hunt you down like a hare . . . prove it . . . prove that I was tampered with . . . prove that I took the money . . . prove it . . . you can prove nothing . . . you damned psalm-singing maggots! I’ll make a fire under you, and smoke off the whole pack of you . . . I’ll sweep you up . . . I’ll grind you to powder . . . small powder . . . (here his voice dropt to a low tone of shuddering disgust) . . . powder on the bed-clothes . . . running about . . . black lice . . . they are coming in swarms . . . Janet! come and take them away . . . curse you! why don’t you come? Janet!’

Poor Janet was kneeling by the bed with her face buried in her hands. She almost wished her worst moment back again rather than this. It seemed as if her husband was already imprisoned in misery, and she could not reach him — his ear deaf for ever to the sounds of love and forgiveness. His sins had made a hard crust round his soul; her pitying voice could not pierce it.

‘Not there, isn’t she?’ he went on in a defiant tone. ‘Why do you ask me where she is? I’ll have every drop of yellow blood out of your veins if you come questioning me. Your blood is yellow . . . in your purse . . . running out of your purse . . . What! you’re changing it into toads, are you? They’re crawling . . . they’re flying . . . they’re flying about my head . . . the toads are flying about. Ostler! ostler! bring out my gig . . . bring it out, you lazy beast . . . ha! you’ll follow me, will you? . . . you’ll fly about my head . . . you’ve got fiery tongues . . . Ostler! curse you! why don’t you come? Janet! come and take the toads away . . . Janet!’

This last time he uttered her name with such a shriek of terror, that Janet involuntarily started up from her knees, and stood as if petrified by the horrible vibration. Dempster stared wildly in silence for some months; then he spoke again in a hoarse whisper:—‘Dead . . . is she dead? She did it, then. She buried herself in the iron chest . . . she left her clothes out, though . . . she isn’t dead . . . why do you pretend she’s dead? . . . she’s coming . . . she’s coming out of the iron closet . . . there are the black serpents . . . stop her . . . let me go . . . stop her . . . she wants to drag me away into the cold black water . . . her bosom is black . . . it is all serpents . . . they are getting longer . . . the great white serpents are getting longer . . . ’

Here Mr. Pilgrim came forward with the apparatus to bind him, but Dempster’s struggles became more and more violent. ‘Ostler! ostler!’ he shouted, ‘bring out the gig . . . give me the whip!’— and bursting loose from the strong hands that held him, he began to flog the bed-clothes furiously with his right arm.

‘Get along, you lame brute! — sc — sc — sc! that’s it! there you go! They think they’ve outwitted me, do they? The sneaking idiots! I’ll be up with them by-and-by. I’ll make them say the Lord’s Prayer backwards . . . I’ll pepper them so that the devil shall eat them raw . . . sc — sc — sc — we shall see who’ll be the winner yet . . . get along, you damned limping beast . . . I’ll lay your back open . . . I’ll . . . ’

He raised himself with a stronger effort than ever to flog the bed-clothes, and fell back in convulsions. Janet gave a scream, and sank on her knees again. She thought he was dead.

As soon as Mr. Pilgrim was able to give her a moment’s attention, he came to her, and, taking her by the arm, attempted to draw her gently out of the room.

‘Now, my dear Mrs. Dempster, let me persuade you not to remain in the room at present. We shall soon relieve these symptoms, I hope: it is nothing but the delirium that ordinarily attends such cases.’

‘Oh, what is the matter? what brought it on?’

‘He fell out of the gig; the right leg is broken. It is a terrible accident, and I don’t disguise that there is considerable danger attending it, owing to the state of the brain. But Mr. Dempster has a strong constitution, you know; in a few days these symptoms may be allayed, and he may do well. Let me beg of you to keep out of the room at present: you can do no good until Mr. Dempster is better, and able to know you. But you ought not to be alone; let me advise you to have Mrs. Raynor with you.’

‘Yes, I will send for mother. But you must not object to my being in the room. I shall be very quiet now, only just at first the shock was so great; I knew nothing about it. I can help the nurses a great deal; I can put the cold things to his head. He may be sensible for a moment and know me. Pray do not say any more against it: my heart is set on being with him.’

Mr. Pilgrim gave way, and Janet, having sent for her mother and put off her bonnet and shawl, returned to take her place by the side of her husband’s bed.

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