Janet's Repentance, by George Eliot

Chapter 25

The faces looked very hard and unmoved that surrounded Dempster’s grave, while old Mr. Crewe read the burial-service in his low, broken voice. The pall-bearers were such men as Mr. Pittman, Mr. Lowme, and Mr. Budd — men whom Dempster had called his friends while he was in life; and worldly faces never look so worldly as at a funeral. They have the same effect of grating incongruity as the sound of a coarse voice breaking the solemn silence of night.

The one face that had sorrow in it was covered by a thick crape-veil, and the sorrow was suppressed and silent. No one knew how deep it was; for the thought in most of her neighbours’ minds was, that Mrs. Dempster could hardly have had better fortune than to lose a bad husband who had left her the compensation of a good income. They found it difficult to conceive that her husband’s death could be felt by her otherwise than as a deliverance. The person who was most thoroughly convinced that Janet’s grief was deep and real, was Mr. Pilgrim, who in general was not at all weakly given to a belief in disinterested feeling.

‘That woman has a tender heart,’ he was frequently heard to observe in his morning rounds about this time. ‘I used to think there was a great deal of palaver in her, but you may depend upon it there’s no pretence about her. If he’d been the kindest husband in the world she couldn’t have felt more. There’s a great deal of good in Mrs. Dempster — a great deal of good.’

I always said so,’ was Mrs. Lowme’s reply, when he made the observation to her; ‘she was always so very full of pretty attentions to me when I was ill. But they tell me now she’s turned Tryanite; if that’s it we shan’t agree again. It’s very inconsistent in her, I think, turning round in that way, after being the foremost to laugh at the Tryanite cant, and especially in a woman of her habits; she should cure herself of them before she pretends to be over-religious.’

‘Well, I think she means to cure herself, do you know,’ said Mr. Pilgrim, whose goodwill towards Janet was just now quite above that temperate point at which he could indulge his feminine patients with a little judicious detraction. ‘I feel sure she has not taken any stimulants all through her husband’s illness; and she has been constantly in the way of them. I can see she sometimes suffers a good deal of depression for want of them — it shows all the more resolution in her. Those cures are rare: but I’ve known them happen sometimes with people of strong will.’

Mrs. Lowme took an opportunity of retailing Mr. Pilgrim’s conversation to Mrs. Phipps, who, as a victim of Pratt and plethora, could rarely enjoy that pleasure at first-hand. Mrs. Phipps was a woman of decided opinions, though of wheezy utterance.

‘For my part,’ she remarked, ‘I’m glad to hear there’s any likelihood of improvement in Mrs. Dempster, but I think the way things have turned out seems to show that she was more to blame than people thought she was; else, why should she feel so much about her husband? And Dempster, I understand, has left his wife pretty nearly all his property to do as she likes with; that isn’t behaving like such a very bad husband. I don’t believe Mrs. Dempster can have had so much provocation as they pretended. I’ve known husbands who’ve laid plans for tormenting their wives when they’re underground — tying up their money and hindering them from marrying again. Not that I should ever wish to marry again; I think one husband in one’s life is enough in all conscience’; — here she threw a fierce glance at the amiable Mr. Phipps, who was innocently delighting himself with the facetiae in the ‘Rotherby Guardian,’ and thinking the editor must be a droll fellow —‘but it’s aggravating to be tied up in that way. Why, they say Mrs. Dempster will have as good as six hundred a-year at least. A fine thing for her, that was a poor girl without a farthing to her fortune. It’s well if she doesn’t make ducks and drakes of it somehow.’

Mrs. Phipps’s view of Janet, however, was far from being the prevalent one in Milby. Even neighbours who had no strong personal interest in her, could hardly see the noble-looking woman in her widow’s dress, with a sad sweet gravity in her face, and not be touched with fresh admiration for her — and not feel, at least vaguely, that she had entered on a new life in which it was a sort of desecration to allude to the painful past. And the old friends who had a real regard for her, but whose cordiality had been repelled or chilled of late years, now came round her with hearty demonstrations of affection. Mr. Jerome felt that his happiness had a substantial addition now he could once more call on that ‘nice little woman Mrs. Dempster’, and think of her with rejoicing instead of sorrow. The Pratts lost no time in returning to the footing of old-established friendship with Janet and her mother; and Miss Pratt felt it incumbent on her, on all suitable occasions, to deliver a very emphatic approval of the remarkable strength of mind she understood Mrs. Dempster to be exhibiting. The Miss Linnets were eager to meet Mr. Tryan’s wishes by greeting Janet as one who was likely to be a sister in religious feeling and good works; and Mrs. Linnet was so agreeably surprised by the fact that Dempster had left his wife the money ‘in that handsome way, to do what she liked with it,’ that she even included Dempster himself, and his villanous discovery of the flaw in her title to Pye’s Croft, in her magnanimous oblivion of past offences. She and Mrs. Jerome agreed over a friendly cup of tea that there were ‘a many husbands as was very fine spoken an’ all that, an’ yet all the while kep’ a will locked up from you, as tied you up as tight as anything. I assure you,’ Mrs. Jerome continued, dropping her voice in a confidential manner, ‘I know no more to this day about Mr. Jerome’s will, nor the child as is unborn. I’ve no fears about a income — I’m well aware Mr. Jerome ‘ud niver leave me stret for that; but I should like to hev a thousand or two at my own disposial; it makes a widow a deal more looked on.’

Perhaps this ground of respect to widows might not be entirely without its influence on the Milby mind, and might do something towards conciliating those more aristocratic acquaintances of Janet’s, who would otherwise have been inclined to take the severest view of her apostasy towards Evangelicalism. Errors look so very ugly in persons of small means — one feels they are taking quite a liberty in going astray; whereas people of fortune may naturally indulge in a few delinquencies. ‘They’ve got the money for it,’ as the girl said of her mistress who had made herself ill with pickled salmon. However it may have been, there was not an acquaintance of Janet’s, in Milby, that did not offer her civilities in the early days of her widowhood. Even the severe Mrs. Phipps was not an exception; for heaven knows what would become of our sociality if we never visited people we speak ill of: we should live, like Egyptian hermits, in crowded solitude.

Perhaps the attentions most grateful to Janet were those of her old friend Mrs. Crewe, whose attachment to her favourite proved quite too strong for any resentment she might be supposed to feel on the score of Mr. Tryan. The little deaf old lady couldn’t do without her accustomed visitor, whom she had seen grow up from child to woman, always so willing to chat with her and tell her all the news, though she was deaf; while other people thought it tiresome to shout in her ear, and irritated her by recommending ear-trumpets of various construction.

All this friendliness was very precious to Janet. She was conscious of the aid it gave her in the self-conquest which was the blessing she prayed for with every fresh morning. The chief strength of her nature lay in her affection, which coloured all the rest of her mind: it gave a personal sisterly tenderness to her acts of benevolence; it made her cling with tenacity to every object that had once stirred her kindly emotions. Alas! it was unsatisfied, wounded affection that had made her trouble greater than she could bear. And now there was no check to the full flow of that plenteous current in her nature — no gnawing secret anguish — no overhanging terror — no inward shame. Friendly faces beamed on her; she felt that friendly hearts were approving her, and wishing her well, and that mild sunshine of goodwill fell beneficently on her new hopes and efforts, as the clear shining after rain falls on the tender leaf-buds of spring, and wins them from promise to fulfilment.

And she needed these secondary helps, for her wrestling with her past self was not always easy. The strong emotions from which the life of a human being receives a new bias, win their victory as the sea wins his: though their advance may be sure, they will often, after a mightier wave than usual, seem to roll back so far as to lose all the ground they had made. Janet showed the strong bent of her will by taking every outward precaution against the occurrence of a temptation. Her mother was now her constant companion, having shut up her little dwelling and come to reside in Orchard Street; and Janet gave all dangerous keys into her keeping, entreating her to lock them away in some secret place. Whenever the too well-known depression and craving threatened her, she would seek a refuge in what had always been her purest enjoyment — in visiting one of her poor neighbours, in carrying some food or comfort to a sick-bed, in cheering with her smile some of the familiar dwellings up the dingy back-lanes. But the great source of courage, the great help to perseverance, was the sense that she had a friend and teacher in Mr. Tryan: she could confess her difficulties to him; she knew he prayed for her; she had always before her the prospect of soon seeing him, and hearing words of admonition and comfort, that came to her charged with a divine power such as she had never found in human words before.

So the time passed, till it was far on in May, nearly a month after her husband’s death, when, as she and her mother were seated peacefully at breakfast in the dining-room, looking through the open window at the old-fashioned garden, where the grass-plot was now whitened with apple-blossoms, a letter was brought in for Mrs. Raynor.

‘Why, there’s the Thurston post-mark on it,’ she said. ‘It must be about your aunt Anna. Ah, so it is, poor thing! she’s been taken worse this last day or two, and has asked them to send for me. That dropsy is carrying her off at last, I daresay. Poor thing! it will be a happy release. I must go, my dear — she’s your father’s last sister — though I am sorry to leave you. However, perhaps I shall not have to stay more than a night or two.’

Janet looked distressed as she said, ‘Yes, you must go, mother. But I don’t know what I shall do without you. I think I shall run in to Mrs. Pettifer, and ask her to come and stay with me while you’re away. I’m sure she will.’

At twelve o’clock, Janet, having seen her mother in the coach that was to carry her to Thurston, called, on her way back, at Mrs. Pettifer’s, but found, to her great disappointment, that her old friend was gone out for the day. So she wrote on a leaf of her pocket-book an urgent request that Mrs. Pettifer would come and stay with her while her mother was away; and, desiring the servant-girl to give it to her mistress as soon as she came home, walked on to the Vicarage to sit with Mrs. Crewe, thinking to relieve in this way the feeling of desolateness and undefined fear that was taking possession of her on being left alone for the first time since that great crisis in her life. And Mrs. Crewe, too, was not at home!

Janet, with a sense of discouragement for which she rebuked herself as childish, walked sadly home again; and when she entered the vacant dining-room, she could not help bursting into tears. It is such vague undefinable states of susceptibility as this — states of excitement or depression, half mental, half physical — that determine many a tragedy in women’s lives. Janet could scarcely eat anything at her solitary dinner: she tried to fix her attention on a book in vain; she walked about the garden, and felt the very sunshine melancholy.

Between four and five o’clock, old Mr. Pittman called, and joined her in the garden, where she had been sitting for some time under one of the great apple-trees, thinking how Robert, in his best moods, used to take little Mamsey to look at the cucumbers, or to see the Alderney cow with its calf in the paddock. The tears and sobs had come again at these thoughts; and when Mr. Pittman approached her, she was feeling languid and exhausted. But the old gentleman’s sight and sensibility were obtuse, and, to Janet’s satisfaction, he showed no consciousness that she was in grief.

‘I have a task to impose upon you, Mrs. Dempster,’ he said, with a certain toothless pomposity habitual to him: ‘I want you to look over those letters again in Dempster’s bureau, and see if you can find one from Poole about the mortgage on those houses at Dingley. It will be worth twenty pounds, if you can find it; and I don’t know where it can be, if it isn’t among those letters in the bureau. I’ve looked everywhere at the office for it. I’m going home now, but I’ll call again tomorrow, if you’ll be good enough to look in the meantime.’

Janet said she would look directly, and turned with Mr. Pittman into the house. But the search would take her some time, so he bade her good-bye, and she went at once to a bureau which stood in a small back-room, where Dempster used sometimes to write letters and receive people who came on business out of office hours. She had looked through the contents of the bureau more than once; but today, on removing the last bundle of letters from one of the compartments, she saw what she had never seen before, a small nick in the wood, made in the shape of a thumb-nail, evidently intended as a means of pushing aside the movable back of the compartment. In her examination hitherto she had not found such a letter as Mr. Pittman had described — perhaps there might be more letters behind this slide. She pushed it back at once, and saw — no letters, but a small spirit-decanter, half full of pale brandy, Dempster’s habitual drink.

An impetuous desire shook Janet through all her members; it seemed to master her with the inevitable force of strong fumes that flood our senses before we are aware. Her hand was on the decanter: pale and excited, she was lifting it out of its niche, when, with a start and a shudder, she dashed it to the ground, and the room was filled with the odour of the spirit. Without staying to shut up the bureau, she rushed out of the room, snatched up her bonnet and mantle which lay in the dining-room, and hurried out of the house.

Where should she go? In what place would this demon that had re-entered her be scared back again? She walks rapidly along the street in the direction of the church. She is soon at the gate of the churchyard; she passes through it, and makes her way across the graves to a spot she knows — a spot where the turf was stirred not long ago, where a tomb is to be erected soon. It is very near the church wall, on the side which now lies in deep shadow, quite shut out from the rays of the westering sun by a projecting buttress.

Janet sat down on the ground. It was a sombre spot. A thick hedge, surmounted by elm-trees, was in front of her; a projecting buttress on each side. But she wanted to shut out even these objects. Her thick crape veil was down; but she closed her eyes behind it, and pressed her hands upon them. She wanted to summon up the vision of the past; she wanted to lash the demon out of her soul with the stinging memories of the bygone misery; she wanted to renew the old horror and the old anguish, that she might throw herself with the more desperate clinging energy at the foot of the cross, where the Divine Sufferer would impart divine strength. She tried to recall those first bitter moments of shame, which were like the shuddering discovery of the leper that the dire taint is upon him; the deeper and deeper lapse; the on-coming of settled despair; the awful moments by the bedside of her self-maddened husband. And then she tried to live through, with a remembrance made more vivid by that contrast, the blessed hours of hope and joy and peace that had come to her of late, since her whole soul had been bent towards the attainment of purity and holiness.

But now, when the paroxysm of temptation was past, dread and despondency began to thrust themselves, like cold heavy mists, between her and the heaven to which she wanted to look for light and guidance. The temptation would come again — that rush of desire might overmaster her the next time — she would slip back again into that deep slimy pit from which she had been once rescued, and there might be no deliverance for her more. Her prayers did not help her, for fear predominated over trust; she had no confidence that the aid she sought would be given; the idea of her future fall had grasped her mind too strongly. Alone, in this way, she was powerless. If she could see Mr. Tryan, if she could confess all to him, she might gather hope again. She must see him; she must go to him.

Janet rose from the ground, and walked away with a quick resolved step. She had been seated there a long while, and the sun had already sunk. It was late for her to walk to Paddiford and go to Mr. Tryan’s, where she had never called before; but there was no other way of seeing him that evening, and she could not hesitate about it. She walked towards a footpath through the fields, which would take her to Paddiford without obliging her to go through the town. The way was rather long, but she preferred it, because it left less probability of her meeting acquaintances, and she shrank from having to speak to any one.

The evening red had nearly faded by the time Janet knocked at Mrs. Wagstaff’s door. The good woman looked surprised to see her at that hour; but Janet’s mourning weeds and the painful agitation of her face quickly brought the second thought, that some urgent trouble had sent her there.

‘Mr. Tryan’s just come in,’ she said. ‘If you’ll step into the parlour, I’ll go up and tell him you’re here. He seemed very tired and poorly.’

At another time Janet would have felt distress at the idea that she was disturbing Mr. Tryan when he required rest; but now her need was too great for that: she could feel nothing but a sense of coming relief, when she heard his step on the stair and saw him enter the room.

He went towards her with a look of anxiety, and said, ‘I fear something is the matter. I fear you are in trouble.’

Then poor Janet poured forth her sad tale of temptation and despondency; and even while she was confessing she felt half her burden removed. The act of confiding in human sympathy, the consciousness that a fellow-being was listening to her with patient pity, prepared her soul for that stronger leap by which faith grasps the idea of the Divine sympathy. When Mr. Tryan spoke words of consolation and encouragement, she could now believe the message of mercy; the water-floods that had threatened to overwhelm her rolled back again, and life once more spread its heaven-covered space before her. She had been unable to pray alone; but now his prayer bore her own soul along with it, as the broad tongue of flame carries upwards in its vigorous leap the little flickering fire that could hardly keep alight by itself.

But Mr. Tryan was anxious that Janet should not linger out at this late hour. When he saw that she was calmed, he said, ‘I will walk home with you now; we can talk on the way.’ But Janet’s mind was now sufficiently at liberty for her to notice the signs of feverish weariness in his appearance, and she would not hear of causing him any further fatigue.

‘No, no,’ she said, earnestly, ‘you will pain me very much — indeed you will, by going out again to-night on my account. There is no real reason why I should not go alone.’ And when he persisted, fearing that for her to be seen out so late alone might excite remark, she said imploringly, with a half sob in her voice, ‘What should I— what would others like me do, if you went from us? Why will you not think more of that, and take care of yourself?’

He had often had that appeal made to him before, but tonight — from Janet’s lips — it seemed to have a new force for him, and he gave way. At first, indeed, he only did so on condition that she would let Mrs. Wagstaff go with her; but Janet had determined to walk home alone. She preferred solitude; she wished not to have her present feelings distracted by any conversation.

So she went out into the dewy starlight; and as Mr. Tryan turned away from her, he felt a stronger wish than ever that his fragile life might last out for him to see Janet’s restoration thoroughly established — to see her no longer fleeing, struggling, clinging up the steep sides of a precipice whence she might be any moment hurled back into the depths of despair, but walking firmly on the level ground of habit. He inwardly resolved that nothing but a peremptory duty should ever take him from Milby — that he would not cease to watch over her until life forsook him.

Janet walked on quickly till she turned into the fields; then she slackened her pace a little, enjoying the sense of solitude which a few hours before had been intolerable to her. The Divine Presence did not now seem far off, where she had not wings to reach it; prayer itself seemed superfluous in those moments of calm trust. The temptation which had so lately made her shudder before the possibilities of the future, was now a source of confidence; for had she not been delivered from it? Had not rescue come in the extremity of danger? Yes; Infinite Love was caring for her. She felt like a little child whose hand is firmly grasped by its father, as its frail limbs make their way over the rough ground; if it should stumble, the father will not let it go.

That walk in the dewy starlight remained for ever in Janet’s memory as one of those baptismal epochs, when the soul, dipped in the sacred waters of joy and peace, rises from them with new energies, with more unalterable longings.

When she reached home she found Mrs. Pettifer there, anxious for her return. After thanking her for coming, Janet only said, ‘I have been to Mr. Tryan’s; I wanted to speak to him;’ and then remembering how she had left the bureau and papers, she went into the back-room, where, apparently, no one had been since she quitted it; for there lay the fragments of glass, and the room was still full of the hateful odour. How feeble and miserable the temptation seemed to her at this moment! She rang for Kitty to come and pick up the fragments and rub the floor, while she herself replaced the papers and locked up the bureau.

The next morning, when seated at breakfast with Mrs. Pettifer, Janet said — ‘What a dreary unhealthy-looking place that is where Mr. Tryan lives! I’m sure it must be very bad for him to live there. Do you know, all this morning, since I’ve been awake, I’ve been turning over a little plan in my mind. I think it a charming one — all the more, because you are concerned in it.’

‘Why, what can that be?’

‘You know that house on the Redhill road they call Holly Mount; it is shut up now. That is Robert’s house; at least, it is mine now, and it stands on one of the healthiest spots about here. Now, I’ve been settling in my own mind, that if a dear good woman of my acquaintance, who knows how to make a home as comfortable and cosy as a bird’s nest, were to take up her abode there, and have Mr. Tryan as a lodger, she would be doing one of the most useful deeds in all her useful life.’

‘You’ve such a way of wrapping up things in pretty words. You must speak plainer.’

‘In plain words, then, I should like to settle you at Holly Mount. You would not have to pay any more rent than where you are, and it would be twenty times pleasanter for you than living up that passage where you see nothing but a brick wall. And then, as it is not far from Paddiford, I think Mr. Tryan might be persuaded to lodge with you, instead of in that musty house, among dead cabbages and smoky cottages. I know you would like to have him live with you, and you would be such a mother to him.’

‘To be sure I should like it; it would be the finest thing in the world for me. But there’ll be furniture wanted. My little bit of furniture won’t fill that house.’

‘O, I can put some in out of this house; it is too full; and we can buy the rest. They tell me I’m to have more money than I shall know what to do with.’

‘I’m almost afraid,’ said Mrs. Pettifer, doubtfully, ‘Mr. Tryan will hardly be persuaded. He’s been talked to so much about leaving that place; and he always said he must stay there — he must be among the people, and there was no other place for him in Paddiford. It cuts me to the heart to see him getting thinner and thinner, and I’ve noticed him quite short o’ breath sometimes. Mrs. Linnet will have it, Mrs. Wagstaff half poisons him with bad cooking. I don’t know about that, but he can’t have many comforts. I expect he’ll break down all of a sudden some day, and never be able to preach any more.’

‘Well, I shall try my skill with him by and by. I shall be very cunning, and say nothing to him till all is ready. You and I and mother, when she comes home, will set to work directly and get the house in order, and then we’ll get you snugly settled in it. I shall see Mr. Pittman today, and I will tell him what I mean to do. I shall say I wish to have you for a tenant. Everybody knows I’m very fond of that naughty person, Mrs. Pettifer; so it will seem the most natural thing in the world. And then I shall by and by point out to Mr. Tryan that he will be doing you a service as well as himself by taking up his abode with you. I think I can prevail upon him; for last night, when he was quite bent on coming out into the night air, I persuaded him to give it up.’

‘Well, I only hope you may, my dear. I don’t desire anything better than to do something towards prolonging Mr. Tryan’s life, for I’ve sad fears about him.’

‘Don’t speak of them — I can’t bear to think of them. We will only think about getting the house ready. We shall be as busy as bees. How we shall want mother’s clever fingers! I know the room upstairs that will just do for Mr. Tryan’s study. There shall be no seats in it except a very easy chair and a very easy sofa, so that he shall be obliged to rest himself when he comes home.’

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