Janet's Repentance, by George Eliot

Chapter 26

That was the last terrible crisis of temptation Janet had to pass through. The goodwill of her neighbours, the helpful sympathy of the friends who shared her religious feelings, the occupations suggested to her by Mr. Tryan, concurred, with her strong spontaneous impulses towards works of love and mercy, to fill up her days with quiet social intercourse and charitable exertion. Besides, her constitution, naturally healthy and strong, was every week tending, with the gathering force of habit, to recover its equipoise, and set her free from those physical solicitations which the smallest habitual vice always leaves behind it. The prisoner feels where the iron has galled him, long after his fetters have been loosed.

There were always neighbourly visits to be paid and received; and as the months wore on, increasing familiarity with Janet’s present self began to efface, even from minds as rigid as Mrs. Phipps’s, the unpleasant impressions that had been left by recent years. Janet was recovering the popularity which her beauty and sweetness of nature had won for her when she was a girl; and popularity, as every one knows, is the most complex and self-multiplying of echoes. Even anti-Tryanite prejudice could not resist the fact that Janet Dempster was a changed woman — changed as the dusty, bruised, and sun-withered plant is changed when the soft rains of heaven have fallen on it — and that this change was due to Mr. Tryan’s influence. The last lingering sneers against the Evangelical curate began to die out; and though much of the feeling that had prompted them remained behind, there was an intimidating consciousness that the expression of such feeling would not be effective — jokes of that sort had ceased to tickle the Milby mind. Even Mr. Budd and Mr. Tomlinson, when they saw Mr. Tryan passing pale and worn along the street, had a secret sense that this man was somehow not that very natural and comprehensible thing, a humbug — that, in fact, it was impossible to explain him from the stomach and pocket point of view. Twist and stretch their theory as they might, it would not fit Mr. Tryan; and so, with that remarkable resemblance as to mental processes which may frequently be observed to exist between plain men and philosophers, they concluded that the less they said about him the better.

Among all Janet’s neighbourly pleasures, there was nothing she liked better than to take an early tea at the White House, and to stroll with Mr. Jerome round the old-fashioned garden and orchard. There was endless matter for talk between her and the good old man, for Janet had that genuine delight in human fellowship which gives an interest to all personal details that come warm from truthful lips; and, besides, they had a common interest in good-natured plans for helping their poorer neighbours. One great object of Mr. Jerome’s charities was, as he often said, ‘to keep industrious men an’ women off the parish. I’d rether given ten shillin’ an’ help a man to stand on his own legs, nor pay half-a-crown to buy him a parish crutch; it’s the ruination on him if he once goes to the parish. I’ve see’d many a time, if you help a man wi’ a present in a neeborly way, it sweetens his blood — he thinks it kind on you; but the parish shillins turn it sour — he niver thinks ’em enough.’ In illustration of this opinion Mr. Jerome had a large store of details about such persons as Jim Hardy, the coal-carrier, ‘as lost his hoss’. and Sally Butts, ‘as hed to sell her mangle, though she was as decent a woman as need to be’; to the hearing of which details Janet seriously inclined; and you would hardly desire to see a prettier picture than the kind-faced white-haired old man telling these fragments of his simple experience as he walked, with shoulders slightly bent, among the moss-roses and espalier apple-trees, while Janet in her widow’s cap, her dark eyes bright with interest, went listening by his side, and little Lizzie, with her nankeen bonnet hanging down her back, toddled on before them. Mrs. Jerome usually declined these lingering strolls, and often observed, ‘I niver see the like to Mr. Jerome when he’s got Mrs. Dempster to talk to; it sinnifies nothin’ to him whether we’ve tea at four or at five o’clock; he’d go on till six, if you’d let him alone — he’s like off his head.’ However, Mrs. Jerome herself could not deny that Janet was a very pretty-spoken woman: ‘She aly’s says, she niver gets sich pikelets’ as mine nowhere; I know that very well — other folks buy ’em at shops — thick, unwholesome things, you might as well eat a sponge.’

The sight of little Lizzie often stirred in Janet’s mind a sense of the childlessness which had made a fatal blank in her life. She had fleeting thoughts that perhaps among her husband’s distant relatives there might be some children whom she could help to bring up, some little girl whom she might adopt; and she promised herself one day or other to hunt out a second cousin of his — a married woman, of whom he had lost sight for many years.

But at present her hands and heart were too full for her to carry out that scheme. To her great disappointment, her project of settling Mrs. Pettifer at Holly Mount had been delayed by the discovery that some repairs were necessary in order to make the house habitable, and it was not till September had set in that she had the satisfaction of seeing her old friend comfortably installed, and the rooms destined for Mr. Tryan looking pretty and cosy to her heart’s content. She had taken several of his chief friends into her confidence, and they were warmly wishing success to her plan for inducing him to quit poor Mrs. Wagstaff’s dingy house and dubious cookery. That he should consent to some such change was becoming more and more a matter of anxiety to his hearers; for though no more decided symptoms were yet observable in him than increasing emaciation, a dry hacking cough, and an occasional shortness of breath, it was felt that the fulfilment of Mr. Pratt’s prediction could not long be deferred, and that this obstinate persistence in labour and self-disregard must soon be peremptorily cut short by a total failure of strength. Any hopes that the influence of Mr. Tryan’s father and sister would prevail on him to change his mode of life — that they would perhaps come to live with him, or that his sister at least might come to see him, and that the arguments which had failed from other lips might be more persuasive from hers — were now quite dissipated. His father had lately had an attack of paralysis, and could not spare his only daughter’s tendance. On Mr. Tryan’s return from a visit to his father, Miss Linnet was very anxious to know whether his sister had not urged him to try change of air. From his answers she gathered that Miss Tryan wished him to give up his curacy and travel, or at least go to the south Devonshire coast.

‘And why will you not do so?’ Miss Linnet said; ‘you might come back to us well and strong, and have many years of usefulness before you.’

‘No,’ he answered quietly, ‘I think people attach more importance to such measures than is warranted. I don’t see any good end that is to be served by going to die at Nice, instead of dying amongst one’s friends and one’s work. I cannot leave Milby — at least I will not leave it voluntarily.’

But though he remained immovable on this point, he had been compelled to give up his afternoon service on the Sunday, and to accept Mr. Parry’s offer of aid in the evening service, as well as to curtail his weekday labours; and he had even written to Mr. Prendergast to request that he would appoint another curate to the Paddiford district, on the understanding that the new curate should receive the salary, but that Mr. Tryan should co-operate with him as long as he was able. The hopefulness which is an almost constant attendant on consumption, had not the effect of deceiving him as to the nature of his malady, or of making him look forward to ultimate recovery. He believed himself to be consumptive, and he had not yet felt any desire to escape the early death which he had for some time contemplated as probable. Even diseased hopes will take their direction from the strong habitual bias of the mind, and to Mr. Tryan death had for years seemed nothing else than the laying down of a burden, under which he sometimes felt himself fainting. He was only sanguine about his powers of work: he flattered himself that what he was unable to do one week he should be equal to the next, and he would not admit that in desisting from any part of his labour he was renouncing it permanently. He had lately delighted Mr. Jerome by accepting his long-proffered loan of the ‘little chacenut hoss;’ and he found so much benefit from substituting constant riding exercise for walking, that he began to think he should soon be able to resume some of the work he had dropped.

That was a happy afternoon for Janet, when, after exerting herself busily for a week with her mother and Mrs. Pettifer, she saw Holly Mount looking orderly and comfortable from attic to cellar. It was an old red-brick house, with two gables in front, and two clipped holly-trees flanking the garden-gate; a simple, homely-looking place, that quiet people might easily get fond of; and now it was scoured and polished and carpeted and furnished so as to look really snug within. When there was nothing more to be done, Janet delighted herself with contemplating Mr. Tryan’s study, first sitting down in the easy-chair, and then lying for a moment on the sofa, that she might have a keener sense of the repose he would get from those well-stuffed articles of furniture, which she had gone to Rotherby on purpose to choose.

‘Now, mother,’ she said, when she had finished her survey, ‘you have done your work as well as any fairy-mother or god-mother that ever turned a pumpkin into a coach and horses. You stay and have tea cosily with Mrs. Pettifer while I go to Mrs. Linnet’s. I want to tell Mary and Rebecca the good news, that I’ve got the exciseman to promise that he will take Mrs. Wagstaff’s lodgings when Mr. Tryan leaves. They’ll be so pleased to hear it, because they thought he would make her poverty an objection to his leaving her.’

‘But, my dear child.’ said Mrs. Raynor, whose face, always calm, was now a happy one, ‘have a cup of tea with us first. You’ll perhaps miss Mrs. Linnet’s tea-time.’

‘No, I feel too excited to take tea yet. I’m like a child with a new baby-house. Walking in the air will do me good.’

So she set out. Holly Mount was about a mile from that outskirt of Paddiford Common where Mrs. Linnet’s house stood nestled among its laburnums, lilacs, and syringas. Janet’s way thither lay for a little while along the high-road, and then led her into a deep-rutted lane, which wound through a flat tract of meadow and pasture, while in front lay smoky Paddiford, and away to the left the mother-town of Milby. There was no line of silvery willows marking the course of a stream — no group of Scotch firs with their trunks reddening in the level sunbeams — nothing to break the flowerless monotony of grass and hedgerow but an occasional oak or elm, and a few cows sprinkled here and there. A very commonplace scene, indeed. But what scene was ever commonplace in the descending sunlight, when colour has awakened from its noonday sleep, and the long shadows awe us like a disclosed presence? Above all, what scene is commonplace to the eye that is filled with serene gladness, and brightens all things with its own joy?

And Janet just now was very happy. As she walked along the rough lane with a buoyant step, a half smile of innocent, kindly triumph played about her mouth. She was delighting beforehand in the anticipated success of her persuasive power, and for the time her painful anxiety about Mr. Tryan’s health was thrown into abeyance. But she had not gone far along the lane before she heard the sound of a horse advancing at a walking pace behind her. Without looking back, she turned aside to make way for it between the ruts, and did not notice that for a moment it had stopped, and had then come on with a slightly quickened pace. In less than a minute she heard a well-known voice say, ‘Mrs. Dempster’; and, turning, saw Mr. Tryan close to her, holding his horse by the bridle. It seemed very natural to her that he should be there. Her mind was so full of his presence at that moment, that the actual sight of him was only like a more vivid thought, and she behaved, as we are apt to do when feeling obliges us to be genuine, with a total forgetfulness of polite forms. She only looked at him with a slight deepening of the smile that was already on her face. He said gently, ‘Take my arm’; and they walked on a little way in silence.

It was he who broke it. ‘You are going to Paddiford, I suppose?’

The question recalled Janet to the consciousness that this was an unexpected opportunity for beginning her work of persuasion, and that she was stupidly neglecting it.

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I was going to Mrs. Linnet’s. I knew Miss Linnet would like to hear that our friend Mrs. Pettifer is quite settled now in her new house. She is as fond of Mrs. Pettifer as I am — almost; I won’t admit that any one loves her quite as well, for no one else has such good reason as I have. But now the dear woman wants a lodger, for you know she can’t afford to live in so large a house by herself. But I knew when I persuaded her to go there that she would be sure to get one — she’s such a comfortable creature to live with; and I didn’t like her to spend all the rest of her days up that dull passage, being at every one’s beck and call who wanted to make use of her.’

‘Yes,’ said Mr. Tryan, ‘I quite understand your feeling; I don’t wonder at your strong regard for her.’

‘Well, but now I want her other friends to second me. There she is, with three rooms to let, ready furnished, everything in order; and I know some one, who thinks as well of her as I do, and who would be doing good all round — to every one that knows him, as well as to Mrs. Pettifer, if he would go to live with her. He would leave some uncomfortable lodgings, which another person is already coveting and would take immediately; and he would go to breathe pure air at Holly Mount, and gladden Mrs. Pettifer’s heart by letting her wait on him; and comfort all his friends, who are quite miserable about him.’

Mr. Tryan saw it all in a moment — he saw that it had all been done for his sake. He could not be sorry; he could not say no; he could not resist the sense that life had a new sweetness for him, and that he should like it to be prolonged a little — only a little, for the sake of feeling a stronger security about Janet. When she had finished speaking, she looked at him with a doubtful, inquiring glance. He was not looking at her; his eyes were cast downwards; but the expression of his face encouraged her, and she said, in a half-playful tone of entreaty — ‘You will go and live with her? I know you will. You will come back with me now and see the house.’

He looked at her then, and smiled. There is an unspeakable blending of sadness and sweetness in the smile of a face sharpened and paled by slow consumption. That smile of Mr. Tryan’s pierced poor Janet’s heart: she felt in it at once the assurance of grateful affection and the prophecy of coming death. Her tears rose; they turned round without speaking, and went back again along the lane.

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