Janet's Repentance, by George Eliot

Chapter 5

It was half-past nine o’clock in the morning. The midsummer sun was already warm on the roofs and weathercocks of Milby. The church-bells were ringing, and many families were conscious of Sunday sensations, chiefly referable to the fact that the daughters had come down to breakfast in their best frocks, and with their hair particularly well dressed. For it was not Sunday, but Wednesday; and though the Bishop was going to hold a Confirmation, and to decide whether or not there should be a Sunday evening lecture in Milby, the sunbeams had the usual working-day look to the haymakers already long out in the fields, and to laggard weavers just ‘setting up’ their week’s ‘piece’. The notion of its being Sunday was the strongest in young ladies like Miss Phipps, who was going to accompany her younger sister to the confirmation, and to wear a ‘sweetly pretty’ transparent bonnet with marabout feathers on the interesting occasion, thus throwing into relief the suitable simplicity of her sister’s attire, who was, of course, to appear in a new white frock; or in the pupils at Miss Townley’s, who were absolved from all lessons, and were going to church to see the Bishop, and to hear the Honourable and Reverend Mr. Prendergast, the rector, read prayers — a high intellectual treat, as Miss Townley assured them. It seemed only natural that a rector, who was honourable, should read better than old Mr. Crewe, who was only a curate, and not honourable; and when little Clara Robins wondered why some clergymen were rectors and others not, Ellen Marriott assured her with great confidence that it was only the clever men who were made rectors. Ellen Marriott was going to be confirmed. She was a short, fair, plump girl, with blue eyes and sandy hair, which was this morning arranged in taller cannon curls than usual, for the reception of the Episcopal benediction, and some of the young ladies thought her the prettiest girl in the school; but others gave the preference to her rival, Maria Gardner, who was much taller, and had a lovely ‘crop’ of dark-brown ringlets, and who, being also about to take upon herself the vows made in her name at her baptism, had oiled and twisted her ringlets with especial care. As she seated herself at the breakfast-table before Miss Townley’s entrance to dispense the weak coffee, her crop excited so strong a sensation that Ellen Marriott was at length impelled to look at it, and to say with suppressed but bitter sarcasm, ‘Is that Miss Gardner’s head?’ ‘Yes,’ said Maria, amiable and stuttering, and no match for Ellen in retort; ‘th — th — this is my head.’ ‘Then I don’t admire it at all!’ was the crushing rejoinder of Ellen, followed by a murmur of approval among her friends. Young ladies, I suppose, exhaust their sac of venom in this way at school. That is the reason why they have such a harmless tooth for each other in after life.

The only other candidate for confirmation at Miss Townley’s was Mary Dunn, a draper’s daughter in Milby and a distant relation of the Miss Linnets. Her pale lanky hair could never be coaxed into permanent curl, and this morning the heat had brought it down to its natural condition of lankiness earlier than usual. But that was not what made her sit melancholy and apart at the lower end of the form. Her parents were admirers of Mr. Tryan, and had been persuaded, by the Miss Linnets’ influence, to insist that their daughter should be prepared for confirmation by him, over and above the preparation given to Miss Townley’s pupils by Mr. Crewe. Poor Mary Dunn! I am afraid she thought it too heavy a price to pay for these spiritual advantages, to be excluded from every game at ball to be obliged to walk with none but little girls — in fact, to be the object of an aversion that nothing short of an incessant supply of plumcakes would have neutralized. And Mrs. Dunn was of opinion that plumcake was unwholesome. The anti-Tryanite spirit, you perceive, was very strong at Miss Townley’s, imported probably by day scholars, as well as encouraged by the fact that that clever woman was herself strongly opposed to innovation, and remarked every Sunday that Mr. Crewe had preached an ‘excellent discourse’. Poor Mary Dunn dreaded the moment when school-hours would be over, for then she was sure to be the butt of those very explicit remarks which, in young ladies’ as well as young gentlemen’s seminaries, constitute the most subtle and delicate form of the innuendo. ‘I’d never be a Tryanite, would you?’ ‘O here comes the lady that knows so much more about religion than we do!’ ‘Some people think themselves so very pious!’

It is really surprising that young ladies should not be thought competent to the same curriculum as young gentlemen. I observe that their powers of sarcasm are quite equal; and if there had been a genteel academy for young gentlemen at Milby, I am inclined to think that, notwithstanding Euclid and the classics, the party spirit there would not have exhibited itself in more pungent irony, or more incisive satire, than was heard in Miss Townley’s seminary. But there was no such academy, the existence of the grammar-school under Mr. Crewe’s superintendence probably discouraging speculations of that kind; and the genteel youths of Milby were chiefly come home for the midsummer holidays from distant schools. Several of us had just assumed coat-tails, and the assumption of new responsibilities apparently following as a matter of course, we were among the candidates for confirmation. I wish I could say that the solemnity of our feelings was on a level with the solemnity of the occasion; but unimaginative boys find it difficult to recognize apostolical institutions in their developed form, and I fear our chief emotion concerning the ceremony was a sense of sheepishness, and our chief opinion, the speculative and heretical position, that it ought to be confined to the girls. It was a pity, you will say; but it is the way with us men in other crises, that come a long while after confirmation. The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us, and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone.

But, as I said, the morning was sunny, the bells were ringing, the ladies of Milby were dressed in their Sunday garments.

And who is this bright-looking woman walking with hasty step along Orchard Street so early, with a large nosegay in her hand? Can it be Janet Dempster, on whom we looked with such deep pity, one sad midnight, hardly a fortnight ago? Yes; no other woman in Milby has those searching black eyes, that tall graceful unconstrained figure, set off by her simple muslin dress and black lace shawl, that massy black hair now so neatly braided in glossy contrast with the white satin ribbons of her modest cap and bonnet. No other woman has that sweet speaking smile, with which she nods to Jonathan Lamb, the old parish clerk. And, ah! — now she comes nearer — there are those sad lines about the mouth and eyes on which that sweet smile plays like sunbeams on the storm-beaten beauty of the full and ripened corn.

She is turning out of Orchard Street, and making her way as fast as she can to her mother’s house, a pleasant cottage facing a roadside meadow, from which the hay is being carried. Mrs. Raynor has had her breakfast, and is seated in her arm-chair reading, when Janet opens the door, saying, in her most playful voice — ‘Please, mother, I’m come to show myself to you before I go to the Parsonage. Have I put on my pretty cap and bonnet to satisfy you?’

Mrs. Raynor looked over her spectacles, and met her daughter’s glance with eyes as dark and loving as her own. She was a much smaller woman than Janet, both in figure and feature, the chief resemblance lying in the eyes and the clear brunette complexion. The mother’s hair had long been grey, and was gathered under the neatest of caps, made by her own clever fingers, as all Janet’s caps and bonnets were too. They were well-practised fingers, for Mrs. Raynor had supported herself in her widowhood by keeping a millinery establishment, and in this way had earned money enough to give her daughter what was then thought a first-rate education, as well as to save a sum which, eked out by her son-inlaw, sufficed to support her in her solitary old age. Always the same clean, neat old lady, dressed in black silk, was Mrs. Raynor: a patient, brave woman, who bowed with resignation under the burden of remembered sorrow, and bore with meek fortitude the new load that the new days brought with them.

‘Your bonnet wants pulling a trifle forwarder, my child,’ she said, smiling, and taking off her spectacles, while Janet at once knelt down before her, and waited to be ‘set to rights’, as she would have done when she was a child. ‘You’re going straight to Mrs. Crewe’s, I suppose? Are those flowers to garnish the dishes?’

‘No, indeed, mother. This is a nosegay for the middle of the table. I’ve sent up the dinner-service and the ham we had cooked at our house yesterday, and Betty is coming directly with the garnish and the plate. We shall get our good Mrs. Crewe through her troubles famously. Dear tiny woman! You should have seen her lift up her hands yesterday, and pray heaven to take her before ever she should have another collation to get ready for the Bishop. She said, “It’s bad enough to have the Archdeacon, though he doesn’t want half so many jelly-glasses. I wouldn’t mind, Janet, if it was to feed all the old hungry cripples in Milby; but so much trouble and expense for people who eat too much every day of their lives!” We had such a cleaning and furbishing-up of the sitting-room yesterday! Nothing will ever do away with the smell of Mr. Crewe’s pipes, you know; but we have thrown it into the background, with yellow soap and dry lavender. And now I must run away. You will come to church, mother?’

‘Yes, my dear, I wouldn’t lose such a pretty sight. It does my old eyes good to see so many fresh young faces. Is your husband going?’

‘Yes, Robert will be there. I’ve made him as neat as a new pin this morning, and he says the Bishop will think him too buckish by half. I took him into Mammy Dempster’s room to show himself. We hear Tryan is making sure of the Bishop’s support; but we shall see. I would give my crooked guinea, and all the luck it will ever bring me, to have him beaten, for I can’t endure the sight of the man coming to harass dear old Mr. and Mrs. Crewe in their last days. Preaching the Gospel indeed! That is the best Gospel that makes everybody happy and comfortable, isn’t it, mother?’

‘Ah, child, I’m afraid there’s no Gospel will do that here below.’

‘Well, I can do something to comfort Mrs. Crewe, at least; so give me a kiss, and good-bye till church-time.’

The mother leaned back in her chair when Janet was gone, and sank into a painful reverie. When our life is a continuous trial, the moments of respite seem only to substitute the heaviness of dread for the heaviness of actual suffering: the curtain of cloud seems parted an instant only that we may measure all its horror as it hangs low, black, and imminent, in contrast with the transient brightness; the water drops that visit the parched lips in the desert bear with them only the keen imagination of thirst. Janet looked glad and tender now — but what scene of misery was coming next? She was too like the cistus flowers in the little garden before the window, that, with the shades of evening, might lie with the delicate white and glossy dark of their petals trampled in the roadside dust. When the sun had sunk, and the twilight was deepening, Janet might be sitting there, heated, maddened, sobbing out her griefs with selfish passion, and wildly wishing herself dead.

Mrs. Raynor had been reading about the lost sheep, and the joy there is in heaven over the sinner that repenteth. Surely the eternal love she believed in through all the sadness of her lot, would not leave her child to wander farther and farther into the wilderness till here was no turning — the child so lovely, so pitiful to others, so good, till she was goaded into sin by woman’s bitterest sorrows! Mrs. Raynor had her faith and her spiritual comforts, though she was not in the least evangelical and knew nothing of doctrinal zeal. I fear most of Mr. Tryan’s hearers would have considered her destitute of saving knowledge, and I am quite sure she had no well-defined views on justification. Nevertheless, she read her Bible a great deal, and thought she found divine lessons there — how to bear the cross meekly, and be merciful. Let us hope that there is a saving ignorance, and that Mrs. Raynor was justified without knowing exactly how.

She tried to have hope and trust, though it was hard to believe that the future would be anything else than the harvest of the seed that was being sown before her eyes. But always there is seed being sown silently and unseen, and everywhere there come sweet flowers without our foresight or labour. We reap what we sow, but Nature has love over and above that justice, and gives us shadow and blossom and fruit that spring from no planting of ours.

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