Janet's Repentance, by George Eliot

Chapter 6

Most people must have agreed with Mrs. Raynor that the Confirmation that day was a pretty sight, at least when those slight girlish forms and fair young faces moved in a white rivulet along the aisles, and flowed into kneeling semicircles under the light of the great chancel window, softened by patches of dark old painted glass; and one would think that to look on while a pair of venerable hands pressed such young heads, and a venerable face looked upward for a blessing on them, would be very likely to make the heart swell gently, and to moisten the eyes. Yet I remember the eyes seemed very dry in Milby Church that day, notwithstanding that the Bishop was an old man, and probably venerable (for though he was not an eminent Grecian, he was the brother of a Whig lord); and I think the eyes must have remained dry, because he had small delicate womanish hands adorned with ruffles, and, instead of laying them on the girls’ heads, just let them hover over each in quick succession, as if it were not etiquette to touch them, and as if the laying on of hands were like the theatrical embrace — part of the play, and not to be really believed in. To be sure there were a great many heads, and the Bishop’s time was limited. Moreover, a wig can, under no circumstances, be affecting, except in rare cases of illusion; and copious lawn-sleeves cannot be expected to go directly to any heart except a washerwoman’s.

I know, Ned Phipps, who knelt against me, and I am sure made me behave much worse than I should have done without him, whispered that he thought the Bishop was a ‘guy’, and I certainly remember thinking that Mr. Prendergast looked much more dignified with his plain white surplice and black hair. He was a tall commanding man, and read the Liturgy in a strikingly sonorous and uniform voice, which I tried to imitate the next Sunday at home, until my little sister began to cry, and said I was ‘yoaring at her’.

Mr. Tryan sat in a pew near the pulpit with several other clergymen. He looked pale, and rubbed his hand over his face and pushed back his hair oftener than usual. Standing in the aisle close to him, and repeating the responses with edifying loudness, was Mr. Budd, churchwarden and delegate, with a white staff in his hand and a backward bend of his small head and person, such as, I suppose, he considered suitable to a friend of sound religion. Conspicuous in the gallery, too, was the tall figure of Mr. Dempster, whose professional avocations rarely allowed him to occupy his place at church.

‘There’s Dempster,’ said Mrs. Linnet to her daughter Mary, ‘looking more respectable than usual, I declare. He’s got a fine speech by heart to make to the Bishop, I’ll answer for it. But he’ll be pretty well sprinkled with snuff before service is over, and the Bishop won’t be able to listen to him for sneezing, that’s one comfort.’

At length the last stage in the long ceremony was over, the large assembly streamed warm and weary into the open afternoon sunshine, and the Bishop retired to the Parsonage, where, after honouring Mrs. Crewe’s collation, he was to give audience to the delegates and Mr. Tryan on the great question of the evening lecture.

Between five and six o’clock the Parsonage was once more as quiet as usual under the shadow of its tall elms, and the only traces of the Bishop’s recent presence there were the wheel marks on the gravel, and the long table with its garnished dishes awry, its damask sprinkled with crumbs, and its decanters without their stoppers. Mr. Crewe was already calmly smoking his pipe in the opposite sitting-room, and Janet was agreeing with Mrs. Crewe that some of the blanc-mange would be a nice thing to take to Sally Martin, while the little old lady herself had a spoon in her hand ready to gather the crumbs into a plate, that she might scatter them on the gravel for the little birds.

Before that time, the Bishop’s carriage had been seen driving through the High Street on its way to Lord Trufford’s, where he was to dine. The question of the lecture was decided, then?

The nature of the decision may be gathered from the following conversation which took place in the bar of the Red Lion that evening.

‘So you’re done, eh, Dempster?’ was Mr. Pilgrim’s observation, uttered with some gusto. He was not glad Mr. Tryan had gained his point, but he was not sorry Dempster was disappointed.

‘Done, sir? Not at all. It is what I anticipated. I knew we had nothing else to expect in these days, when the Church is infested by a set of men who are only fit to give out hymns from an empty cask, to tunes set by a journeyman cobbler. But I was not the less to exert myself in the cause of sound Churchmanship for the good of the town. Any coward can fight a battle when he’s sure of winning; but give me the man who has pluck to fight when he’s sure of losing. That’s my way, sir; and there are many victories worse than a defeat, as Mr. Tryan shall learn to his cost.’

‘He must be a poor shuperannyated sort of a bishop, that’s my opinion,’ said Mr. Tomlinson, ‘to go along with a sneaking Methodist like Tryan. And, for my part, I think we should be as well wi’out bishops, if they’re no wiser than that. Where’s the use o’ havin’ thousands a-year an’ livin’ in a pallis, if they don’t stick to the Church?’

‘No. There you’re going out of your depth, Tomlinson,’ said Mr. Dempster. ‘No one shall hear me say a word against Episcopacy — it is a safeguard of the Church; we must have ranks and dignities there as well as everywhere else. No, sir! Episcopacy is a good thing; but it may happen that a bishop is not a good thing. Just as brandy is a good thing, though this particular brandy is British, and tastes like sugared rain-water caught down the chimney. Here, Ratcliffe, let me have something to drink, a little less like a decoction of sugar and soot.’

I said nothing again’ Episcopacy,’ returned Mr. Tomlinson. ‘I only said I thought we should do as well wi’out bishops; an’ I’ll say it again for the matter o’ that. Bishops never brought any grist to my mill.’

‘Do you know when the lectures are to begin?’ said Mr. Pilgrim.

‘They are to begin on Sunday next,’ said Mr. Dempster, in a significant tone; ‘but I think it will not take a long-sighted prophet to foresee the end of them. It strikes me Mr. Tryan will be looking out for another curacy shortly.’

‘He’ll not get many Milby people to go and hear his lectures after a while, I’ll bet a guinea,’ observed Mr. Budd. ‘I know I’ll not keep a single workman on my ground who either goes to the lecture himself or lets anybody belonging to him go.’

‘Nor me nayther,’ said Mr. Tomlinson. ‘No Tryanite shall touch a sack or drive a waggon o’ mine, that you may depend on. An’ I know more besides me as are o’ the same mind.’

‘Tryan has a good many friends in the town, though, and friends that are likely to stand by him too,’ said Mr. Pilgrim. ‘I should say it would be as well to let him and his lectures alone. If he goes on preaching as he does, with such a constitution as his, he’ll get a relaxed throat by-and-by, and you’ll be rid of him without any trouble.’

‘We’ll not allow him to do himself that injury,’ said Mr. Dempster. ‘Since his health is not good, we’ll persuade him to try change of air. Depend upon it, he’ll find the climate of Milby too hot for him.’

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