Janet's Repentance, by George Eliot

Chapter 7

Mr. Dempster did not stay long at the Red Lion that evening. He was summoned home to meet Mr. Armstrong, a wealthy client, and as he was kept in consultation till a late hour, it happened that this was one of the nights on which Mr. Dempster went to bed tolerably sober. Thus the day, which had been one of Janets happiest, because it had been spent by her in helping her dear old friend Mrs. Crewe, ended for her with unusual quietude; and as a bright sunset promises a fair morning, so a calm lying down is a good augury for a calm waking. Mr. Dempster, on the Thursday morning, was in one of his best humours, and though perhaps some of the good-humour might result from the prospect of a lucrative and exciting bit of business in Mr. Armstrong’s probable lawsuit, the greater part of it was doubtless due to those stirrings of the more kindly, healthy sap of human feeling, by which goodness tries to get the upper hand in us whenever it seems to have the slightest chance — on Sunday mornings, perhaps, when we are set free from the grinding hurry of the week, and take the little three-year old on our knee at breakfast to share our egg and muffin; in moments of trouble, when death visits our roof or illness makes us dependent on the tending hand of a slighted wife; in quiet talks with an aged mother, of the days when we stood at her knee with our first picture-book, or wrote her loving letters from school. In the man whose childhood has known caresses there is always a fibre of memory that can be touched to gentle issues, and Mr. Dempster, whom you have hitherto seen only as the orator of the Red Lion, and the drunken tyrant of a dreary midnight home, was the first-born darling son of a fair little mother. That mother was living still, and her own large black easy-chair, where she sat knitting through the livelong day, was now set ready for her at the breakfast-table, by her son’s side, a sleek tortoise-shell cat acting as provisional incumbent.

‘Good morning, Mamsey! why, you’re looking as fresh as a daisy this morning. You’re getting young again’, said Mr. Dempster, looking up from his newspaper when the little old lady entered. A very little old lady she was, with a pale, scarcely wrinkled face, hair of that peculiar white which tells that the locks have once been blond, a natty pure white cap on her head, and a white shawl pinned over her shoulders. You saw at a glance that she had been a mignonne blonde, strangely unlike her tall, ugly, dingy-complexioned son; unlike her daughter-inlaw, too, whose large-featured brunette beauty seemed always thrown into higher relief by the white presence of little Mamsey. The unlikeness between Janet and her mother-inlaw went deeper than outline and complexion, and indeed there was little sympathy between them, for old Mrs. Dempster had not yet learned to believe that her son, Robert, would have gone wrong if he had married the right woman — a meek woman like herself, who would have borne him children, and been a deft, orderly housekeeper. In spite of Janet’s tenderness and attention to her, she had had little love for her daughter-inlaw from the first, and had witnessed the sad growth of home-misery through long years, always with a disposition to lay the blame on the wife rather than on the husband, and to reproach Mrs. Raynor for encouraging her daughter’s faults by a too exclusive sympathy. But old Mrs. Dempster had that rare gift of silence and passivity which often supplies the absence of mental strength; and, whatever were her thoughts, she said no word to aggravate the domestic discord. Patient and mute she sat at her knitting through many a scene of quarrel and anguish; resolutely she appeared unconscious of the sounds that reached her ears, and the facts she divined after she had retired to her bed; mutely she witnessed poor Janet’s faults, only registering them as a balance of excuse on the side of her son. The hard, astute, domineering attorney was still that little old woman’s pet, as he had been when she watched with triumphant pride his first tumbling effort to march alone across the nursery floor. ‘See what a good son he is to me!’ she often thought. ‘Never gave me a harsh word. And so he might have been a good husband.’

O it is piteous — that sorrow of aged women! In early youth, perhaps, they said to themselves, ‘I shall be happy when I have a husband to love me best of all’; then, when the husband was too careless, ‘My child will comfort me’; then, through the mother’s watching and toil, ‘My child will repay me all when it grows up.’ And at last, after the long journey of years has been wearily travelled through, the mother’s heart is weighed down by a heavier burthen, and no hope remains but the grave.

But this morning old Mrs. Dempster sat down in her easy-chair without any painful, suppressed remembrance of the preceding night.

‘I declare mammy looks younger than Mrs. Crewe, who is only sixty-five,’ said Janet. ‘Mrs. Crewe will come to see you today, mammy, and tell you all about her troubles with the Bishop and the collation. She’ll bring her knitting, and you’ll have a regular gossip together.’

‘The gossip will be all on one side, then, for Mrs. Crewe gets so very deaf, I can’t make her hear a word. And if I motion to her, she always understands me wrong.’

‘O, she will have so much to tell you today, you will not want to speak yourself. You, who have patience to knit those wonderful counterpanes, mammy, must not be impatient with dear Mrs. Crewe. Good old lady! I can’t bear her to think she’s ever tiresome to people, and you know she’s very ready to fancy herself in the way. I think she would like to shrink up to the size of a mouse, that she might run about and do people good without their noticing her.’

‘It isn’t patience I want, God knows; it’s lungs to speak loud enough. But you’ll be at home yourself, I suppose, this morning; and you can talk to her for me.’

‘No, mammy; I promised poor Mrs. Lowme to go and sit with her. She’s confined to her room, and both the Miss Lowmes are out; so I’m going to read the newspaper to her and amuse her.’

‘Couldn’t you go another morning? As Mr. Armstrong and that other gentleman are coming to dinner, I should think it would be better to stay at home. Can you trust Betty to see to everything? She’s new to the place.’

‘O I couldn’t disappoint Mrs. Lowme; I promised her. Betty will do very well, no fear.’

Old Mrs. Dempster was silent after this, and began to sip her tea. The breakfast went on without further conversation for some time, Mr. Dempster being absorbed in the papers. At length, when he was running over the advertisements, his eye seemed to be caught by something that suggested a new thought to him. He presently thumped the table with an air of exultation, and, said turning to Janet — ‘I’ve a capital idea, Gypsy!’ (that was his name for his dark-eyed wife when he was in an extraordinarily good humour), ‘and you shall help me. It’s just what you’re up to.’

‘What is it?’ said Janet, her face beaming at the sound of the pet name, now heard so seldom. ‘Anything to do with conveyancing?’

‘It’s a bit of fun worth a dozen fees — a plan for raising a laugh against Tryan and his gang of hypocrites.’

‘What is it? Nothing that wants a needle and thread hope, else I must go and tease mother.’

‘No, nothing sharper than your wit — except mine. I’ll tell you what it is. We’ll get up a programme of the Sunday evening lecture, like a play-bill, you know —“Grand Performance of the celebrated Mountebank,” and so on. We’ll bring in the Tryanites — old Landor and the rest — in appropriate characters. Proctor shall print it, and we’ll circulate it in the town. It will be a capital hit.’

‘Bravo!’ said Janet, clapping her hands. She would just then have pretended to like almost anything, in her pleasure at being appealed to by her husband, and she really did like to laugh at the Tryanites. ‘We’ll set about it directly, and sketch it out before you go to the office. I’ve got Tryan’s sermons up-stairs, but I don’t think there’s anything in them we can use. I’ve only just looked into them; they’re not at all what I expected — dull, stupid things — nothing of the roaring fire-and-brimstone sort that I expected.’

‘Roaring? No; Tryan’s as soft as a sucking dove — one of your honey-mouthed hypocrites. Plenty of devil and malice in him, though, I could see that, while he was talking to the Bishop; but as smooth as a snake outside. He’s beginning a single-handed fight with me, I can see — persuading my clients away from me. We shall see who will be the first to cry peccavi. Milby will do better without Mr. Tryan than without Robert Dempster, I fancy! and Milby shall never be flooded with cant as long as I can raise a breakwater against it. But now, get the breakfast things cleared away, and let us set about the play-bill. Come, mamsey, come and have a walk with me round the garden, and let us see how the cucumbers are getting on. I’ve never taken you round the garden for an age. Come, you don’t want a bonnet. It’s like walking in a greenhouse this morning.’

‘But she will want a parasol,’ said Janet. ‘There’s one on the stand against the garden-door, Robert.’

The little old lady took her son’s arm with placid pleasure. She could barely reach it so as to rest upon it, but he inclined a little towards her, and accommodated his heavy long-limbed steps to her feeble pace. The cat chose to sun herself too, and walked close beside them, with tail erect, rubbing her sleek sides against their legs — too well fed to be excited by the twittering birds. The garden was of the grassy, shady kind, often seen attached to old houses in provincial towns; the apple-trees had had time to spread their branches very wide, the shrubs and hardy perennial plants had grown into a luxuriance that required constant trimming to prevent them from intruding on the space for walking. But the farther end, which united with green fields, was open and sunny.

It was rather sad, and yet pretty, to see that little group passing out of the shadow into the sunshine, and out of the sunshine into the shadow again: sad, because this tenderness of the son for the mother was hardly more than a nucleus of healthy life in an organ hardening by disease, because the man who was linked in this way with an innocent past, had become callous in worldliness, fevered by sensuality, enslaved by chance impulses; pretty, because it showed how hard it is to kill the deep-down fibrous roots of human love and goodness — how the man from whom we make it our pride to shrink, has yet a close brotherhood with us through some of our most sacred feelings.

As they were returning to the house, Janet met them, and said, ‘Now, Robert, the writing things are ready. I shall be clerk, and Mat Paine can copy it out after.’

Mammy once more deposited in her arm-chair, with her knitting in her hand, and the cat purring at her elbow, Janet seated herself at the table, while Mr. Dempster placed himself near her, took out his snuff-box, and plentifully suffusing himself with the inspiring powder, began to dictate.

What he dictated, we shall see by-and-by.

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