The last week in March — three weeks after old Mrs. Dempster died — occurred the unpleasant winding-up of affairs between Dempster and Mr. Pryme, and under this additional source of irritation the attorney’s diurnal drunkenness had taken on its most ill-tempered and brutal phase. On the Friday morning, before setting out for Rotherby, he told his wife that he had invited ‘four men’ to dinner at half-past six that evening. The previous night had been a terrible one for Janet, and when her husband broke his grim morning silence to say these few words, she was looking so blank and listless that he added in a loud sharp key, ‘Do you hear what I say? or must I tell the cook?’ She started, and said, ‘Yes, I hear.’
‘Then mind and have a dinner provided, and don’t go mooning about like crazy Jane.’
Half an hour afterwards Mrs. Raynor, quietly busy in her kitchen with her household labours — for she had only a little twelve-year-old girl as a servant — heard with trembling the rattling of the garden gate and the opening of the outer door. She knew the step, and in one short moment she lived beforehand through the coming scene. She hurried out of the kitchen, and there in the passage, as she had felt, stood Janet, her eyes worn as if by night-long watching, her dress careless, her step languid. No cheerful morning greeting to her mother — no kiss. She turned into the parlour, and, seating herself on the sofa opposite her mother’s chair, looked vacantly at the walls and furniture until the corners of her mouth began to tremble, and her dark eyes filled with tears that fell unwiped down her cheeks. The mother sat silently opposite to her, afraid to speak. She felt sure there was nothing new the matter — sure that the torrent of words would come sooner or later.
‘Mother! why don’t you speak to me?’ Janet burst out at last; ‘you don’t care about my suffering; you are blaming me because I feel — because I am miserable.’
‘My child, I am not blaming you — my heart is bleeding for you. Your head is bad this morning — you have had a bad night. Let me make you a cup of tea now. Perhaps you didn’t like your breakfast.’
‘Yes, that is what you always think, mother. It is the old story, you think. You don’t ask me what it is I have had to bear. You are tired of hearing me. You are cruel, like the rest; every one is cruel in this world. Nothing but blame — blame — blame; never any pity. God is cruel to have sent me into the world to bear all this misery.’
‘Janet, Janet, don’t say so. It is not for us to judge; we must submit; we must be thankful for the gift of life.’
‘Thankful for life! Why should I be thankful? God has made me with a heart to feel, and He has sent me nothing but misery. How could I help it? How could I know what would come? Why didn’t you tell me, mother? — why did you let me marry? You knew what brutes men could be; and there’s no help for me — no hope. I can’t kill myself; I’ve tried; but I can’t leave this world and go to another. There may be no pity for me there, as there is none here.’
‘Janet, my child, there is pity. Have I ever done anything but love you? And there is pity in God. Hasn’t He put pity into your heart for many a poor sufferer? Where did it come from, if not from Him?’
Janet’s nervous irritation now broke out into sobs instead of complainings; and her mother was thankful, for after that crisis there would very likely come relenting, and tenderness, and comparative calm. She went out to make some tea, and when she returned with the tray in her hands, Janet had dried her eyes and now turned them towards her mother with a faint attempt to smile; but the poor face, in its sad blurred beauty, looked all the more piteous.
‘Mother will insist upon her tea,’ she said, ‘and I really think I can drink a cup. But I must go home directly, for there are people coming to dinner. Could you go with me and help me, mother?’
Mrs. Raynor was always ready to do that. She went to Orchard Street with Janet, and remained with her through the day — comforted, as evening approached, to see her become more cheerful and willing to attend to her toilette. At half-past five everything was in order; Janet was dressed; and when the mother had kissed her and said good-bye, she could not help pausing a moment in sorrowful admiration at the tall rich figure, looking all the grander for the plainness of the deep mourning dress, and the noble face with its massy folds of black hair, made matronly by a simple white cap. Janet had that enduring beauty which belongs to pure majestic outline and depth of tint. Sorrow and neglect leave their traces on such beauty, but it thrills us to the last, like a glorious Greek temple, which, for all the loss it has suffered from time and barbarous hands, has gained a solemn history, and fills our imagination the more because it is incomplete to the sense.
It was six o’clock before Dempster returned from Rotherby. He had evidently drunk a great deal, and was in an angry humour; but Janet, who had gathered some little courage and forbearance from the consciousness that she had done her best today, was determined to speak pleasantly to him.
‘Robert,’ she said gently, as she saw him seat himself in the dining-room in his dusty snuffy clothes, and take some documents out of his pocket, ‘will you not wash and change your dress? It will refresh you.’
‘Leave me alone, will you?’ said Dempster, in his most brutal tone.
‘Do change your coat and waistcoat, they are so dusty. I’ve laid all your things out ready.’
‘O, you have, have you?’ After a few minutes he rose very deliberately and walked upstairs into his bedroom. Janet had often been scolded before for not laying out his clothes, and she thought now, not without some wonder, that this attention of hers had brought him to compliance.
Presently he called out, ‘Janet!’ and she went upstairs.
‘Here! Take that!’ he said, as soon as she reached the door, flinging at her the coat she had laid out. ‘Another time, leave me to do as I please, will you?’
The coat, flung with great force, only brushed her shoulder, and fell some distance within the drawing-room, the door of which stood open just opposite. She hastily retreated as she saw the waistcoat coming, and one by one the clothes she had laid out were all flung into the drawing-room.
Janet’s face flushed with anger, and for the first time in her life her resentment overcame the long cherished pride that made her hide her griefs from the world. There are moments when by some strange impulse we contradict our past selves — fatal moments, when a fit of passion, like a lava stream, lays low the work of half our lives. Janet thought, ‘I will not pick up the clothes; they shall lie there until the visitors come, and he shall be ashamed of himself.’
There was a knock at the door, and she made haste to seat herself in the drawing-room, lest the servant should enter and remove the clothes, which were lying half on the table and half on the ground. Mr. Lowme entered with a less familiar visitor, a client of Dempster’s, and the next moment Dempster himself came in.
His eye fell at once on the clothes, and then turned for an instant with a devilish glance of concentrated hatred on Janet, who, still flushed and excited, affected unconsciousness. After shaking hands with his visitors he immediately rang the bell.
‘Take those clothes away,’ he said to the servant, not looking at Janet again.
During dinner, she kept up her assumed air of indifference, and tried to seem in high spirits, laughing and talking more than usual. In reality, she felt as if she had defied a wild beast within the four walls of his den, and he was crouching backward in preparation for his deadly spring. Dempster affected to take no notice of her, talked obstreperously, and drank steadily.
About eleven the party dispersed, with the exception of Mr. Budd, who had joined them after dinner, and appeared disposed to stay drinking a little longer. Janet began to hope that he would stay long enough for Dempster to become heavy and stupid, and so to fall asleep down-stairs, which was a rare but occasional ending of his nights. She told the servants to sit up no longer, and she herself undressed and went to bed, trying to cheat her imagination into the belief that the day was ended for her. But when she lay down, she became more intensely awake than ever. Everything she had taken this evening seemed only to stimulate her senses and her apprehensions to new vividness. Her heart beat violently, and she heard every sound in the house.
At last, when it was twelve, she heard Mr. Budd go out; she heard the door slam. Dempster had not moved. Was he asleep? Would he forget? The minute seemed long, while, with a quickening pulse, she was on the stretch to catch every sound.
‘Janet!’ The loud jarring voice seemed to strike her like a hurled weapon.
‘Janet!’ he called again, moving out of the dining-room to the foot of the stairs.
There was a pause of a minute.
‘If you don’t come, I’ll kill you.’
Another pause, and she heard him turn back into the dining-room. He was gone for a light — perhaps for a weapon. Perhaps he would kill her. Let him. Life was as hideous as death. For years she had been rushing on to some unknown but certain horror; and now she was close upon it. She was almost glad. She was in a state of flushed feverish defiance that neutralized her woman’s terrors.
She heard his heavy step on the stairs; she saw the slowly advancing light. Then she saw the tall massive figure, and the heavy face, now fierce with drunken rage. He had nothing but the candle in his hand. He set it down on the table, and advanced close to the bed.
‘So you think you’ll defy me, do you? We’ll see how long that will last. Get up, madam; out of bed this instant!’
In the close presence of the dreadful man — of this huge crushing force, armed with savage will — poor Janet’s desperate defiance all forsook her, and her terrors came back. Trembling she got up, and stood helpless in her night-dress before her husband.
He seized her with his heavy grasp by the shoulder, and pushed her before him.
‘I’ll cool your hot spirit for you! I’ll teach you to brave me!’
Slowly he pushed her along before him, down stairs and through the passage, where a small oil-lamp was still flickering. What was he going to do to her? She thought every moment he was going to dash her before him on the ground. But she gave no scream — she only trembled.
He pushed her on to the entrance, and held her firmly in his grasp while he lifted the latch of the door. Then he opened the door a little way, thrust her out, and slammed it behind her.
For a short space, it seemed like a deliverance to Janet. The harsh north-east wind, that blew through her thin night-dress, and sent her long heavy black hair streaming, seemed like the breath of pity after the grasp of that threatening monster. But soon the sense of release from an overpowering terror gave way before the sense of the fate that had really come upon her.
This, then, was what she had been travelling towards through her long years of misery! Not yet death. O! if she had been brave enough for it, death would have been better. The servants slept at the back of the house; it was impossible to make them hear, so that they might let her in again quietly, without her husband’s knowledge. And she would not have tried. He had thrust her out, and it should be for ever.
There would have been dead silence in Orchard Street but for the whistling of the wind and the swirling of the March dust on the pavement. Thick clouds covered the sky; every door was closed; every window was dark. No ray of light fell on the tall white figure that stood in lonely misery on the doorstep; no eye rested on Janet as she sank down on the cold stone, and looked into the dismal night. She seemed to be looking into her own blank future.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54