Scenes of Clerical Life/Book 3/Chapter 1

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Scenes of Clerical Life by George Eliot
Book 3/Chapter 1

JANET'S REPENTANCE

Chapter 1

'No!' said lawyer Dempster, in a loud, rasping, oratorical tone, struggling against chronic huskiness, 'as long as my Maker grants me power of voice and power of intellect, I will take every legal means to resist the introduction of demoralizing, methodistical doctrine into this parish; I will not supinely suffer an insult to be inflicted on our venerable pastor, who has given us sound instruction for half a century.'

It was very warm everywhere that evening, but especially in the bar of the Red Lion at Milby, where Mr. Dempster was seated mixing his third glass of brandy-and-water. He was a tall and rather massive man, and the front half of his large surface was so well dredged' with snuff, that the cat, having inadvertently come near him, had been seized with a severe fit of sneezing—an accident which, being cruelly misunderstood, had caused her to be driven contumeliously from the bar. Mr. Dempster habitually held his chin tucked in, and his head hanging forward, weighed down, perhaps, by a preponderant occiput and a bulging forehead, between which his closely-clipped coronal surface lay like a flat and new-mown table-land. The only other observable features were puffy cheeks and a protruding yet lipless mouth. Of his nose I can only say that it was snuffy; and as Mr. Dempster was never caught in the act of looking at anything in particular, it would have been difficult to swear to the colour of his eyes.

'Well! I'll not stick at giving myself trouble to put down such hypocritical cant,' said Mr. Tomlinson, the rich miller. 'I know well enough what your Sunday evening lectures are good for—for wenches to meet their sweethearts, and brew mischief. There's work enough with the servant-maids as it is—such as I never heard the like of in my mother's time, and it's all along o' your schooling and newfangled plans. Give me a servant as can nayther read nor write, I say, and doesn't know the year o' the Lord as she was born in. I should like to know what good those Sunday schools have done, now. Why, the boys used to go a birds-nesting of a Sunday morning; and a capital thing too—ask any farmer; and very pretty it was to see the strings o' heggs hanging up in poor people's houses. You'll not see 'em nowhere now.'

'Pooh!' said Mr. Luke Byles, who piqued himself on his reading, and was in the habit of asking casual acquaintances if they knew anything of Hobbes; 'it is right enough that the lower orders should be instructed. But this sectarianism within the Church ought to be put down. In point of fact, these Evangelicals are not Churchmen at all; they're no better than Presbyterians.'

'Presbyterians? what are they?' inquired Mr. Tomlinson, who often said his father had given him 'no eddication, and he didn't care who knowed it; he could buy up most o' th' eddicated men he'd ever come across.'

'The Presbyterians,' said Mr. Dempster, in rather a louder tone than before, holding that every appeal for information must naturally be addressed to him, 'are a sect founded in the reign of Charles I., by a man named John Presbyter, who hatched all the brood of Dissenting vermin that crawl about in dirty alleys, and circumvent the lord of the manor in order to get a few yards of ground for their pigeon-house conventicles.'

'No, no, Dempster,' said Mr. Luke Byles, 'you're out there. Presbyterianism is derived from the word presbyter, meaning an elder.'

'Don't contradict me, sir!' stormed Dempster. 'I say the word presbyterian is derived from John Presbyter, a miserable fanatic who wore a suit of leather, and went about from town to village, and from village to hamlet, inoculating the vulgar with the asinine virus of dissent.'

'Come, Byles, that seems a deal more likely,' said Mr. Tomlinson, in a conciliatory tone, apparently of opinion that history was a process of ingenious guessing.

'It's not a question of likelihood; it's a known fact. I could fetch you my Encyclopaedia, and show it you this moment.'

'I don't care a straw, sir, either for you or your Encyclopaedia,' said Mr. Dempster; 'a farrago of false information, of which you picked up an imperfect copy in a cargo of waste paper. Will you tell me, sir, that I don't know the origin of Presbyterianism? I, sir, a man known through the county, intrusted with the affairs of half a score parishes; while you, sir, are ignored by the very fleas that infest the miserable alley in which you were bred.'

A loud and general laugh, with 'You'd better let him alone Byles'; 'You'll not get the better of Dempster in a hurry', drowned the retort of the too well-informed Mr. Byles, who, white with rage, rose and walked out of the bar.

'A meddlesome, upstart, Jacobinical fellow, gentlemen', continued Mr. Dempster. 'I was determined to be rid of him. What does he mean by thrusting himself into our company? A man with about as much principle as he has property, which, to my knowledge, is considerably less than none. An insolvent atheist, gentlemen. A deistical prater, fit to sit in the chimney-corner of a pot-house, and make blasphemous comments on the one greasy newspaper fingered by beer-swilling tinkers. I will not suffer in my company a man who speaks lightly of religion. The signature of a fellow like Byles would be a blot on our protest.'

'And how do you get on with your signatures?' said Mr. Pilgrim, the doctor, who had presented his large top-booted person within the bar while Mr. Dempster was speaking. Mr. Pilgrim had just returned from one of his long day's rounds among the farm-houses, in the course of which he had sat down to two hearty meals that might have been mistaken for dinners if he had not declared them to be 'snaps'; and as each snap had been followed by a few glasses of 'mixture'; containing a less liberal proportion of water than the articles he himself labelled with that broadly generic name, he was in that condition which his groom indicated with poetic ambiguity by saying that 'master had been in the sunshine'. Under these circumstances, after a hard day, in which he had really had no regular meal, it seemed a natural relaxation to step into the bar of the Red Lion, where, as it was Saturday evening, he should be sure to find Dempster, and hear the latest news about the protest against the evening lecture.

'Have you hooked Ben Landor yet?' he continued, as he took two chairs, one for his body, and the other for his right leg.

'No,' said Mr. Budd, the churchwarden, shaking his head; 'Ben Landor has a way of keeping himself neutral in everything, and he doesn't like to oppose his father. Old Landor is a regular Tryanite. But we haven't got your name yet, Pilgrim.'

'Tut tut, Budd,' said Mr. Dempster, sarcastically, 'you don't expect Pilgrim to sign? He's got a dozen Tryanite livers under his treatment. Nothing like cant and methodism for producing a superfluity of bile.'

'O, I thought, as Pratt had declared himself a Tryanite, we should be sure to get Pilgrim on our side.'

Mr. Pilgrim was not a man to sit quiet under a sarcasm, nature having endowed him with a considerable share of self-defensive wit. In his most sober moments he had an impediment in his speech, and as copious gin-and-water stimulated not the speech but the impediment, he had time to make his retort sufficiently bitter.

'Why, to tell you the truth, Budd,' he spluttered, 'there's a report all over the town that Deb Traunter swears you shall take her with you as one of the delegates, and they say there's to be a fine crowd at your door the morning you start, to see the row. Knowing your tenderness for that member of the fair sex, I thought you might find it impossible to deny her. I hang back a little from signing on that account, as Prendergast might not take the protest well if Deb Traunter went with you.'

Mr. Budd was a small, sleek-headed bachelor of five-and-forty, whose scandalous life had long furnished his more moral neighbours with an after-dinner joke. He had no other striking characteristic, except that he was a currier of choleric temperament, so that you might wonder why he had been chosen as clergyman's churchwarden, if I did not tell you that he had recently been elected through Mr. Dempster's exertions, in order that his zeal against the threatened evening lecture might be backed by the dignity of office.

'Come, come, Pilgrim,' said Mr. Tomlinson, covering Mr. Budd's retreat, 'you know you like to wear the crier's coat,' green o' one side and red o' the other. You've been to hear Tryan preach at Paddiford Common—you know you have.'

'To be sure I have; and a capital sermon too. It's a pity you were not there. It was addressed to those "void of understanding."'

'No, no, you'll never catch me there,' returned Mr. Tomlinson, not in the least stung: 'he preaches without book, they say, just like a Dissenter. It must be a rambling sort of a concern.'

'That's not the worst,' said Mr. Dempster; 'he preaches against good works; says good works are not necessary to salvation—a sectarian, antinomian, anabaptist doctrine. Tell a man he is not to be saved by his works, and you open the flood-gates of all immorality. You see it in all these canting innovators; they're all bad ones by the sly; smooth-faced, drawling, hypocritical fellows, who pretend ginger isn't hot in their mouths, and cry down all innocent pleasures; their hearts are all the blacker for their sanctimonious outsides. Haven't we been warned against those who make clean the outside of the cup and the platter? There's this Tryan, now, he goes about praying with old women, and singing with charity children; but what has he really got his eye on all the while? A domineering ambitious Jesuit, gentlemen; all he wants is to get his foot far enough into the parish to step into Crewe's shoes when the old gentleman dies. Depend upon it, whenever you see a man pretending to be better than his neighbours, that man has either some cunning end to serve, or his heart is rotten with spiritual pride.'

As if to guarantee himself against this awful sin, Mr. Dempster seized his glass of brandy-and-water, and tossed off the contents with even greater rapidity than usual.

'Have you fixed on your third delegate yet?' said Mr. Pilgrim, whose taste was for detail rather than for dissertation.

'That's the man,' answered Dempster, pointing to Mr. Tomlinson. 'We start for Elmstoke Rectory on Tuesday morning; so, if you mean to give us your signature, you must make up your mind pretty quickly, Pilgrim.'

Mr. Pilgrim did not in the least mean it, so he only said, 'I shouldn't wonder if Tryan turns out too many for you, after all. He's got a well-oiled tongue of his own, and has perhaps talked over Prendergast into a determination to stand by him.'

'Ve-ry little fear of that,' said Dempster, in a confident tone. 'I'll soon bring him round. Tryan has got his match. I've plenty of rods in pickle for Tryan.'

At this moment Boots entered the bar, and put a letter into the lawyer's hands, saying, 'There's Trower's man just come into the yard wi' a gig, sir, an' he's brought this here letter.'

Mr. Dempster read the letter and said, 'Tell him to turn the gig—I'll be with him in a minute. Here, run to Gruby's and get this snuff-box filled —quick!'

'Trower's worse, I suppose; eh, Dempster? Wants you to alter his will, eh?' said Mr. Pilgrim.

'Business—business—business—I don't know exactly what,' answered the cautious Dempster, rising deliberately from his chair, thrusting on his low-crowned hat, and walking with a slow but not unsteady step out of the bar.

'I never see Dempster's equal; if I did I'll be shot,' said Mr. Tomlinson, looking after the lawyer admiringly. 'Why, he's drunk the best part of a bottle o' brandy since here we've been sitting, and I'll bet a guinea, when he's got to Trower's his head'll be as clear as mine. He knows more about law when he's drunk than all the rest on 'em when they're sober.'

'Ay, and other things too, besides law,' said Mr. Budd. 'Did you notice how he took up Byles about the Presbyterians? Bless your heart, he knows everything, Dempster does. He studied very hard when he was a young man.'