Mrs Varden was a lady of what is commonly called an uncertain temper—a phras_hich being interpreted signifies a temper tolerably certain to make everybod_ore or less uncomfortable. Thus it generally happened, that when other peopl_ere merry, Mrs Varden was dull; and that when other people were dull, Mr_arden was disposed to be amazingly cheerful. Indeed the worthy housewife wa_f such a capricious nature, that she not only attained a higher pitch o_enius than Macbeth, in respect of her ability to be wise, amazed, temperat_nd furious, loyal and neutral in an instant, but would sometimes ring th_hanges backwards and forwards on all possible moods and flights in one shor_uarter of an hour; performing, as it were, a kind of triple bob major on th_eal of instruments in the female belfry, with a skilfulness and rapidity o_xecution that astonished all who heard her.
It had been observed in this good lady (who did not want for persona_ttractions, being plump and buxom to look at, though like her fair daughter, somewhat short in stature) that this uncertainty of disposition strengthene_nd increased with her temporal prosperity; and divers wise men and matrons, on friendly terms with the locksmith and his family, even went so far as t_ssert, that a tumble down some half-dozen rounds in the world’s ladder—suc_s the breaking of the bank in which her husband kept his money, or som_ittle fall of that kind—would be the making of her, and could hardly fail t_ender her one of the most agreeable companions in existence. Whether the_ere right or wrong in this conjecture, certain it is that minds, like bodies, will often fall into a pimpled ill-conditioned state from mere excess o_omfort, and like them, are often successfully cured by remedies in themselve_ery nauseous and unpalatable.
Mrs Varden’s chief aider and abettor, and at the same time her principa_ictim and object of wrath, was her single domestic servant, one Miss Miggs; or as she was called, in conformity with those prejudices of society which lo_nd top from poor hand- maidens all such genteel excrescences—Miggs. Thi_iggs was a tall young lady, very much addicted to pattens in private life; slender and shrewish, of a rather uncomfortable figure, and though no_bsolutely ill-looking, of a sharp and acid visage. As a general principle an_bstract proposition, Miggs held the male sex to be utterly contemptible an_nworthy of notice; to be fickle, false, base, sottish, inclined to perjury, and wholly undeserving. When particularly exasperated against them (which, scandal said, was when Sim Tappertit slighted her most) she was accustomed t_ish with great emphasis that the whole race of women could but die off, i_rder that the men might be brought to know the real value of the blessings b_hich they set so little store; nay, her feeling for her order ran so high, that she sometimes declared, if she could only have good security for a fair, round number—say ten thousand—of young virgins following her example, sh_ould, to spite mankind, hang, drown, stab, or poison herself, with a joy pas_ll expression.
It was the voice of Miggs that greeted the locksmith, when he knocked at hi_wn house, with a shrill cry of ‘Who’s there?’
‘Me, girl, me,’ returned Gabriel.
What, already, sir!’ said Miggs, opening the door with a look of surprise. ‘W_ere just getting on our nightcaps to sit up,—me and mistress. Oh, she ha_een so bad!’
Miggs said this with an air of uncommon candour and concern; but the parlour- door was standing open, and as Gabriel very well knew for whose ears it wa_esigned, he regarded her with anything but an approving look as he passed in.
‘Master’s come home, mim,’ cried Miggs, running before him into the parlour.
‘You was wrong, mim, and I was right. I thought he wouldn’t keep us up s_ate, two nights running, mim. Master’s always considerate so far. I’m s_lad, mim, on your account. I’m a little’—here Miggs simpered—‘a little sleep_yself; I’ll own it now, mim, though I said I wasn’t when you asked me. I_in’t of no consequence, mim, of course.’
‘You had better,’ said the locksmith, who most devoutly wished that Barnaby’_aven was at Miggs’s ankles, ‘you had better get to bed at once then.’
‘Thanking you kindly, sir,’ returned Miggs, ‘I couldn’t take my rest in peace, nor fix my thoughts upon my prayers, otherways than that I knew mistress wa_omfortable in her bed this night; by rights she ought to have been there, hours ago.’
‘You’re talkative, mistress,’ said Varden, pulling off his greatcoat, an_ooking at her askew.
‘Taking the hint, sir,’ cried Miggs, with a flushed face, ‘and thanking yo_or it most kindly, I will make bold to say, that if I give offence by havin_onsideration for my mistress, I do not ask your pardon, but am content to ge_yself into trouble and to be in suffering.’
Here Mrs Varden, who, with her countenance shrouded in a large nightcap, ha_een all this time intent upon the Protestant Manual, looked round, an_cknowledged Miggs’s championship by commanding her to hold her tongue.
Every little bone in Miggs’s throat and neck developed itself with _pitefulness quite alarming, as she replied, ‘Yes, mim, I will.’
‘How do you find yourself now, my dear?’ said the locksmith, taking a chai_ear his wife (who had resumed her book), and rubbing his knees hard as h_ade the inquiry.
‘You’re very anxious to know, an’t you?’ returned Mrs Varden, with her eye_pon the print. ‘You, that have not been near me all day, and wouldn’t hav_een if I was dying!’
‘My dear Martha—’ said Gabriel.
Mrs Varden turned over to the next page; then went back again to the botto_ine over leaf to be quite sure of the last words; and then went on readin_ith an appearance of the deepest interest and study.
‘My dear Martha,’ said the locksmith, ‘how can you say such things, when yo_now you don’t mean them? If you were dying! Why, if there was anythin_erious the matter with you, Martha, shouldn’t I be in constant attendanc_pon you?’
‘Yes!’ cried Mrs Varden, bursting into tears, ‘yes, you would. I don’t doub_t, Varden. Certainly you would. That’s as much as to tell me that you woul_e hovering round me like a vulture, waiting till the breath was out of m_ody, that you might go and marry somebody else.’
Miggs groaned in sympathy—a little short groan, checked in its birth, an_hanged into a cough. It seemed to say, ‘I can’t help it. It’s wrung from m_y the dreadful brutality of that monster master.’
‘But you’ll break my heart one of these days,’ added Mrs Varden, with mor_esignation, ‘and then we shall both be happy. My only desire is to see Doll_omfortably settled, and when she is, you may settle me as soon as you like.’
‘Ah!’ cried Miggs—and coughed again.
Poor Gabriel twisted his wig about in silence for a long time, and then sai_ildly, ‘Has Dolly gone to bed?’
‘Your master speaks to you,’ said Mrs Varden, looking sternly over he_houlder at Miss Miggs in waiting.
‘No, my dear, I spoke to you,’ suggested the locksmith.
‘Did you hear me, Miggs?’ cried the obdurate lady, stamping her foot upon th_round. ‘You are beginning to despise me now, are you? But this is example!’
At this cruel rebuke, Miggs, whose tears were always ready, for large or smal_arties, on the shortest notice and the most reasonable terms, fell a cryin_iolently; holding both her hands tight upon her heart meanwhile, as i_othing less would prevent its splitting into small fragments. Mrs Varden, wh_ikewise possessed that faculty in high perfection, wept too, against Miggs; and with such effect that Miggs gave in after a time, and, except for a_ccasional sob, which seemed to threaten some remote intention of breaking ou_gain, left her mistress in possession of the field. Her superiority bein_horoughly asserted, that lady soon desisted likewise, and fell into a quie_elancholy.
The relief was so great, and the fatiguing occurrences of last night s_ompletely overpowered the locksmith, that he nodded in his chair, and woul_oubtless have slept there all night, but for the voice of Mrs Varden, which, after a pause of some five minutes, awoke him with a start.
‘If I am ever,’ said Mrs V.—not scolding, but in a sort of monotonou_emonstrance—‘in spirits, if I am ever cheerful, if I am ever more tha_sually disposed to be talkative and comfortable, this is the way I a_reated.’
‘Such spirits as you was in too, mim, but half an hour ago!’ cried Miggs. ‘_ever see such company!’
‘Because,’ said Mrs Varden, ‘because I never interfere or interrupt; because _ever question where anybody comes or goes; because my whole mind and soul i_ent on saving where I can save, and labouring in this house;—therefore, the_ry me as they do.’
‘Martha,’ urged the locksmith, endeavouring to look as wakeful as possible, ‘what is it you complain of? I really came home with every wish and desire t_e happy. I did, indeed.’
‘What do I complain of!’ retorted his wife. ‘Is it a chilling thing to hav_ne’s husband sulking and falling asleep directly he comes home—to have hi_reezing all one’s warm-heartedness, and throwing cold water over th_ireside? Is it natural, when I know he went out upon a matter in which I a_s much interested as anybody can be, that I should wish to know all that ha_appened, or that he should tell me without my begging and praying him to d_t? Is that natural, or is it not?’
‘I am very sorry, Martha,’ said the good-natured locksmith. ‘I was reall_fraid you were not disposed to talk pleasantly; I’ll tell you everything; _hall only be too glad, my dear.’
‘No, Varden,’ returned his wife, rising with dignity. ‘I dare say— thank you!
I’m not a child to be corrected one minute and petted the next—I’m a littl_oo old for that, Varden. Miggs, carry the light.—YOU can be cheerful, Miggs, at least’
Miggs, who, to this moment, had been in the very depths of compassionat_espondency, passed instantly into the liveliest state conceivable, an_ossing her head as she glanced towards the locksmith, bore off her mistres_nd the light together.
‘Now, who would think,’ thought Varden, shrugging his shoulders and drawin_is chair nearer to the fire, ‘that that woman could ever be pleasant an_greeable? And yet she can be. Well, well, all of us have our faults. I’ll no_e hard upon hers. We have been man and wife too long for that.’
He dozed again—not the less pleasantly, perhaps, for his hearty temper. Whil_is eyes were closed, the door leading to the upper stairs was partiall_pened; and a head appeared, which, at sight of him, hastily drew back again.
‘I wish,’ murmured Gabriel, waking at the noise, and looking round the room, ‘I wish somebody would marry Miggs. But that’s impossible! I wonder whethe_here’s any madman alive, who would marry Miggs!’
This was such a vast speculation that he fell into a doze again, and slep_ntil the fire was quite burnt out. At last he roused himself; and havin_ouble-locked the street-door according to custom, and put the key in hi_ocket, went off to bed.
He had not left the room in darkness many minutes, when the head agai_ppeared, and Sim Tappertit entered, bearing in his hand a little lamp.
‘What the devil business has he to stop up so late!’ muttered Sim, passin_nto the workshop, and setting it down upon the forge. ‘Here’s half the nigh_one already. There’s only one good that has ever come to me, out of thi_ursed old rusty mechanical trade, and that’s this piece of ironmongery, upo_y soul!’
As he spoke, he drew from the right hand, or rather right leg pocket of hi_malls, a clumsy large-sized key, which he inserted cautiously in the lock hi_aster had secured, and softly opened the door. That done, he replaced hi_iece of secret workmanship in his pocket; and leaving the lamp burning, an_losing the door carefully and without noise, stole out into the street—a_ittle suspected by the locksmith in his sound deep sleep, as by Barnab_imself in his phantom-haunted dreams.