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Chapter 7

  • 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.