She was not going that way, sir, either to-day, or to-morrow, nor indeed all next week,' the lady graciously rejoined, 'but we shall be very glad to put ourselves out of the way on your account, and if you wish it, you may depend upon its going to-day. You might suppose,' said Mrs Varden, frowning at her husband, 'from Varden's sitting there so glum and silent, that he objected to this arrangement; but you must not mind that, sir, if you please. It's his way at home. Out of doors, he can be cheerful and talkative enough.'
Now, the fact was, that the unfortunate locksmith, blessing his stars to find his helpmate in such good humour, had been sitting with a beaming face, hearing this discourse with a joy past all expression. Wherefore this sudden attack quite took him by surprise.
'My dear Martha—' he said.
'Oh yes, I dare say,' interrupted Mrs Varden, with a smile of mingled scorn and pleasantry. 'Very dear! We all know that.'
'No, but my good soul,' said Gabriel, 'you are quite mistaken. You are indeed. I was delighted to find you so kind and ready. I waited, my dear, anxiously, I assure you, to hear what you would say.'
'You waited anxiously,' repeated Mrs V. 'Yes! Thank you, Varden. You waited, as you always do, that I might bear the blame, if any came of it. But I am used to it,' said the lady with a kind of solemn titter, 'and that's my comfort!'
'I give you my word, Martha—' said Gabriel.
'Let me give you MY word, my dear,' interposed his wife with a Christian smile, 'that such discussions as these between married people, are much better left alone. Therefore, if you please, Varden, we'll drop the subject. I have no wish to pursue it. I could. I might say a great deal. But I would rather not. Pray don't say any more.'
'I don't want to say any more,' rejoined the goaded locksmith.
'Well then, don't,' said Mrs Varden.
'Nor did I begin it, Martha,' added the locksmith, good-humouredly, 'I must say that.'
'You did not begin it, Varden!' exclaimed his wife, opening her eyes very wide and looking round upon the company, as though she would say, You hear this man! 'You did not begin it, Varden! But you shall not say I was out of temper. No, you did not begin it, oh dear no, not you, my dear!'
'Well, well,' said the locksmith. 'That's settled then.'
'Oh yes,' rejoined his wife, 'quite. If you like to say Dolly began it, my dear, I shall not contradict you. I know my duty. I need know it, I am sure. I am often obliged to bear it in mind, when my inclination perhaps would be for the moment to forget it. Thank you, Varden.' And so, with a mighty show of humility and forgiveness, she folded her hands, and looked round again, with a smile which plainly said, 'If you desire to see the first and foremost among female martyrs, here she is, on view!'
This little incident, illustrative though it was of Mrs Varden's extraordinary sweetness and amiability, had so strong a tendency to check the conversation and to disconcert all parties but that excellent lady, that only a few monosyllables were uttered until Edward withdrew; which he presently did, thanking the lady of the house a great many times for her condescension, and whispering in Dolly's ear that he would call on the morrow, in case there should happen to be an answer to the note—which, indeed, she knew without his telling, as Barnaby and his friend Grip had dropped in on the previous night to prepare her for the visit which was then terminating.
Gabriel, who had attended Edward to the door, came back with his hands in his pockets; and, after fidgeting about the room in a very uneasy manner, and casting a great many sidelong looks at Mrs Varden (who with the calmest countenance in the world was five fathoms deep in the Protestant Manual), inquired of Dolly how she meant to go. Dolly supposed by the stage-coach, and looked at her lady mother, who finding herself silently appealed to, dived down at least another fathom into the Manual, and became unconscious of all earthly things.
'Martha—' said the locksmith.
'I hear you, Varden,' said his wife, without rising to the surface.
'I am sorry, my dear, you have such an objection to the Maypole and old John, for otherways as it's a very fine morning, and Saturday's not a busy day with us, we might have all three gone to Chigwell in the chaise, and had quite a happy day of it.'
Mrs Varden immediately closed the Manual, and bursting into tears, requested to be led upstairs.
'What is the matter now, Martha?' inquired the locksmith.
To which Martha rejoined, 'Oh! don't speak to me,' and protested in agony that if anybody had told her so, she wouldn't have believed it.
'But, Martha,' said Gabriel, putting himself in the way as she was moving off with the aid of Dolly's shoulder, 'wouldn't have believed what? Tell me what's wrong now. Do tell me. Upon my soul I don't know. Do you know, child? Damme!' cried the locksmith, plucking at his wig in a kind of frenzy, 'nobody does know, I verily believe, but Miggs!'
'Miggs,' said Mrs Varden faintly, and with symptoms of approaching incoherence, 'is attached to me, and that is sufficient to draw down hatred upon her in this house. She is a comfort to me, whatever she may be to others.'
'She's no comfort to me,' cried Gabriel, made bold by despair. 'She's the misery of my life. She's all the plagues of Egypt in one.'
'She's considered so, I have no doubt,' said Mrs Varden. 'I was prepared for that; it's natural; it's of a piece with the rest. When you taunt me as you do to my face, how can I wonder that you taunt her behind her back!' And here the incoherence coming on very strong, Mrs Varden wept, and laughed, and sobbed, and shivered, and hiccoughed, and choked; and said she knew it was very foolish but she couldn't help it; and that when she was dead and gone, perhaps they would be sorry for it—which really under the circumstances did not appear quite so probable as she seemed to think—with a great deal more to the same effect. In a word, she passed with great decency through all the ceremonies incidental to such occasions; and being supported upstairs, was deposited in a highly spasmodic state on her own bed, where Miss Miggs shortly afterwards flung herself upon the body.
The philosophy of all this was, that Mrs Varden wanted to go to Chigwell; that she did not want to make any concession or explanation; that she would only go on being implored and entreated so to do; and that she would accept no other terms. Accordingly, after a vast amount of moaning and crying upstairs, and much damping of foreheads, and vinegaring of temples, and hartshorning of noses, and so forth; and after most pathetic adjurations from Miggs, assisted by warm brandy-and-water not over-weak, and divers other cordials, also of a stimulating quality, administered at first in teaspoonfuls and afterwards in increasing doses, and of which Miss Miggs herself partook as a preventive measure (for fainting is infectious); after all these remedies, and many more too numerous to mention, but not to take, had been applied; and many verbal consolations, moral, religious, and miscellaneous, had been super-added thereto; the locksmith humbled himself, and the end was gained.
'If it's only for the sake of peace and quietness, father,' said Dolly, urging him to go upstairs.
'Oh, Doll, Doll,' said her good-natured father. 'If you ever have a husband of your own—'
Dolly glanced at the glass.
'—Well, WHEN you have,' said the locksmith, 'never faint, my darling. More domestic unhappiness has come of easy fainting, Doll, than from all the greater passions put together. Remember that, my dear, if you would be really happy, which you never can be, if your husband isn't. And a word in your ear, my precious. Never have a Miggs about you!'