Mrs Tulliver's Teraphim, or Household Gods

WHEN the coach set down Tom and Maggie, it was five hours since she had started from home, and she was thinking with some trembling that her father had perhaps missed her and asked for `the little wench' in vain. She thought of no other change that might have happened. She hurried along the gravel walk and entered the house before Tom, but in the entrance she was startled by a strong smell of tobacco. The parlour door was ajar - that was where the smell came from. It was very strange: could any visitor be smoking at a time like this? Was her mother there? If so, she must be told that Tom was come. Maggie, after this pause of surprise was only in the act of opening the door when Tom came up and they both looked in the parlour together. There was a coarse, dingy man, of whose face Tom had some vague recollection, sitting in his father's chair, smoking, with a jug and glass beside him.

The truth flashed on Tom's mind in an instant. To `have the bailiff in the house,' and `to be sold up,' were phrases which he had been used to, even as a little boy: they were part of the disgrace and misery of `failing,' of losing all one's money and being ruined - sinking into the condition of poor working people. It seemed only natural this should happen since his father had lost all his property, and he thought of no more special cause for this particular form of misfortune than the loss of the lawsuit. But the immediate presence of this disgrace was so much keener an experience to Tom than the worst form of apprehension, that he felt at this moment as if his real trouble had only just begun: it was a touch on the irritated nerve compared with its spontaneous dull aching.

`How do you do, sir?' said the man, taking the pipe out of his mouth with rough, embarrassed civility. The two young startled faces made him a little uncomfortable.

But Tom turned away hastily without speaking: the sight was too hateful. Maggie had not understood the appearance of this stranger, as Tom had: she followed him, whispering `Who can it be, Tom? What is the matter?' Then with a sudden undefined dread lest this stranger might have something to do with a change in her father, she rushed upstairs, checking herself at the bedroom door to throw off her bonnet, and enter on tiptoe. All was silent there: her father was lying, heedless of everything around him, with his eyes closed as when she had left him. A servant was there, but not her mother.

`Where's my mother?' she whispered. The servant did not know.

Maggie hastened out, and said to Tom, `Father is lying quiet: let us go and look for my mother; I wonder where she is.'

Mrs Tulliver was not downstairs - not in any of the bedrooms. There was but one room below the attic which Maggie had left unsearched: it was the store-room where her mother kept all her linen and all the precious `best things' that were only unwrapped and brought out on special occasions. Tom, preceding Maggie as they returned along the passage, opened the door of this room and immediately said, `Mother!'

Mrs Tulliver was seated there with all her laid-up treasures. One of the linen-chests was open: the silver tea-pot was unwrapped from its many folds of paper, and the best china was laid out on the top of the closed linen-chest; spoons and skewers and ladles were spread in rows on the shelves; and the poor woman was shaking her head and weeping with a bitter tension of the mouth, over the mark `Elizabeth Dodson' on the corner of some table cloths she held in her lap.

She dropped them and started up as Tom spoke.

`O my boy, my boy,' she said, clasping him round the neck. `To think as I should live to see this day! We're ruined... everything's going to be sold up... to think as your father should ha' married me to bring me to this! We've got nothing... we shall be beggars... we must go to the workhouse... '

She kissed him, then seated herself again, and took another table cloth on her lap, unfolding it a little way to look at the pattern, while the children stood by in mute wretchedness - their minds quite filled for the moment with the words `beggars' and `workhouse.'

  By PanEris using Melati.

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