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Charles Dickens > Bleak House > Chapter LXIII

Bleak House

Chapter LXIII

Steel and Iron

George's Shooting Gallery is to let, and the stock is sold off, and
George himself is at Chesney Wold attending on Sir Leicester in his
rides and riding very near his bridle-rein because of the uncertain
hand with which he guides his horse. But not to-day is George so
occupied. He is journeying to-day into the iron country farther
north to look about him.

As he comes into the iron country farther north, such fresh green
woods as those of Chesney Wold are left behind; and coal pits and
ashes, high chimneys and red bricks, blighted verdure, scorching
fires, and a heavy never-lightening cloud of smoke become the
features of the scenery. Among such objects rides the trooper,
looking about him and always looking for something he has come to

At last, on the black canal bridge of a busy town, with a clang of
iron in it, and more fires and more smoke than he has seen yet, the
trooper, swart with the dust of the coal roads, checks his horse
and asks a workman does he know the name of Rouncewell thereabouts.

"Why, master," quoth the workman, "do I know my own name?"

"'Tis so well known here, is it, comrade?" asks the trooper.

"Rouncewell's? Ah! You're right."

"And where might it be now?" asks the trooper with a glance before

"The bank, the factory, or the house?" the workman wants to know.

"Hum! Rouncewell's is so great apparently," mutters the trooper,
stroking his chin, "that I have as good as half a mind to go back
again. Why, I don't know which I want. Should I find Mr.
Rouncewell at the factory, do you think?"

"Tain't easy to say where you'd find him--at this time of the day
you might find either him or his son there, if he's in town; but
his contracts take him away."

And which is the factory? Why, he sees those chimneys--the tallest
ones! Yes, he sees THEM. Well! Let him keep his eye on those
chimneys, going on as straight as ever he can, and presently he'll
see 'em down a turning on the left, shut in by a great brick wall
which forms one side of the street. That's Rouncewell's.

The trooper thanks his informant and rides slowly on, looking about
him. He does not turn back, but puts up his horse (and is much
disposed to groom him too) at a public-house where some of
Rouncewell's hands are dining, as the ostler tells him. Some of
Rouncewell's hands have just knocked off for dinner-time and seem
to be invading the whole town. They are very sinewy and strong,
are Rouncewell's hands--a little sooty too.

He comes to a gateway in the brick wall, looks in, and sees a great
perplexity of iron lying about in every stage and in a vast variety
of shapes--in bars, in wedges, in sheets; in tanks, in boilers, in
axles, in wheels, in cogs, in cranks, in rails; twisted and
wrenched into eccentric and perverse forms as separate parts of
machinery; mountains of it broken up, and rusty in its age; distant
furnaces of it glowing and bubbling in its youth; bright fireworks
of it showering about under the blows of the steam-hammer; red-hot
iron, white-hot iron, cold-black iron; an iron taste, an iron
smell, and a Babel of iron sounds.

"This is a place to make a man's head ache too!" says the trooper,
looking about him for a counting-house. "Who comes here? This is
very like me before I was set up. This ought to be my nephew, if
likenesses run in families. Your servant, sir."

"Yours, sir. Are you looking for any one?"

"Excuse me. Young Mr. Rouncewell, I believe?"


"I was looking for your father, sir. I wish to have a word with

The young man, telling him he is fortunate in his choice of a time,
for his father is there, leads the way to the office where he is to
be found. "Very like me before I was set up--devilish like me!"
thinks the trooper as he follows. They come to a building in the
yard with an office on an upper floor. At sight of the gentleman
in the office, Mr. George turns very red.

"What name shall I say to my father?" asks the young man.

George, full of the idea of iron, in desperation answers "Steel,"
and is so presented. He is left alone with the gentleman in the
office, who sits at a table with account-books before him and some
sheets of paper blotted with hosts of figures and drawings of
cunning shapes. It is a bare office, with bare windows, looking on
the iron view below. Tumbled together on the table are some pieces
of iron, purposely broken to be tested at various periods of their
service, in various capacities. There is iron-dust on everything;
and the smoke is seen through the windows rolling heavily out of
the tall chimneys to mingle with the smoke from a vaporous Babylon
of other chimneys.

"I am at your service, Mr. Steel," says the gentleman when his
visitor has taken a rusty chair.

"Well, Mr. Rouncewell," George replies, leaning forward with his
left arm on his knee and his hat in his hand, and very chary of
meeting his brother's eye, "I am not without my expectations that
in the present visit I may prove to be more free than welcome. I
have served as a dragoon in my day, and a comrade of mine that I
was once rather partial to was, if I don't deceive myself, a
brother of yours. I believe you had a brother who gave his family
some trouble, and ran away, and never did any good but in keeping

"Are you quite sure," returns the ironmaster in an altered voice,
"that your name is Steel?"

The trooper falters and looks at him. His brother starts up, calls
him by his name, and grasps him by both hands.

"You are too quick for me!" cries the trooper with the tears
springing out of his eyes. "How do you do, my dear old fellow? I
never could have thought you would have been half so glad to see me
as all this. How do you do, my dear old fellow, how do you do!"

They shake hands and embrace each other over and over again, the
trooper still coupling his "How do you do, my dear old fellow!"
with his protestation that he never thought his brother would have
been half so glad to see him as all this!

"So far from it," he declares at the end of a full account of what
has preceded his arrival there, "I had very little idea of making
myself known. I thought if you took by any means forgivingly to my
name I might gradually get myself up to the point of writing a
letter. But I should not have been surprised, brother, if you had
considered it anything but welcome news to hear of me."

"We will show you at home what kind of news we think it, George,"
returns his brother. "This is a great day at home, and you could
not have arrived, you bronzed old soldier, on a better. I make an
agreement with my son Watt to-day that on this day twelvemonth he
shall marry as pretty and as good a girl as you have seen in all
your travels. She goes to Germany to-morrow with one of your
nieces for a little polishing up in her education. We make a feast
of the event, and you will be made the hero of it."

Mr. George is so entirely overcome at first by this prospect that
he resists the proposed honour with great earnestness. Being
overborne, however, by his brother and his nephew--concerning whom
he renews his protestations that he never could have thought they
would have been half so glad to see him--he is taken home to an
elegant house in all the arrangements of which there is to be
observed a pleasant mixture of the originally simple habits of the
father and mother with such as are suited to their altered station
and the higher fortunes of their children. Here Mr. George is much
dismayed by the graces and accomplishments of his nieces that are
and by the beauty of Rosa, his niece that is to be, and by the
affectionate salutations of these young ladies, which he receives
in a sort of dream. He is sorely taken aback, too, by the dutiful
behaviour of his nephew and has a woeful consciousness upon him of
being a scapegrace. However, there is great rejoicing and a very
hearty company and infinite enjoyment, and Mr. George comes bluff
and martial through it all, and his pledge to be present at the
marriage and give away the bride is received with universal favour.
A whirling head has Mr. George that night when he lies down in the
state-bed of his brother's house to think of all these things and
to see the images of his nieces (awful all the evening in their
floating muslins) waltzing, after the German manner, over his

The brothers are closeted next morning in the ironmaster's room,
where the elder is proceeding, in his clear sensible way, to show
how he thinks he may best dispose of George in his business, when
George squeezes his hand and stops him.

"Brother, I thank you a million times for your more than brotherly
welcome, and a million times more to that for your more than
brotherly intentions. But my plans are made. Before I say a word
as to them, I wish to consult you upon one family point. How,"
says the trooper, folding his arms and looking with indomitable
firmness at his brother, "how is my mother to be got to scratch

"I am not sure that I understand you, George," replies the

"I say, brother, how is my mother to be got to scratch me? She
must be got to do it somehow."

"Scratch you out of her will, I think you mean?"

"Of course I do. In short," says the trooper, folding his arms
more resolutely yet, "I mean--TO--scratch me!"

"My dear George," returns his brother, "is it so indispensable that
you should undergo that process?"

"Quite! Absolutely! I couldn't be guilty of the meanness of
coming back without it. I should never be safe not to be off
again. I have not sneaked home to rob your children, if not
yourself, brother, of your rights. I, who forfeited mine long ago!
If I am to remain and hold up my head, I must be scratched. Come.
You are a man of celebrated penetration and intelligence, and you
can tell me how it's to be brought about."

"I can tell you, George," replies the ironmaster deliberately, "how
it is not to be brought about, which I hope may answer the purpose
as well. Look at our mother, think of her, recall her emotion when
she recovered you. Do you believe there is a consideration in the
world that would induce her to take such a step against her
favourite son? Do you believe there is any chance of her consent,
to balance against the outrage it would be to her (loving dear old
lady!) to propose it? If you do, you are wrong. No, George! You
must make up your mind to remain UNscratched, I think." There is
an amused smile on the ironmaster's face as he watches his brother,
who is pondering, deeply disappointed. "I think you may manage
almost as well as if the thing were done, though."

"How, brother?"

"Being bent upon it, you can dispose by will of anything you have
the misfortune to inherit in any way you like, you know."

"That's true!" says the trooper, pondering again. Then he
wistfully asks, with his hand on his brother's, "Would you mind
mentioning that, brother, to your wife and family?"

"Not at all."

"Thank you. You wouldn't object to say, perhaps, that although an
undoubted vagabond, I am a vagabond of the harum-scarum order, and
not of the mean sort?"

The ironmaster, repressing his amused smile, assents.

"Thank you. Thank you. It's a weight off my mind," says the
trooper with a heave of his chest as he unfolds his arms and puts a
hand on each leg, "though I had set my heart on being scratched,

The brothers are very like each other, sitting face to face; but a
certain massive simplicity and absence of usage in the ways of the
world is all on the trooper's side.

"Well," he proceeds, throwing off his disappointment, "next and
last, those plans of mine. You have been so brotherly as to
propose to me to fall in here and take my place among the products
of your perseverance and sense. I thank you heartily. It's more
than brotherly, as I said before, and I thank you heartily for it,"
shaking him a long time by the hand. "But the truth is, brother, I
am a--I am a kind of a weed, and it's too late to plant me in a
regular garden."

"My dear George," returns the elder, concentrating his strong
steady brow upon him and smiling confidently, "leave that to me,
and let me try."

George shakes his head. "You could do it, I have not a doubt, if
anybody could; but it's not to be done. Not to be done, sir!
Whereas it so falls out, on the other hand, that I am able to be of
some trifle of use to Sir Leicester Dedlock since his illness--
brought on by family sorrows--and that he would rather have that
help from our mother's son than from anybody else."

"Well, my dear George," returns the other with a very slight shade
upon his open face, "if you prefer to serve in Sir Leicester
Dedlock's household brigade--"

"There it is, brother," cries the trooper, checking him, with his
hand upon his knee again; "there it is! You don't take kindly to
that idea; I don't mind it. You are not used to being officered; I
am. Everything about you is in perfect order and discipline;
everything about me requires to be kept so. We are not accustomed
to carry things with the same hand or to look at 'em from the same
point. I don't say much about my garrison manners because I found
myself pretty well at my ease last night, and they wouldn't be
noticed here, I dare say, once and away. But I shall get on best
at Chesney Wold, where there's more room for a weed than there is
here; and the dear old lady will be made happy besides. Therefore
I accept of Sir Leicester Dedlock's proposals. When I come over
next year to give away the bride, or whenever I come, I shall have
the sense to keep the household brigade in ambuscade and not to
manoeuvre it on your ground. I thank you heartily again and am
proud to think of the Rouncewells as they'll be founded by you."

"You know yourself, George," says the elder brother, returning the
grip of his hand, "and perhaps you know me better than I know
myself. Take your way. So that we don't quite lose one another
again, take your way."

"No fear of that!" returns the trooper. "Now, before I turn my
horse's head homewards, brother, I will ask you--if you'll be so
good--to look over a letter for me. I brought it with me to send
from these parts, as Chesney Wold might be a painful name just now
to the person it's written to. I am not much accustomed to
correspondence myself, and I am particular respecting this present
letter because I want it to be both straightforward and delicate."

Herewith he hands a letter, closely written in somewhat pale ink
but in a neat round hand, to the ironmaster, who reads as follows:

Miss Esther Summerson,

A communication having been made to me by Inspector Bucket of a
letter to myself being found among the papers of a certain person,
I take the liberty to make known to you that it was but a few lines
of instruction from abroad, when, where, and how to deliver an
enclosed letter to a young and beautiful lady, then unmarried, in
England. I duly observed the same.

I further take the liberty to make known to you that it was got
from me as a proof of handwriting only and that otherwise I would
not have given it up, as appearing to be the most harmless in my
possession, without being previously shot through the heart.

I further take the liberty to mention that if I could have supposed
a certain unfortunate gentleman to have been in existence, I never
could and never would have rested until I had discovered his
retreat and shared my last farthing with him, as my duty and my
inclination would have equally been. But he was (officially)
reported drowned, and assuredly went over the side of a transport-
ship at night in an Irish harbour within a few hours of her arrival
from the West Indies, as I have myself heard both from officers and
men on board, and know to have been (officially) confirmed.

I further take the liberty to state that in my humble quality as
one of the rank and file, I am, and shall ever continue to be, your
thoroughly devoted and admiring servant and that I esteem the
qualities you possess above all others far beyond the limits of the
present dispatch.

I have the honour to be,


"A little formal," observes the elder brother, refolding it with a
puzzled face.

"But nothing that might not be sent to a pattern young lady?" asks
the younger.

"Nothing at all."

Therefore it is sealed and deposited for posting among the iron
correspondence of the day. This done, Mr. George takes a hearty
farewell of the family party and prepares to saddle and mount. His
brother, however, unwilling to part with him so soon, proposes to
ride with him in a light open carriage to the place where he will
bait for the night, and there remain with him until morning, a
servant riding for so much of the journey on the thoroughbred old
grey from Chesney Wold. The offer, being gladly accepted, is
followed by a pleasant ride, a pleasant dinner, and a pleasant
breakfast, all in brotherly communion. Then they once more shake
hands long and heartily and part, the ironmaster turning his face
to the smoke and fires, and the trooper to the green country.
Early in the afternoon the subdued sound of his heavy military trot
is heard on the turf in the avenue as he rides on with imaginary
clank and jingle of accoutrements under the old elm-trees.

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