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Charles Dickens > Hard Times > Chapter XI

Hard Times

Chapter XI


THE Fairy palaces burst into illumination, before pale morning
showed the monstrous serpents of smoke trailing themselves over
Coketown. A clattering of clogs upon the pavement; a rapid ringing
of bells; and all the melancholy mad elephants, polished and oiled
up for the day's monotony, were at their heavy exercise again.

Stephen bent over his loom, quiet, watchful, and steady. A special
contrast, as every man was in the forest of looms where Stephen
worked, to the crashing, smashing, tearing piece of mechanism at
which he laboured. Never fear, good people of an anxious turn of
mind, that Art will consign Nature to oblivion. Set anywhere, side
by side, the work of GOD and the work of man; and the former, even
though it be a troop of Hands of very small account, will gain in
dignity from the comparison.

So many hundred Hands in this Mill; so many hundred horse Steam
Power. It is known, to the force of a single pound weight, what
the engine will do; but, not all the calculators of the National
Debt can tell me the capacity for good or evil, for love or hatred,
for patriotism or discontent, for the decomposition of virtue into
vice, or the reverse, at any single moment in the soul of one of
these its quiet servants, with the composed faces and the regulated
actions. There is no mystery in it; there is an unfathomable
mystery in the meanest of them, for ever. - Supposing we were to
reverse our arithmetic for material objects, and to govern these
awful unknown quantities by other means!

The day grew strong, and showed itself outside, even against the
flaming lights within. The lights were turned out, and the work
went on. The rain fell, and the Smoke-serpents, submissive to the
curse of all that tribe, trailed themselves upon the earth. In the
waste-yard outside, the steam from the escape pipe, the litter of
barrels and old iron, the shining heaps of coals, the ashes
everywhere, were shrouded in a veil of mist and rain.

The work went on, until the noon-bell rang. More clattering upon
the pavements. The looms, and wheels, and Hands all out of gear
for an hour.

Stephen came out of the hot mill into the damp wind and cold wet
streets, haggard and worn. He turned from his own class and his
own quarter, taking nothing but a little bread as he walked along,
towards the hill on which his principal employer lived, in a red
house with black outside shutters, green inside blinds, a black
street door, up two white steps, BOUNDERBY (in letters very like
himself) upon a brazen plate, and a round brazen door-handle
underneath it, like a brazen full-stop.

Mr. Bounderby was at his lunch. So Stephen had expected. Would
his servant say that one of the Hands begged leave to speak to him?
Message in return, requiring name of such Hand. Stephen Blackpool.
There was nothing troublesome against Stephen Blackpool; yes, he
might come in.

Stephen Blackpool in the parlour. Mr. Bounderby (whom he just knew
by sight), at lunch on chop and sherry. Mrs. Sparsit netting at
the fireside, in a side-saddle attitude, with one foot in a cotton
stirrup. It was a part, at once of Mrs. Sparsit's dignity and
service, not to lunch. She supervised the meal officially, but
implied that in her own stately person she considered lunch a

'Now, Stephen,' said Mr. Bounderby, 'what's the matter with you?'

Stephen made a bow. Not a servile one - these Hands will never do
that! Lord bless you, sir, you'll never catch them at that, if
they have been with you twenty years! - and, as a complimentary
toilet for Mrs. Sparsit, tucked his neckerchief ends into his

'Now, you know,' said Mr. Bounderby, taking some sherry, 'we have
never had any difficulty with you, and you have never been one of
the unreasonable ones. You don't expect to be set up in a coach
and six, and to be fed on turtle soup and venison, with a gold
spoon, as a good many of 'em do!' Mr. Bounderby always represented
this to be the sole, immediate, and direct object of any Hand who
was not entirely satisfied; 'and therefore I know already that you
have not come here to make a complaint. Now, you know, I am
certain of that, beforehand.'

'No, sir, sure I ha' not coom for nowt o' th' kind.'

Mr. Bounderby seemed agreeably surprised, notwithstanding his
previous strong conviction. 'Very well,' he returned. 'You're a
steady Hand, and I was not mistaken. Now, let me hear what it's
all about. As it's not that, let me hear what it is. What have
you got to say? Out with it, lad!'

Stephen happened to glance towards Mrs. Sparsit. 'I can go, Mr.
Bounderby, if you wish it,' said that self-sacrificing lady, making
a feint of taking her foot out of the stirrup.

Mr. Bounderby stayed her, by holding a mouthful of chop in
suspension before swallowing it, and putting out his left hand.
Then, withdrawing his hand and swallowing his mouthful of chop, he
said to Stephen:

'Now you know, this good lady is a born lady, a high lady. You are
not to suppose because she keeps my house for me, that she hasn't
been very high up the tree - ah, up at the top of the tree! Now,
if you have got anything to say that can't be said before a born
lady, this lady will leave the room. If what you have got to say
can be said before a born lady, this lady will stay where she is.'

'Sir, I hope I never had nowt to say, not fitten for a born lady to
year, sin' I were born mysen',' was the reply, accompanied with a
slight flush.

'Very well,' said Mr. Bounderby, pushing away his plate, and
leaning back. 'Fire away!'

'I ha' coom,' Stephen began, raising his eyes from the floor, after
a moment's consideration, 'to ask yo yor advice. I need 't
overmuch. I were married on Eas'r Monday nineteen year sin, long
and dree. She were a young lass - pretty enow - wi' good accounts
of herseln. Well! She went bad - soon. Not along of me. Gonnows
I were not a unkind husband to her.'

'I have heard all this before,' said Mr. Bounderby. 'She took to
drinking, left off working, sold the furniture, pawned the clothes,
and played old Gooseberry.'

'I were patient wi' her.'

('The more fool you, I think,' said Mr. Bounderby, in confidence to
his wine-glass.)

'I were very patient wi' her. I tried to wean her fra 't ower and
ower agen. I tried this, I tried that, I tried t'other. I ha'
gone home, many's the time, and found all vanished as I had in the
world, and her without a sense left to bless herseln lying on bare
ground. I ha' dun 't not once, not twice - twenty time!'

Every line in his face deepened as he said it, and put in its
affecting evidence of the suffering he had undergone.

'From bad to worse, from worse to worsen. She left me. She
disgraced herseln everyways, bitter and bad. She coom back, she
coom back, she coom back. What could I do t' hinder her? I ha'
walked the streets nights long, ere ever I'd go home. I ha' gone
t' th' brigg, minded to fling myseln ower, and ha' no more on't. I
ha' bore that much, that I were owd when I were young.'

Mrs. Sparsit, easily ambling along with her netting-needles, raised
the Coriolanian eyebrows and shook her head, as much as to say,
'The great know trouble as well as the small. Please to turn your
humble eye in My direction.'

'I ha' paid her to keep awa' fra' me. These five year I ha' paid
her. I ha' gotten decent fewtrils about me agen. I ha' lived hard
and sad, but not ashamed and fearfo' a' the minnits o' my life.
Last night, I went home. There she lay upon my har-stone! There
she is!'

In the strength of his misfortune, and the energy of his distress,
he fired for the moment like a proud man. In another moment, he
stood as he had stood all the time - his usual stoop upon him; his
pondering face addressed to Mr. Bounderby, with a curious
expression on it, half shrewd, half perplexed, as if his mind were
set upon unravelling something very difficult; his hat held tight
in his left hand, which rested on his hip; his right arm, with a
rugged propriety and force of action, very earnestly emphasizing
what he said: not least so when it always paused, a little bent,
but not withdrawn, as he paused.

'I was acquainted with all this, you know,' said Mr. Bounderby,
'except the last clause, long ago. It's a bad job; that's what it
is. You had better have been satisfied as you were, and not have
got married. However, it's too late to say that.'

'Was it an unequal marriage, sir, in point of years?' asked Mrs.

'You hear what this lady asks. Was it an unequal marriage in point
of years, this unlucky job of yours?' said Mr. Bounderby.

'Not e'en so. I were one-and-twenty myseln; she were twenty

'Indeed, sir?' said Mrs. Sparsit to her Chief, with great
placidity. 'I inferred, from its being so miserable a marriage,
that it was probably an unequal one in point of years.'

Mr. Bounderby looked very hard at the good lady in a side-long way
that had an odd sheepishness about it. He fortified himself with a
little more sherry.

'Well? Why don't you go on?' he then asked, turning rather
irritably on Stephen Blackpool.

'I ha' coom to ask yo, sir, how I am to be ridded o' this woman.'
Stephen infused a yet deeper gravity into the mixed expression of
his attentive face. Mrs. Sparsit uttered a gentle ejaculation, as
having received a moral shock.

'What do you mean?' said Bounderby, getting up to lean his back
against the chimney-piece. 'What are you talking about? You took
her for better for worse.'

'I mun' be ridden o' her. I cannot bear 't nommore. I ha' lived
under 't so long, for that I ha' had'n the pity and comforting
words o' th' best lass living or dead. Haply, but for her, I
should ha' gone battering mad.'

'He wishes to be free, to marry the female of whom he speaks, I
fear, sir,' observed Mrs. Sparsit in an undertone, and much
dejected by the immorality of the people.

'I do. The lady says what's right. I do. I were a coming to 't.
I ha' read i' th' papers that great folk (fair faw 'em a'! I
wishes 'em no hurt!) are not bonded together for better for worst
so fast, but that they can be set free fro' their misfortnet
marriages, an' marry ower agen. When they dunnot agree, for that
their tempers is ill-sorted, they has rooms o' one kind an' another
in their houses, above a bit, and they can live asunders. We fok
ha' only one room, and we can't. When that won't do, they ha' gowd
an' other cash, an' they can say "This for yo' an' that for me,"
an' they can go their separate ways. We can't. Spite o' all that,
they can be set free for smaller wrongs than mine. So, I mun be
ridden o' this woman, and I want t' know how?'

'No how,' returned Mr. Bounderby.

'If I do her any hurt, sir, there's a law to punish me?'

'Of course there is.'

'If I flee from her, there's a law to punish me?'

'Of course there is.'

'If I marry t'oother dear lass, there's a law to punish me?'

'Of course there is.'

'If I was to live wi' her an' not marry her - saying such a thing
could be, which it never could or would, an' her so good - there's
a law to punish me, in every innocent child belonging to me?'

'Of course there is.'

'Now, a' God's name,' said Stephen Blackpool, 'show me the law to
help me!'

'Hem! There's a sanctity in this relation of life,' said Mr.
Bounderby, 'and - and - it must be kept up.'

'No no, dunnot say that, sir. 'Tan't kep' up that way. Not that
way. 'Tis kep' down that way. I'm a weaver, I were in a fact'ry
when a chilt, but I ha' gotten een to see wi' and eern to year wi'.
I read in th' papers every 'Sizes, every Sessions - and you read
too - I know it! - with dismay - how th' supposed unpossibility o'
ever getting unchained from one another, at any price, on any
terms, brings blood upon this land, and brings many common married
fok to battle, murder, and sudden death. Let us ha' this, right
understood. Mine's a grievous case, an' I want - if yo will be so
good - t' know the law that helps me.'

'Now, I tell you what!' said Mr. Bounderby, putting his hands in
his pockets. 'There is such a law.'

Stephen, subsiding into his quiet manner, and never wandering in
his attention, gave a nod.

'But it's not for you at all. It costs money. It costs a mint of

'How much might that be?' Stephen calmly asked.

'Why, you'd have to go to Doctors' Commons with a suit, and you'd
have to go to a court of Common Law with a suit, and you'd have to
go to the House of Lords with a suit, and you'd have to get an Act
of Parliament to enable you to marry again, and it would cost you
(if it was a case of very plain sailing), I suppose from a thousand
to fifteen hundred pound,' said Mr. Bounderby. 'Perhaps twice the

'There's no other law?'

'Certainly not.'

'Why then, sir,' said Stephen, turning white, and motioning with
that right hand of his, as if he gave everything to the four winds,
''tis a muddle. 'Tis just a muddle a'toogether, an' the sooner I
am dead, the better.'

(Mrs. Sparsit again dejected by the impiety of the people.)

'Pooh, pooh! Don't you talk nonsense, my good fellow,' said Mr.
Bounderby, 'about things you don't understand; and don't you call
the Institutions of your country a muddle, or you'll get yourself
into a real muddle one of these fine mornings. The institutions of
your country are not your piece-work, and the only thing you have
got to do, is, to mind your piece-work. You didn't take your wife
for fast and for loose; but for better for worse. If she has
turned out worse - why, all we have got to say is, she might have
turned out better.'

''Tis a muddle,' said Stephen, shaking his head as he moved to the
door. ''Tis a' a muddle!'

'Now, I'll tell you what!' Mr. Bounderby resumed, as a valedictory
address. 'With what I shall call your unhallowed opinions, you
have been quite shocking this lady: who, as I have already told
you, is a born lady, and who, as I have not already told you, has
had her own marriage misfortunes to the tune of tens of thousands
of pounds - tens of Thousands of Pounds!' (he repeated it with
great relish). 'Now, you have always been a steady Hand hitherto;
but my opinion is, and so I tell you plainly, that you are turning
into the wrong road. You have been listening to some mischievous
stranger or other - they're always about - and the best thing you
can do is, to come out of that. Now you know;' here his
countenance expressed marvellous acuteness; 'I can see as far into
a grindstone as another man; farther than a good many, perhaps,
because I had my nose well kept to it when I was young. I see
traces of the turtle soup, and venison, and gold spoon in this.
Yes, I do!' cried Mr. Bounderby, shaking his head with obstinate
cunning. 'By the Lord Harry, I do!'

With a very different shake of the head and deep sigh, Stephen
said, 'Thank you, sir, I wish you good day.' So he left Mr.
Bounderby swelling at his own portrait on the wall, as if he were
going to explode himself into it; and Mrs. Sparsit still ambling on
with her foot in her stirrup, looking quite cast down by the
popular vices.

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