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Charles Dickens > Hard Times > Chapter XV

Hard Times

Chapter XV


ALTHOUGH Mr. Gradgrind did not take after Blue Beard, his room was
quite a blue chamber in its abundance of blue books. Whatever they
could prove (which is usually anything you like), they proved
there, in an army constantly strengthening by the arrival of new
recruits. In that charmed apartment, the most complicated social
questions were cast up, got into exact totals, and finally settled
- if those concerned could only have been brought to know it. As
if an astronomical observatory should be made without any windows,
and the astronomer within should arrange the starry universe solely
by pen, ink, and paper, so Mr. Gradgrind, in his Observatory (and
there are many like it), had no need to cast an eye upon the
teeming myriads of human beings around him, but could settle all
their destinies on a slate, and wipe out all their tears with one
dirty little bit of sponge.

To this Observatory, then: a stern room, with a deadly statistical
clock in it, which measured every second with a beat like a rap
upon a coffin-lid; Louisa repaired on the appointed morning. A
window looked towards Coketown; and when she sat down near her
father's table, she saw the high chimneys and the long tracts of
smoke looming in the heavy distance gloomily.

'My dear Louisa,' said her father, 'I prepared you last night to
give me your serious attention in the conversation we are now going
to have together. You have been so well trained, and you do, I am
happy to say, so much justice to the education you have received,
that I have perfect confidence in your good sense. You are not
impulsive, you are not romantic, you are accustomed to view
everything from the strong dispassionate ground of reason and
calculation. From that ground alone, I know you will view and
consider what I am going to communicate.'

He waited, as if he would have been glad that she said something.
But she said never a word.

'Louisa, my dear, you are the subject of a proposal of marriage
that has been made to me.'

Again he waited, and again she answered not one word. This so far
surprised him, as to induce him gently to repeat, 'a proposal of
marriage, my dear.' To which she returned, without any visible
emotion whatever:

'I hear you, father. I am attending, I assure you.'

'Well!' said Mr. Gradgrind, breaking into a smile, after being for
the moment at a loss, 'you are even more dispassionate than I
expected, Louisa. Or, perhaps, you are not unprepared for the
announcement I have it in charge to make?'

'I cannot say that, father, until I hear it. Prepared or
unprepared, I wish to hear it all from you. I wish to hear you
state it to me, father.'

Strange to relate, Mr. Gradgrind was not so collected at this
moment as his daughter was. He took a paper-knife in his hand,
turned it over, laid it down, took it up again, and even then had
to look along the blade of it, considering how to go on.

'What you say, my dear Louisa, is perfectly reasonable. I have
undertaken then to let you know that - in short, that Mr. Bounderby
has informed me that he has long watched your progress with
particular interest and pleasure, and has long hoped that the time
might ultimately arrive when he should offer you his hand in
marriage. That time, to which he has so long, and certainly with
great constancy, looked forward, is now come. Mr. Bounderby has
made his proposal of marriage to me, and has entreated me to make
it known to you, and to express his hope that you will take it into
your favourable consideration.'

Silence between them. The deadly statistical clock very hollow.
The distant smoke very black and heavy.

'Father,' said Louisa, 'do you think I love Mr. Bounderby?'

Mr. Gradgrind was extremely discomfited by this unexpected
question. 'Well, my child,' he returned, 'I - really - cannot take
upon myself to say.'

'Father,' pursued Louisa in exactly the same voice as before, 'do
you ask me to love Mr. Bounderby?'

'My dear Louisa, no. No. I ask nothing.'

'Father,' she still pursued, 'does Mr. Bounderby ask me to love

'Really, my dear,' said Mr. Gradgrind, 'it is difficult to answer
your question - '

'Difficult to answer it, Yes or No, father?

'Certainly, my dear. Because;' here was something to demonstrate,
and it set him up again; 'because the reply depends so materially,
Louisa, on the sense in which we use the expression. Now, Mr.
Bounderby does not do you the injustice, and does not do himself
the injustice, of pretending to anything fanciful, fantastic, or (I
am using synonymous terms) sentimental. Mr. Bounderby would have
seen you grow up under his eyes, to very little purpose, if he
could so far forget what is due to your good sense, not to say to
his, as to address you from any such ground. Therefore, perhaps
the expression itself - I merely suggest this to you, my dear - may
be a little misplaced.'

'What would you advise me to use in its stead, father?'

'Why, my dear Louisa,' said Mr. Gradgrind, completely recovered by
this time, 'I would advise you (since you ask me) to consider this
question, as you have been accustomed to consider every other
question, simply as one of tangible Fact. The ignorant and the
giddy may embarrass such subjects with irrelevant fancies, and
other absurdities that have no existence, properly viewed - really
no existence - but it is no compliment to you to say, that you know
better. Now, what are the Facts of this case? You are, we will
say in round numbers, twenty years of age; Mr. Bounderby is, we
will say in round numbers, fifty. There is some disparity in your
respective years, but in your means and positions there is none; on
the contrary, there is a great suitability. Then the question
arises, Is this one disparity sufficient to operate as a bar to
such a marriage? In considering this question, it is not
unimportant to take into account the statistics of marriage, so far
as they have yet been obtained, in England and Wales. I find, on
reference to the figures, that a large proportion of these
marriages are contracted between parties of very unequal ages, and
that the elder of these contracting parties is, in rather more than
three-fourths of these instances, the bridegroom. It is remarkable
as showing the wide prevalence of this law, that among the natives
of the British possessions in India, also in a considerable part of
China, and among the Calmucks of Tartary, the best means of
computation yet furnished us by travellers, yield similar results.
The disparity I have mentioned, therefore, almost ceases to be
disparity, and (virtually) all but disappears.'

'What do you recommend, father,' asked Louisa, her reserved
composure not in the least affected by these gratifying results,
'that I should substitute for the term I used just now? For the
misplaced expression?'

'Louisa,' returned her father, 'it appears to me that nothing can
be plainer. Confining yourself rigidly to Fact, the question of
Fact you state to yourself is: Does Mr. Bounderby ask me to marry
him? Yes, he does. The sole remaining question then is: Shall I
marry him? I think nothing can be plainer than that?'

'Shall I marry him?' repeated Louisa, with great deliberation.

'Precisely. And it is satisfactory to me, as your father, my dear
Louisa, to know that you do not come to the consideration of that
question with the previous habits of mind, and habits of life, that
belong to many young women.'

'No, father,' she returned, 'I do not.'

'I now leave you to judge for yourself,' said Mr. Gradgrind. 'I
have stated the case, as such cases are usually stated among
practical minds; I have stated it, as the case of your mother and
myself was stated in its time. The rest, my dear Louisa, is for
you to decide.'

From the beginning, she had sat looking at him fixedly. As he now
leaned back in his chair, and bent his deep-set eyes upon her in
his turn, perhaps he might have seen one wavering moment in her,
when she was impelled to throw herself upon his breast, and give
him the pent-up confidences of her heart. But, to see it, he must
have overleaped at a bound the artificial barriers he had for many
years been erecting, between himself and all those subtle essences
of humanity which will elude the utmost cunning of algebra until
the last trumpet ever to be sounded shall blow even algebra to
wreck. The barriers were too many and too high for such a leap.
With his unbending, utilitarian, matter-of-fact face, he hardened
her again; and the moment shot away into the plumbless depths of
the past, to mingle with all the lost opportunities that are
drowned there.

Removing her eyes from him, she sat so long looking silently
towards the town, that he said, at length: 'Are you consulting the
chimneys of the Coketown works, Louisa?'

'There seems to be nothing there but languid and monotonous smoke.
Yet when the night comes, Fire bursts out, father!' she answered,
turning quickly.

'Of course I know that, Louisa. I do not see the application of
the remark.' To do him justice he did not, at all.

She passed it away with a slight motion of her hand, and
concentrating her attention upon him again, said, 'Father, I have
often thought that life is very short.' - This was so distinctly
one of his subjects that he interposed.

'It is short, no doubt, my dear. Still, the average duration of
human life is proved to have increased of late years. The
calculations of various life assurance and annuity offices, among
other figures which cannot go wrong, have established the fact.'

'I speak of my own life, father.'

'O indeed? Still,' said Mr. Gradgrind, 'I need not point out to
you, Louisa, that it is governed by the laws which govern lives in
the aggregate.'

'While it lasts, I would wish to do the little I can, and the
little I am fit for. What does it matter?'

Mr. Gradgrind seemed rather at a loss to understand the last four
words; replying, 'How, matter? What matter, my dear?'

'Mr. Bounderby,' she went on in a steady, straight way, without
regarding this, 'asks me to marry him. The question I have to ask
myself is, shall I marry him? That is so, father, is it not? You
have told me so, father. Have you not?'

'Certainly, my dear.'

'Let it be so. Since Mr. Bounderby likes to take me thus, I am
satisfied to accept his proposal. Tell him, father, as soon as you
please, that this was my answer. Repeat it, word for word, if you
can, because I should wish him to know what I said.'

'It is quite right, my dear,' retorted her father approvingly, 'to
be exact. I will observe your very proper request. Have you any
wish in reference to the period of your marriage, my child?'

'None, father. What does it matter!'

Mr. Gradgrind had drawn his chair a little nearer to her, and taken
her hand. But, her repetition of these words seemed to strike with
some little discord on his ear. He paused to look at her, and,
still holding her hand, said:

'Louisa, I have not considered it essential to ask you one
question, because the possibility implied in it appeared to me to
be too remote. But perhaps I ought to do so. You have never
entertained in secret any other proposal?'

'Father,' she returned, almost scornfully, 'what other proposal can
have been made to me? Whom have I seen? Where have I been? What
are my heart's experiences?'

'My dear Louisa,' returned Mr. Gradgrind, reassured and satisfied.
'You correct me justly. I merely wished to discharge my duty.'

'What do I know, father,' said Louisa in her quiet manner, 'of
tastes and fancies; of aspirations and affections; of all that part
of my nature in which such light things might have been nourished?
What escape have I had from problems that could be demonstrated,
and realities that could be grasped?' As she said it, she
unconsciously closed her hand, as if upon a solid object, and
slowly opened it as though she were releasing dust or ash.

'My dear,' assented her eminently practical parent, 'quite true,
quite true.'

'Why, father,' she pursued, 'what a strange question to ask me!
The baby-preference that even I have heard of as common among
children, has never had its innocent resting-place in my breast.
You have been so careful of me, that I never had a child's heart.
You have trained me so well, that I never dreamed a child's dream.
You have dealt so wisely with me, father, from my cradle to this
hour, that I never had a child's belief or a child's fear.'

Mr. Gradgrind was quite moved by his success, and by this testimony
to it. 'My dear Louisa,' said he, 'you abundantly repay my care.
Kiss me, my dear girl.'

So, his daughter kissed him. Detaining her in his embrace, he
said, 'I may assure you now, my favourite child, that I am made
happy by the sound decision at which you have arrived. Mr.
Bounderby is a very remarkable man; and what little disparity can
be said to exist between you - if any - is more than
counterbalanced by the tone your mind has acquired. It has always
been my object so to educate you, as that you might, while still in
your early youth, be (if I may so express myself) almost any age.
Kiss me once more, Louisa. Now, let us go and find your mother.'

Accordingly, they went down to the drawing-room, where the esteemed
lady with no nonsense about her, was recumbent as usual, while
Sissy worked beside her. She gave some feeble signs of returning
animation when they entered, and presently the faint transparency
was presented in a sitting attitude.

'Mrs. Gradgrind,' said her husband, who had waited for the
achievement of this feat with some impatience, 'allow me to present
to you Mrs. Bounderby.'

'Oh!' said Mrs. Gradgrind, 'so you have settled it! Well, I'm sure
I hope your health may be good, Louisa; for if your head begins to
split as soon as you are married, which was the case with mine, I
cannot consider that you are to be envied, though I have no doubt
you think you are, as all girls do. However, I give you joy, my
dear - and I hope you may now turn all your ological studies to
good account, I am sure I do! I must give you a kiss of
congratulation, Louisa; but don't touch my right shoulder, for
there's something running down it all day long. And now you see,'
whimpered Mrs. Gradgrind, adjusting her shawls after the
affectionate ceremony, 'I shall be worrying myself, morning, noon,
and night, to know what I am to call him!'

'Mrs. Gradgrind,' said her husband, solemnly, 'what do you mean?'

'Whatever I am to call him, Mr. Gradgrind, when he is married to
Louisa! I must call him something. It's impossible,' said Mrs.
Gradgrind, with a mingled sense of politeness and injury, 'to be
constantly addressing him and never giving him a name. I cannot
call him Josiah, for the name is insupportable to me. You yourself
wouldn't hear of Joe, you very well know. Am I to call my own son-
in-law, Mister! Not, I believe, unless the time has arrived when,
as an invalid, I am to be trampled upon by my relations. Then,
what am I to call him!'

Nobody present having any suggestion to offer in the remarkable
emergency, Mrs. Gradgrind departed this life for the time being,
after delivering the following codicil to her remarks already

'As to the wedding, all I ask, Louisa, is, - and I ask it with a
fluttering in my chest, which actually extends to the soles of my
feet, - that it may take place soon. Otherwise, I know it is one
of those subjects I shall never hear the last of.'

When Mr. Gradgrind had presented Mrs. Bounderby, Sissy had suddenly
turned her head, and looked, in wonder, in pity, in sorrow, in
doubt, in a multitude of emotions, towards Louisa. Louisa had
known it, and seen it, without looking at her. From that moment
she was impassive, proud and cold - held Sissy at a distance -
changed to her altogether.

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