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Charles Dickens > Hard Times > Chapter XVII

Hard Times

Chapter XVII


A SUNNY midsummer day. There was such a thing sometimes, even in

Seen from a distance in such weather, Coketown lay shrouded in a
haze of its own, which appeared impervious to the sun's rays. You
only knew the town was there, because you knew there could have
been no such sulky blotch upon the prospect without a town. A blur
of soot and smoke, now confusedly tending this way, now that way,
now aspiring to the vault of Heaven, now murkily creeping along the
earth, as the wind rose and fell, or changed its quarter: a dense
formless jumble, with sheets of cross light in it, that showed
nothing but masses of darkness:- Coketown in the distance was
suggestive of itself, though not a brick of it could be seen.

The wonder was, it was there at all. It had been ruined so often,
that it was amazing how it had borne so many shocks. Surely there
never was such fragile china-ware as that of which the millers of
Coketown were made. Handle them never so lightly, and they fell to
pieces with such ease that you might suspect them of having been
flawed before. They were ruined, when they were required to send
labouring children to school; they were ruined when inspectors were
appointed to look into their works; they were ruined, when such
inspectors considered it doubtful whether they were quite justified
in chopping people up with their machinery; they were utterly
undone, when it was hinted that perhaps they need not always make
quite so much smoke. Besides Mr. Bounderby's gold spoon which was
generally received in Coketown, another prevalent fiction was very
popular there. It took the form of a threat. Whenever a
Coketowner felt he was ill-used - that is to say, whenever he was
not left entirely alone, and it was proposed to hold him
accountable for the consequences of any of his acts - he was sure
to come out with the awful menace, that he would 'sooner pitch his
property into the Atlantic.' This had terrified the Home Secretary
within an inch of his life, on several occasions.

However, the Coketowners were so patriotic after all, that they
never had pitched their property into the Atlantic yet, but, on the
contrary, had been kind enough to take mighty good care of it. So
there it was, in the haze yonder; and it increased and multiplied.

The streets were hot and dusty on the summer day, and the sun was
so bright that it even shone through the heavy vapour drooping over
Coketown, and could not be looked at steadily. Stokers emerged
from low underground doorways into factory yards, and sat on steps,
and posts, and palings, wiping their swarthy visages, and
contemplating coals. The whole town seemed to be frying in oil.
There was a stifling smell of hot oil everywhere. The steam-
engines shone with it, the dresses of the Hands were soiled with
it, the mills throughout their many stories oozed and trickled it.
The atmosphere of those Fairy palaces was like the breath of the
simoom: and their inhabitants, wasting with heat, toiled languidly
in the desert. But no temperature made the melancholy mad
elephants more mad or more sane. Their wearisome heads went up and
down at the same rate, in hot weather and cold, wet weather and
dry, fair weather and foul. The measured motion of their shadows
on the walls, was the substitute Coketown had to show for the
shadows of rustling woods; while, for the summer hum of insects, it
could offer, all the year round, from the dawn of Monday to the
night of Saturday, the whirr of shafts and wheels.

Drowsily they whirred all through this sunny day, making the
passenger more sleepy and more hot as he passed the humming walls
of the mills. Sun-blinds, and sprinklings of water, a little
cooled the main streets and the shops; but the mills, and the
courts and alleys, baked at a fierce heat. Down upon the river
that was black and thick with dye, some Coketown boys who were at
large - a rare sight there - rowed a crazy boat, which made a
spumous track upon the water as it jogged along, while every dip of
an oar stirred up vile smells. But the sun itself, however
beneficent, generally, was less kind to Coketown than hard frost,
and rarely looked intently into any of its closer regions without
engendering more death than life. So does the eye of Heaven itself
become an evil eye, when incapable or sordid hands are interposed
between it and the things it looks upon to bless.

Mrs. Sparsit sat in her afternoon apartment at the Bank, on the
shadier side of the frying street. Office-hours were over: and at
that period of the day, in warm weather, she usually embellished
with her genteel presence, a managerial board-room over the public
office. Her own private sitting-room was a story higher, at the
window of which post of observation she was ready, every morning,
to greet Mr. Bounderby, as he came across the road, with the
sympathizing recognition appropriate to a Victim. He had been
married now a year; and Mrs. Sparsit had never released him from
her determined pity a moment.

The Bank offered no violence to the wholesome monotony of the town.
It was another red brick house, with black outside shutters, green
inside blinds, a black street-door up two white steps, a brazen
door-plate, and a brazen door-handle full stop. It was a size
larger than Mr. Bounderby's house, as other houses were from a size
to half-a-dozen sizes smaller; in all other particulars, it was
strictly according to pattern.

Mrs. Sparsit was conscious that by coming in the evening-tide among
the desks and writing implements, she shed a feminine, not to say
also aristocratic, grace upon the office. Seated, with her
needlework or netting apparatus, at the window, she had a self-
laudatory sense of correcting, by her ladylike deportment, the rude
business aspect of the place. With this impression of her
interesting character upon her, Mrs. Sparsit considered herself, in
some sort, the Bank Fairy. The townspeople who, in their passing
and repassing, saw her there, regarded her as the Bank Dragon
keeping watch over the treasures of the mine.

What those treasures were, Mrs. Sparsit knew as little as they did.
Gold and silver coin, precious paper, secrets that if divulged
would bring vague destruction upon vague persons (generally,
however, people whom she disliked), were the chief items in her
ideal catalogue thereof. For the rest, she knew that after office-
hours, she reigned supreme over all the office furniture, and over
a locked-up iron room with three locks, against the door of which
strong chamber the light porter laid his head every night, on a
truckle bed, that disappeared at cockcrow. Further, she was lady
paramount over certain vaults in the basement, sharply spiked off
from communication with the predatory world; and over the relics of
the current day's work, consisting of blots of ink, worn-out pens,
fragments of wafers, and scraps of paper torn so small, that
nothing interesting could ever be deciphered on them when Mrs.
Sparsit tried. Lastly, she was guardian over a little armoury of
cutlasses and carbines, arrayed in vengeful order above one of the
official chimney-pieces; and over that respectable tradition never
to be separated from a place of business claiming to be wealthy - a
row of fire-buckets - vessels calculated to be of no physical
utility on any occasion, but observed to exercise a fine moral
influence, almost equal to bullion, on most beholders.

A deaf serving-woman and the light porter completed Mrs. Sparsit's
empire. The deaf serving-woman was rumoured to be wealthy; and a
saying had for years gone about among the lower orders of Coketown,
that she would be murdered some night when the Bank was shut, for
the sake of her money. It was generally considered, indeed, that
she had been due some time, and ought to have fallen long ago; but
she had kept her life, and her situation, with an ill-conditioned
tenacity that occasioned much offence and disappointment.

Mrs. Sparsit's tea was just set for her on a pert little table,
with its tripod of legs in an attitude, which she insinuated after
office-hours, into the company of the stern, leathern-topped, long
board-table that bestrode the middle of the room. The light porter
placed the tea-tray on it, knuckling his forehead as a form of

'Thank you, Bitzer,' said Mrs. Sparsit.

'Thank you, ma'am,' returned the light porter. He was a very light
porter indeed; as light as in the days when he blinkingly defined a
horse, for girl number twenty.

'All is shut up, Bitzer?' said Mrs. Sparsit.

'All is shut up, ma'am.'

'And what,' said Mrs. Sparsit, pouring out her tea, 'is the news of
the day? Anything?'

'Well, ma'am, I can't say that I have heard anything particular.
Our people are a bad lot, ma'am; but that is no news,

'What are the restless wretches doing now?' asked Mrs. Sparsit.

'Merely going on in the old way, ma'am. Uniting, and leaguing, and
engaging to stand by one another.'

'It is much to be regretted,' said Mrs. Sparsit, making her nose
more Roman and her eyebrows more Coriolanian in the strength of her
severity, 'that the united masters allow of any such class-

'Yes, ma'am,' said Bitzer.

'Being united themselves, they ought one and all to set their faces
against employing any man who is united with any other man,' said
Mrs. Sparsit.

'They have done that, ma'am,' returned Bitzer; 'but it rather fell
through, ma'am.'

'I do not pretend to understand these things,' said Mrs. Sparsit,
with dignity, 'my lot having been signally cast in a widely
different sphere; and Mr. Sparsit, as a Powler, being also quite
out of the pale of any such dissensions. I only know that these
people must be conquered, and that it's high time it was done, once
for all.'

'Yes, ma'am,' returned Bitzer, with a demonstration of great
respect for Mrs. Sparsit's oracular authority. 'You couldn't put
it clearer, I am sure, ma'am.'

As this was his usual hour for having a little confidential chat
with Mrs. Sparsit, and as he had already caught her eye and seen
that she was going to ask him something, he made a pretence of
arranging the rulers, inkstands, and so forth, while that lady went
on with her tea, glancing through the open window, down into the

'Has it been a busy day, Bitzer?' asked Mrs. Sparsit.

'Not a very busy day, my lady. About an average day.' He now and
then slided into my lady, instead of ma'am, as an involuntary
acknowledgment of Mrs. Sparsit's personal dignity and claims to

'The clerks,' said Mrs. Sparsit, carefully brushing an
imperceptible crumb of bread and butter from her left-hand mitten,
'are trustworthy, punctual, and industrious, of course?'

'Yes, ma'am, pretty fair, ma'am. With the usual exception.'

He held the respectable office of general spy and informer in the
establishment, for which volunteer service he received a present at
Christmas, over and above his weekly wage. He had grown into an
extremely clear-headed, cautious, prudent young man, who was safe
to rise in the world. His mind was so exactly regulated, that he
had no affections or passions. All his proceedings were the result
of the nicest and coldest calculation; and it was not without cause
that Mrs. Sparsit habitually observed of him, that he was a young
man of the steadiest principle she had ever known. Having
satisfied himself, on his father's death, that his mother had a
right of settlement in Coketown, this excellent young economist had
asserted that right for her with such a steadfast adherence to the
principle of the case, that she had been shut up in the workhouse
ever since. It must be admitted that he allowed her half a pound
of tea a year, which was weak in him: first, because all gifts
have an inevitable tendency to pauperise the recipient, and
secondly, because his only reasonable transaction in that commodity
would have been to buy it for as little as he could possibly give,
and sell it for as much as he could possibly get; it having been
clearly ascertained by philosophers that in this is comprised the
whole duty of man - not a part of man's duty, but the whole.

'Pretty fair, ma'am. With the usual exception, ma'am,' repeated

'Ah - h!' said Mrs. Sparsit, shaking her head over her tea-cup, and
taking a long gulp.

'Mr. Thomas, ma'am, I doubt Mr. Thomas very much, ma'am, I don't
like his ways at all.'

'Bitzer,' said Mrs. Sparsit, in a very impressive manner, 'do you
recollect my having said anything to you respecting names?'

'I beg your pardon, ma'am. It's quite true that you did object to
names being used, and they're always best avoided.'

'Please to remember that I have a charge here,' said Mrs. Sparsit,
with her air of state. 'I hold a trust here, Bitzer, under Mr.
Bounderby. However improbable both Mr. Bounderby and myself might
have deemed it years ago, that he would ever become my patron,
making me an annual compliment, I cannot but regard him in that
light. From Mr. Bounderby I have received every acknowledgment of
my social station, and every recognition of my family descent, that
I could possibly expect. More, far more. Therefore, to my patron
I will be scrupulously true. And I do not consider, I will not
consider, I cannot consider,' said Mrs. Sparsit, with a most
extensive stock on hand of honour and morality, 'that I should be
scrupulously true, if I allowed names to be mentioned under this
roof, that are unfortunately - most unfortunately - no doubt of
that - connected with his.'

Bitzer knuckled his forehead again, and again begged pardon.

'No, Bitzer,' continued Mrs. Sparsit, 'say an individual, and I
will hear you; say Mr. Thomas, and you must excuse me.'

'With the usual exception, ma'am,' said Bitzer, trying back, 'of an

'Ah - h!' Mrs. Sparsit repeated the ejaculation, the shake of the
head over her tea-cup, and the long gulp, as taking up the
conversation again at the point where it had been interrupted.

'An individual, ma'am,' said Bitzer, 'has never been what he ought
to have been, since he first came into the place. He is a
dissipated, extravagant idler. He is not worth his salt, ma'am.
He wouldn't get it either, if he hadn't a friend and relation at
court, ma'am!'

'Ah - h!' said Mrs. Sparsit, with another melancholy shake of her

'I only hope, ma'am,' pursued Bitzer, 'that his friend and relation
may not supply him with the means of carrying on. Otherwise,
ma'am, we know out of whose pocket that money comes.'

'Ah - h!' sighed Mrs. Sparsit again, with another melancholy shake
of her head.

'He is to be pitied, ma'am. The last party I have alluded to, is
to be pitied, ma'am,' said Bitzer.

'Yes, Bitzer,' said Mrs. Sparsit. 'I have always pitied the
delusion, always.'

'As to an individual, ma'am,' said Bitzer, dropping his voice and
drawing nearer, 'he is as improvident as any of the people in this
town. And you know what their improvidence is, ma'am. No one
could wish to know it better than a lady of your eminence does.'

'They would do well,' returned Mrs. Sparsit, 'to take example by
you, Bitzer.'

'Thank you, ma'am. But, since you do refer to me, now look at me,
ma'am. I have put by a little, ma'am, already. That gratuity
which I receive at Christmas, ma'am: I never touch it. I don't
even go the length of my wages, though they're not high, ma'am.
Why can't they do as I have done, ma'am? What one person can do,
another can do.'

This, again, was among the fictions of Coketown. Any capitalist
there, who had made sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, always
professed to wonder why the sixty thousand nearest Hands didn't
each make sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, and more or less
reproached them every one for not accomplishing the little feat.
What I did you can do. Why don't you go and do it?

'As to their wanting recreations, ma'am,' said Bitzer, 'it's stuff
and nonsense. I don't want recreations. I never did, and I never
shall; I don't like 'em. As to their combining together; there are
many of them, I have no doubt, that by watching and informing upon
one another could earn a trifle now and then, whether in money or
good will, and improve their livelihood. Then, why don't they
improve it, ma'am! It's the first consideration of a rational
creature, and it's what they pretend to want.'

'Pretend indeed!' said Mrs. Sparsit.

'I am sure we are constantly hearing, ma'am, till it becomes quite
nauseous, concerning their wives and families,' said Bitzer. 'Why
look at me, ma'am! I don't want a wife and family. Why should

'Because they are improvident,' said Mrs. Sparsit.

'Yes, ma'am,' returned Bitzer, 'that's where it is. If they were
more provident and less perverse, ma'am, what would they do? They
would say, "While my hat covers my family," or "while my bonnet
covers my family," - as the case might be, ma'am - "I have only one
to feed, and that's the person I most like to feed."'

'To be sure,' assented Mrs. Sparsit, eating muffin.

'Thank you, ma'am,' said Bitzer, knuckling his forehead again, in
return for the favour of Mrs. Sparsit's improving conversation.
'Would you wish a little more hot water, ma'am, or is there
anything else that I could fetch you?'

'Nothing just now, Bitzer.'

'Thank you, ma'am. I shouldn't wish to disturb you at your meals,
ma'am, particularly tea, knowing your partiality for it,' said
Bitzer, craning a little to look over into the street from where he
stood; 'but there's a gentleman been looking up here for a minute
or so, ma'am, and he has come across as if he was going to knock.
That is his knock, ma'am, no doubt.'

He stepped to the window; and looking out, and drawing in his head
again, confirmed himself with, 'Yes, ma'am. Would you wish the
gentleman to be shown in, ma'am?'

'I don't know who it can be,' said Mrs. Sparsit, wiping her mouth
and arranging her mittens.

'A stranger, ma'am, evidently.'

'What a stranger can want at the Bank at this time of the evening,
unless he comes upon some business for which he is too late, I
don't know,' said Mrs. Sparsit, 'but I hold a charge in this
establishment from Mr. Bounderby, and I will never shrink from it.
If to see him is any part of the duty I have accepted, I will see
him. Use your own discretion, Bitzer.'

Here the visitor, all unconscious of Mrs. Sparsit's magnanimous
words, repeated his knock so loudly that the light porter hastened
down to open the door; while Mrs. Sparsit took the precaution of
concealing her little table, with all its appliances upon it, in a
cupboard, and then decamped up-stairs, that she might appear, if
needful, with the greater dignity.

'If you please, ma'am, the gentleman would wish to see you,' said
Bitzer, with his light eye at Mrs. Sparsit's keyhole. So, Mrs.
Sparsit, who had improved the interval by touching up her cap, took
her classical features down-stairs again, and entered the board-
room in the manner of a Roman matron going outside the city walls
to treat with an invading general.

The visitor having strolled to the window, and being then engaged
in looking carelessly out, was as unmoved by this impressive entry
as man could possibly be. He stood whistling to himself with all
imaginable coolness, with his hat still on, and a certain air of
exhaustion upon him, in part arising from excessive summer, and in
part from excessive gentility. For it was to be seen with half an
eye that he was a thorough gentleman, made to the model of the
time; weary of everything, and putting no more faith in anything
than Lucifer.

'I believe, sir,' quoth Mrs. Sparsit, 'you wished to see me.'

'I beg your pardon,' he said, turning and removing his hat; 'pray
excuse me.'

'Humph!' thought Mrs. Sparsit, as she made a stately bend. 'Five
and thirty, good-looking, good figure, good teeth, good voice, good
breeding, well-dressed, dark hair, bold eyes.' All which Mrs.
Sparsit observed in her womanly way - like the Sultan who put his
head in the pail of water - merely in dipping down and coming up

'Please to be seated, sir,' said Mrs. Sparsit.

'Thank you. Allow me.' He placed a chair for her, but remained
himself carelessly lounging against the table. 'I left my servant
at the railway looking after the luggage - very heavy train and
vast quantity of it in the van - and strolled on, looking about me.
Exceedingly odd place. Will you allow me to ask you if it's always
as black as this?'

'In general much blacker,' returned Mrs. Sparsit, in her
uncompromising way.

'Is it possible! Excuse me: you are not a native, I think?'

'No, sir,' returned Mrs. Sparsit. 'It was once my good or ill
fortune, as it may be - before I became a widow - to move in a very
different sphere. My husband was a Powler.'

'Beg your pardon, really!' said the stranger. 'Was - ?'

Mrs. Sparsit repeated, 'A Powler.'

'Powler Family,' said the stranger, after reflecting a few moments.
Mrs. Sparsit signified assent. The stranger seemed a little more
fatigued than before.

'You must be very much bored here?' was the inference he drew from
the communication.

'I am the servant of circumstances, sir,' said Mrs. Sparsit, 'and I
have long adapted myself to the governing power of my life.'

'Very philosophical,' returned the stranger, 'and very exemplary
and laudable, and - ' It seemed to be scarcely worth his while to
finish the sentence, so he played with his watch-chain wearily.

'May I be permitted to ask, sir,' said Mrs. Sparsit, 'to what I am
indebted for the favour of - '

'Assuredly,' said the stranger. 'Much obliged to you for reminding
me. I am the bearer of a letter of introduction to Mr. Bounderby,
the banker. Walking through this extraordinarily black town, while
they were getting dinner ready at the hotel, I asked a fellow whom
I met; one of the working people; who appeared to have been taking
a shower-bath of something fluffy, which I assume to be the raw
material - '

Mrs. Sparsit inclined her head.

' - Raw material - where Mr. Bounderby, the banker, might reside.
Upon which, misled no doubt by the word Banker, he directed me to
the Bank. Fact being, I presume, that Mr. Bounderby the Banker
does not reside in the edifice in which I have the honour of
offering this explanation?'

'No, sir,' returned Mrs. Sparsit, 'he does not.'

'Thank you. I had no intention of delivering my letter at the
present moment, nor have I. But strolling on to the Bank to kill
time, and having the good fortune to observe at the window,'
towards which he languidly waved his hand, then slightly bowed, 'a
lady of a very superior and agreeable appearance, I considered that
I could not do better than take the liberty of asking that lady
where Mr. Bounderby the Banker does live. Which I accordingly
venture, with all suitable apologies, to do.'

The inattention and indolence of his manner were sufficiently
relieved, to Mrs. Sparsit's thinking, by a certain gallantry at
ease, which offered her homage too. Here he was, for instance, at
this moment, all but sitting on the table, and yet lazily bending
over her, as if he acknowledged an attraction in her that made her
charming - in her way.

'Banks, I know, are always suspicious, and officially must be,'
said the stranger, whose lightness and smoothness of speech were
pleasant likewise; suggesting matter far more sensible and humorous
than it ever contained - which was perhaps a shrewd device of the
founder of this numerous sect, whosoever may have been that great
man: 'therefore I may observe that my letter - here it is - is
from the member for this place - Gradgrind - whom I have had the
pleasure of knowing in London.'

Mrs. Sparsit recognized the hand, intimated that such confirmation
was quite unnecessary, and gave Mr. Bounderby's address, with all
needful clues and directions in aid.

'Thousand thanks,' said the stranger. 'Of course you know the
Banker well?'

'Yes, sir,' rejoined Mrs. Sparsit. 'In my dependent relation
towards him, I have known him ten years.'

'Quite an eternity! I think he married Gradgrind's daughter?'

'Yes,' said Mrs. Sparsit, suddenly compressing her mouth, 'he had
that - honour.'

'The lady is quite a philosopher, I am told?'

'Indeed, sir,' said Mrs. Sparsit. 'Is she?'

'Excuse my impertinent curiosity,' pursued the stranger, fluttering
over Mrs. Sparsit's eyebrows, with a propitiatory air, 'but you
know the family, and know the world. I am about to know the
family, and may have much to do with them. Is the lady so very
alarming? Her father gives her such a portentously hard-headed
reputation, that I have a burning desire to know. Is she
absolutely unapproachable? Repellently and stunningly clever? I
see, by your meaning smile, you think not. You have poured balm
into my anxious soul. As to age, now. Forty? Five and thirty?'

Mrs. Sparsit laughed outright. 'A chit,' said she. 'Not twenty
when she was married.'

'I give you my honour, Mrs. Powler,' returned the stranger,
detaching himself from the table, 'that I never was so astonished
in my life!'

It really did seem to impress him, to the utmost extent of his
capacity of being impressed. He looked at his informant for full a
quarter of a minute, and appeared to have the surprise in his mind
all the time. 'I assure you, Mrs. Powler,' he then said, much
exhausted, 'that the father's manner prepared me for a grim and
stony maturity. I am obliged to you, of all things, for correcting
so absurd a mistake. Pray excuse my intrusion. Many thanks. Good

He bowed himself out; and Mrs. Sparsit, hiding in the window
curtain, saw him languishing down the street on the shady side of
the way, observed of all the town.

'What do you think of the gentleman, Bitzer?' she asked the light
porter, when he came to take away.

'Spends a deal of money on his dress, ma'am.'

'It must be admitted,' said Mrs. Sparsit, 'that it's very

'Yes, ma'am,' returned Bitzer, 'if that's worth the money.'

'Besides which, ma'am,' resumed Bitzer, while he was polishing the
table, 'he looks to me as if he gamed.'

'It's immoral to game,' said Mrs. Sparsit.

'It's ridiculous, ma'am,' said Bitzer, 'because the chances are
against the players.'

Whether it was that the heat prevented Mrs. Sparsit from working,
or whether it was that her hand was out, she did no work that
night. She sat at the window, when the sun began to sink behind
the smoke; she sat there, when the smoke was burning red, when the
colour faded from it, when darkness seemed to rise slowly out of
the ground, and creep upward, upward, up to the house-tops, up the
church steeple, up to the summits of the factory chimneys, up to
the sky. Without a candle in the room, Mrs. Sparsit sat at the
window, with her hands before her, not thinking much of the sounds
of evening; the whooping of boys, the barking of dogs, the rumbling
of wheels, the steps and voices of passengers, the shrill street
cries, the clogs upon the pavement when it was their hour for going
by, the shutting-up of shop-shutters. Not until the light porter
announced that her nocturnal sweetbread was ready, did Mrs. Sparsit
arouse herself from her reverie, and convey her dense black
eyebrows - by that time creased with meditation, as if they needed
ironing out-up-stairs.

'O, you Fool!' said Mrs. Sparsit, when she was alone at her supper.
Whom she meant, she did not say; but she could scarcely have meant
the sweetbread.

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