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Charles Dickens > Hard Times > Chapter XX

Hard Times

Chapter XX


'OH, my friends, the down-trodden operatives of Coketown! Oh, my
friends and fellow-countrymen, the slaves of an iron-handed and a
grinding despotism! Oh, my friends and fellow-sufferers, and
fellow-workmen, and fellow-men! I tell you that the hour is come,
when we must rally round one another as One united power, and
crumble into dust the oppressors that too long have battened upon
the plunder of our families, upon the sweat of our brows, upon the
labour of our hands, upon the strength of our sinews, upon the God-
created glorious rights of Humanity, and upon the holy and eternal
privileges of Brotherhood!'

'Good!' 'Hear, hear, hear!' 'Hurrah!' and other cries, arose in
many voices from various parts of the densely crowded and
suffocatingly close Hall, in which the orator, perched on a stage,
delivered himself of this and what other froth and fume he had in
him. He had declaimed himself into a violent heat, and was as
hoarse as he was hot. By dint of roaring at the top of his voice
under a flaring gaslight, clenching his fists, knitting his brows,
setting his teeth, and pounding with his arms, he had taken so much
out of himself by this time, that he was brought to a stop, and
called for a glass of water.

As he stood there, trying to quench his fiery face with his drink
of water, the comparison between the orator and the crowd of
attentive faces turned towards him, was extremely to his
disadvantage. Judging him by Nature's evidence, he was above the
mass in very little but the stage on which he stood. In many great
respects he was essentially below them. He was not so honest, he
was not so manly, he was not so good-humoured; he substituted
cunning for their simplicity, and passion for their safe solid
sense. An ill-made, high-shouldered man, with lowering brows, and
his features crushed into an habitually sour expression, he
contrasted most unfavourably, even in his mongrel dress, with the
great body of his hearers in their plain working clothes. Strange
as it always is to consider any assembly in the act of submissively
resigning itself to the dreariness of some complacent person, lord
or commoner, whom three-fourths of it could, by no human means,
raise out of the slough of inanity to their own intellectual level,
it was particularly strange, and it was even particularly
affecting, to see this crowd of earnest faces, whose honesty in the
main no competent observer free from bias could doubt, so agitated
by such a leader.

Good! Hear, hear! Hurrah! The eagerness both of attention and
intention, exhibited in all the countenances, made them a most
impressive sight. There was no carelessness, no languor, no idle
curiosity; none of the many shades of indifference to be seen in
all other assemblies, visible for one moment there. That every man
felt his condition to be, somehow or other, worse than it might be;
that every man considered it incumbent on him to join the rest,
towards the making of it better; that every man felt his only hope
to be in his allying himself to the comrades by whom he was
surrounded; and that in this belief, right or wrong (unhappily
wrong then), the whole of that crowd were gravely, deeply,
faithfully in earnest; must have been as plain to any one who chose
to see what was there, as the bare beams of the roof and the
whitened brick walls. Nor could any such spectator fail to know in
his own breast, that these men, through their very delusions,
showed great qualities, susceptible of being turned to the happiest
and best account; and that to pretend (on the strength of sweeping
axioms, howsoever cut and dried) that they went astray wholly
without cause, and of their own irrational wills, was to pretend
that there could be smoke without fire, death without birth,
harvest without seed, anything or everything produced from nothing.

The orator having refreshed himself, wiped his corrugated forehead
from left to right several times with his handkerchief folded into
a pad, and concentrated all his revived forces, in a sneer of great
disdain and bitterness.

'But oh, my friends and brothers! Oh, men and Englishmen, the
down-trodden operatives of Coketown! What shall we say of that man
- that working-man, that I should find it necessary so to libel the
glorious name - who, being practically and well acquainted with the
grievances and wrongs of you, the injured pith and marrow of this
land, and having heard you, with a noble and majestic unanimity
that will make Tyrants tremble, resolve for to subscribe to the
funds of the United Aggregate Tribunal, and to abide by the
injunctions issued by that body for your benefit, whatever they may
be - what, I ask you, will you say of that working-man, since such
I must acknowledge him to be, who, at such a time, deserts his
post, and sells his flag; who, at such a time, turns a traitor and
a craven and a recreant, who, at such a time, is not ashamed to
make to you the dastardly and humiliating avowal that he will hold
himself aloof, and will not be one of those associated in the
gallant stand for Freedom and for Right?'

The assembly was divided at this point. There were some groans and
hisses, but the general sense of honour was much too strong for the
condemnation of a man unheard. 'Be sure you're right,
Slackbridge!' 'Put him up!' 'Let's hear him!' Such things were
said on many sides. Finally, one strong voice called out, 'Is the
man heer? If the man's heer, Slackbridge, let's hear the man
himseln, 'stead o' yo.' Which was received with a round of

Slackbridge, the orator, looked about him with a withering smile;
and, holding out his right hand at arm's length (as the manner of
all Slackbridges is), to still the thundering sea, waited until
there was a profound silence.

'Oh, my friends and fellow-men!' said Slackbridge then, shaking his
head with violent scorn, 'I do not wonder that you, the prostrate
sons of labour, are incredulous of the existence of such a man.
But he who sold his birthright for a mess of pottage existed, and
Judas Iscariot existed, and Castlereagh existed, and this man

Here, a brief press and confusion near the stage, ended in the man
himself standing at the orator's side before the concourse. He was
pale and a little moved in the face - his lips especially showed
it; but he stood quiet, with his left hand at his chin, waiting to
be heard. There was a chairman to regulate the proceedings, and
this functionary now took the case into his own hands.

'My friends,' said he, 'by virtue o' my office as your president, I
askes o' our friend Slackbridge, who may be a little over hetter in
this business, to take his seat, whiles this man Stephen Blackpool
is heern. You all know this man Stephen Blackpool. You know him
awlung o' his misfort'ns, and his good name.'

With that, the chairman shook him frankly by the hand, and sat down
again. Slackbridge likewise sat down, wiping his hot forehead -
always from left to right, and never the reverse way.

'My friends,' Stephen began, in the midst of a dead calm; 'I ha'
hed what's been spok'n o' me, and 'tis lickly that I shan't mend
it. But I'd liefer you'd hearn the truth concernin myseln, fro my
lips than fro onny other man's, though I never cud'n speak afore so
monny, wi'out bein moydert and muddled.'

Slackbridge shook his head as if he would shake it off, in his

'I'm th' one single Hand in Bounderby's mill, o' a' the men theer,
as don't coom in wi' th' proposed reg'lations. I canna coom in wi'
'em. My friends, I doubt their doin' yo onny good. Licker they'll
do yo hurt.'

Slackbridge laughed, folded his arms, and frowned sarcastically.

'But 't an't sommuch for that as I stands out. If that were aw,
I'd coom in wi' th' rest. But I ha' my reasons - mine, yo see -
for being hindered; not on'y now, but awlus - awlus - life long!'

Slackbridge jumped up and stood beside him, gnashing and tearing.
'Oh, my friends, what but this did I tell you? Oh, my fellow-
countrymen, what warning but this did I give you? And how shows
this recreant conduct in a man on whom unequal laws are known to
have fallen heavy? Oh, you Englishmen, I ask you how does this
subornation show in one of yourselves, who is thus consenting to
his own undoing and to yours, and to your children's and your
children's children's?'

There was some applause, and some crying of Shame upon the man; but
the greater part of the audience were quiet. They looked at
Stephen's worn face, rendered more pathetic by the homely emotions
it evinced; and, in the kindness of their nature, they were more
sorry than indignant.

''Tis this Delegate's trade for t' speak,' said Stephen, 'an' he's
paid for 't, an' he knows his work. Let him keep to 't. Let him
give no heed to what I ha had'n to bear. That's not for him.
That's not for nobbody but me.'

There was a propriety, not to say a dignity in these words, that
made the hearers yet more quiet and attentive. The same strong
voice called out, 'Slackbridge, let the man be heern, and howd thee
tongue!' Then the place was wonderfully still.

'My brothers,' said Stephen, whose low voice was distinctly heard,
'and my fellow-workmen - for that yo are to me, though not, as I
knows on, to this delegate here - I ha but a word to sen, and I
could sen nommore if I was to speak till Strike o' day. I know
weel, aw what's afore me. I know weel that yo aw resolve to ha
nommore ado wi' a man who is not wi' yo in this matther. I know
weel that if I was a lyin parisht i' th' road, yo'd feel it right
to pass me by, as a forrenner and stranger. What I ha getn, I mun
mak th' best on.'

'Stephen Blackpool,' said the chairman, rising, 'think on 't agen.
Think on 't once agen, lad, afore thou'rt shunned by aw owd

There was an universal murmur to the same effect, though no man
articulated a word. Every eye was fixed on Stephen's face. To
repent of his determination, would be to take a load from all their
minds. He looked around him, and knew that it was so. Not a grain
of anger with them was in his heart; he knew them, far below their
surface weaknesses and misconceptions, as no one but their fellow-
labourer could.

'I ha thowt on 't, above a bit, sir. I simply canna coom in. I
mun go th' way as lays afore me. I mun tak my leave o' aw heer.'

He made a sort of reverence to them by holding up his arms, and
stood for the moment in that attitude; not speaking until they
slowly dropped at his sides.

'Monny's the pleasant word as soom heer has spok'n wi' me; monny's
the face I see heer, as I first seen when I were yoong and lighter
heart'n than now. I ha' never had no fratch afore, sin ever I were
born, wi' any o' my like; Gonnows I ha' none now that's o' my
makin'. Yo'll ca' me traitor and that - yo I mean t' say,'
addressing Slackbridge, 'but 'tis easier to ca' than mak' out. So
let be.'

He had moved away a pace or two to come down from the platform,
when he remembered something he had not said, and returned again.

'Haply,' he said, turning his furrowed face slowly about, that he
might as it were individually address the whole audience, those
both near and distant; 'haply, when this question has been tak'n up
and discoosed, there'll be a threat to turn out if I'm let to work
among yo. I hope I shall die ere ever such a time cooms, and I
shall work solitary among yo unless it cooms - truly, I mun do 't,
my friends; not to brave yo, but to live. I ha nobbut work to live
by; and wheerever can I go, I who ha worked sin I were no heighth
at aw, in Coketown heer? I mak' no complaints o' bein turned to
the wa', o' bein outcasten and overlooken fro this time forrard,
but hope I shall be let to work. If there is any right for me at
aw, my friends, I think 'tis that.'

Not a word was spoken. Not a sound was audible in the building,
but the slight rustle of men moving a little apart, all along the
centre of the room, to open a means of passing out, to the man with
whom they had all bound themselves to renounce companionship.
Looking at no one, and going his way with a lowly steadiness upon
him that asserted nothing and sought nothing, Old Stephen, with all
his troubles on his head, left the scene.

Then Slackbridge, who had kept his oratorical arm extended during
the going out, as if he were repressing with infinite solicitude
and by a wonderful moral power the vehement passions of the
multitude, applied himself to raising their spirits. Had not the
Roman Brutus, oh, my British countrymen, condemned his son to
death; and had not the Spartan mothers, oh my soon to be victorious
friends, driven their flying children on the points of their
enemies' swords? Then was it not the sacred duty of the men of
Coketown, with forefathers before them, an admiring world in
company with them, and a posterity to come after them, to hurl out
traitors from the tents they had pitched in a sacred and a God-like
cause? The winds of heaven answered Yes; and bore Yes, east, west,
north, and south. And consequently three cheers for the United
Aggregate Tribunal!

Slackbridge acted as fugleman, and gave the time. The multitude of
doubtful faces (a little conscience-stricken) brightened at the
sound, and took it up. Private feeling must yield to the common
cause. Hurrah! The roof yet vibrated with the cheering, when the
assembly dispersed.

Thus easily did Stephen Blackpool fall into the loneliest of lives,
the life of solitude among a familiar crowd. The stranger in the
land who looks into ten thousand faces for some answering look and
never finds it, is in cheering society as compared with him who
passes ten averted faces daily, that were once the countenances of
friends. Such experience was to be Stephen's now, in every waking
moment of his life; at his work, on his way to it and from it, at
his door, at his window, everywhere. By general consent, they even
avoided that side of the street on which he habitually walked; and
left it, of all the working men, to him only.

He had been for many years, a quiet silent man, associating but
little with other men, and used to companionship with his own
thoughts. He had never known before the strength of the want in
his heart for the frequent recognition of a nod, a look, a word; or
the immense amount of relief that had been poured into it by drops
through such small means. It was even harder than he could have
believed possible, to separate in his own conscience his
abandonment by all his fellows from a baseless sense of shame and

The first four days of his endurance were days so long and heavy,
that he began to be appalled by the prospect before him. Not only
did he see no Rachael all the time, but he avoided every chance of
seeing her; for, although he knew that the prohibition did not yet
formally extend to the women working in the factories, he found
that some of them with whom he was acquainted were changed to him,
and he feared to try others, and dreaded that Rachael might be even
singled out from the rest if she were seen in his company. So, he
had been quite alone during the four days, and had spoken to no
one, when, as he was leaving his work at night, a young man of a
very light complexion accosted him in the street.

'Your name's Blackpool, ain't it?' said the young man.

Stephen coloured to find himself with his hat in his hand, in his
gratitude for being spoken to, or in the suddenness of it, or both.
He made a feint of adjusting the lining, and said, 'Yes.'

'You are the Hand they have sent to Coventry, I mean?' said Bitzer,
the very light young man in question.

Stephen answered 'Yes,' again.

'I supposed so, from their all appearing to keep away from you.
Mr. Bounderby wants to speak to you. You know his house, don't

Stephen said 'Yes,' again.

'Then go straight up there, will you?' said Bitzer. 'You're
expected, and have only to tell the servant it's you. I belong to
the Bank; so, if you go straight up without me (I was sent to fetch
you), you'll save me a walk.'

Stephen, whose way had been in the contrary direction, turned
about, and betook himself as in duty bound, to the red brick castle
of the giant Bounderby.

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