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Charles Dickens > Hard Times > Chapter XXII

Hard Times

Chapter XXII


IT was falling dark when Stephen came out of Mr. Bounderby's house.
The shadows of night had gathered so fast, that he did not look
about him when he closed the door, but plodded straight along the
street. Nothing was further from his thoughts than the curious old
woman he had encountered on his previous visit to the same house,
when he heard a step behind him that he knew, and turning, saw her
in Rachael's company.

He saw Rachael first, as he had heard her only.

'Ah, Rachael, my dear! Missus, thou wi' her!'

'Well, and now you are surprised to be sure, and with reason I must
say,' the old woman returned. 'Here I am again, you see.'

'But how wi' Rachael?' said Stephen, falling into their step,
walking between them, and looking from the one to the other.

'Why, I come to be with this good lass pretty much as I came to be
with you,' said the old woman, cheerfully, taking the reply upon
herself. 'My visiting time is later this year than usual, for I
have been rather troubled with shortness of breath, and so put it
off till the weather was fine and warm. For the same reason I
don't make all my journey in one day, but divide it into two days,
and get a bed to-night at the Travellers' Coffee House down by the
railroad (a nice clean house), and go back Parliamentary, at six in
the morning. Well, but what has this to do with this good lass,
says you? I'm going to tell you. I have heard of Mr. Bounderby
being married. I read it in the paper, where it looked grand - oh,
it looked fine!' the old woman dwelt on it with strange enthusiasm:
'and I want to see his wife. I have never seen her yet. Now, if
you'll believe me, she hasn't come out of that house since noon to-
day. So not to give her up too easily, I was waiting about, a
little last bit more, when I passed close to this good lass two or
three times; and her face being so friendly I spoke to her, and she
spoke to me. There!' said the old woman to Stephen, 'you can make
all the rest out for yourself now, a deal shorter than I can, I
dare say!'

Once again, Stephen had to conquer an instinctive propensity to
dislike this old woman, though her manner was as honest and simple
as a manner possibly could be. With a gentleness that was as
natural to him as he knew it to be to Rachael, he pursued the
subject that interested her in her old age.

'Well, missus,' said he, 'I ha seen the lady, and she were young
and hansom. Wi' fine dark thinkin eyes, and a still way, Rachael,
as I ha never seen the like on.'

'Young and handsome. Yes!' cried the old woman, quite delighted.
'As bonny as a rose! And what a happy wife!'

'Aye, missus, I suppose she be,' said Stephen. But with a doubtful
glance at Rachael.

'Suppose she be? She must be. She's your master's wife,' returned
the old woman.

Stephen nodded assent. 'Though as to master,' said he, glancing
again at Rachael, 'not master onny more. That's aw enden 'twixt
him and me.'

'Have you left his work, Stephen?' asked Rachael, anxiously and

'Why, Rachael,' he replied, 'whether I ha lef'n his work, or
whether his work ha lef'n me, cooms t' th' same. His work and me
are parted. 'Tis as weel so - better, I were thinkin when yo coom
up wi' me. It would ha brought'n trouble upon trouble if I had
stayed theer. Haply 'tis a kindness to monny that I go; haply 'tis
a kindness to myseln; anyways it mun be done. I mun turn my face
fro Coketown fur th' time, and seek a fort'n, dear, by beginnin

'Where will you go, Stephen?'

'I donno t'night,' said he, lifting off his hat, and smoothing his
thin hair with the flat of his hand. 'But I'm not goin t'night,
Rachael, nor yet t'morrow. 'Tan't easy overmuch t' know wheer t'
turn, but a good heart will coom to me.'

Herein, too, the sense of even thinking unselfishly aided him.
Before he had so much as closed Mr. Bounderby's door, he had
reflected that at least his being obliged to go away was good for
her, as it would save her from the chance of being brought into
question for not withdrawing from him. Though it would cost him a
hard pang to leave her, and though he could think of no similar
place in which his condemnation would not pursue him, perhaps it
was almost a relief to be forced away from the endurance of the
last four days, even to unknown difficulties and distresses.

So he said, with truth, 'I'm more leetsome, Rachael, under 't, than
I could'n ha believed.' It was not her part to make his burden
heavier. She answered with her comforting smile, and the three
walked on together.

Age, especially when it strives to be self-reliant and cheerful,
finds much consideration among the poor. The old woman was so
decent and contented, and made so light of her infirmities, though
they had increased upon her since her former interview with
Stephen, that they both took an interest in her. She was too
sprightly to allow of their walking at a slow pace on her account,
but she was very grateful to be talked to, and very willing to talk
to any extent: so, when they came to their part of the town, she
was more brisk and vivacious than ever.

'Come to my poor place, missus,' said Stephen, 'and tak a coop o'
tea. Rachael will coom then; and arterwards I'll see thee safe t'
thy Travellers' lodgin. 'T may be long, Rachael, ere ever I ha th'
chance o' thy coompany agen.'

They complied, and the three went on to the house where he lodged.
When they turned into a narrow street, Stephen glanced at his
window with a dread that always haunted his desolate home; but it
was open, as he had left it, and no one was there. The evil spirit
of his life had flitted away again, months ago, and he had heard no
more of her since. The only evidence of her last return now, were
the scantier moveables in his room, and the grayer hair upon his

He lighted a candle, set out his little tea-board, got hot water
from below, and brought in small portions of tea and sugar, a loaf,
and some butter from the nearest shop. The bread was new and
crusty, the butter fresh, and the sugar lump, of course - in
fulfilment of the standard testimony of the Coketown magnates, that
these people lived like princes, sir. Rachael made the tea (so
large a party necessitated the borrowing of a cup), and the visitor
enjoyed it mightily. It was the first glimpse of sociality the
host had had for many days. He too, with the world a wide heath
before him, enjoyed the meal - again in corroboration of the
magnates, as exemplifying the utter want of calculation on the part
of these people, sir.

'I ha never thowt yet, missus,' said Stephen, 'o' askin thy name.'

The old lady announced herself as 'Mrs. Pegler.'

'A widder, I think?' said Stephen.

'Oh, many long years!' Mrs. Pegler's husband (one of the best on
record) was already dead, by Mrs. Pegler's calculation, when
Stephen was born.

''Twere a bad job, too, to lose so good a one,' said Stephen.
'Onny children?'

Mrs. Pegler's cup, rattling against her saucer as she held it,
denoted some nervousness on her part. 'No,' she said. 'Not now,
not now.'

'Dead, Stephen,' Rachael softly hinted.

'I'm sooary I ha spok'n on 't,' said Stephen, 'I ought t' hadn in
my mind as I might touch a sore place. I - I blame myseln.'

While he excused himself, the old lady's cup rattled more and more.
'I had a son,' she said, curiously distressed, and not by any of
the usual appearances of sorrow; 'and he did well, wonderfully
well. But he is not to be spoken of if you please. He is - '
Putting down her cup, she moved her hands as if she would have
added, by her action, 'dead!' Then she said aloud, 'I have lost

Stephen had not yet got the better of his having given the old lady
pain, when his landlady came stumbling up the narrow stairs, and
calling him to the door, whispered in his ear. Mrs. Pegler was by
no means deaf, for she caught a word as it was uttered.

'Bounderby!' she cried, in a suppressed voice, starting up from the
table. 'Oh hide me! Don't let me be seen for the world. Don't
let him come up till I've got away. Pray, pray!' She trembled,
and was excessively agitated; getting behind Rachael, when Rachael
tried to reassure her; and not seeming to know what she was about.

'But hearken, missus, hearken,' said Stephen, astonished. "Tisn't
Mr. Bounderby; 'tis his wife. Yo'r not fearfo' o' her. Yo was
hey-go-mad about her, but an hour sin.'

'But are you sure it's the lady, and not the gentleman?' she asked,
still trembling.

'Certain sure!'

'Well then, pray don't speak to me, nor yet take any notice of me,'
said the old woman. 'Let me be quite to myself in this corner.'

Stephen nodded; looking to Rachael for an explanation, which she
was quite unable to give him; took the candle, went downstairs, and
in a few moments returned, lighting Louisa into the room. She was
followed by the whelp.

Rachael had risen, and stood apart with her shawl and bonnet in her
hand, when Stephen, himself profoundly astonished by this visit,
put the candle on the table. Then he too stood, with his doubled
hand upon the table near it, waiting to be addressed.

For the first time in her life Louisa had come into one of the
dwellings of the Coketown Hands; for the first time in her life she
was face to face with anything like individuality in connection
with them. She knew of their existence by hundreds and by
thousands. She knew what results in work a given number of them
would produce in a given space of time. She knew them in crowds
passing to and from their nests, like ants or beetles. But she
knew from her reading infinitely more of the ways of toiling
insects than of these toiling men and women.

Something to be worked so much and paid so much, and there ended;
something to be infallibly settled by laws of supply and demand;
something that blundered against those laws, and floundered into
difficulty; something that was a little pinched when wheat was
dear, and over-ate itself when wheat was cheap; something that
increased at such a rate of percentage, and yielded such another
percentage of crime, and such another percentage of pauperism;
something wholesale, of which vast fortunes were made; something
that occasionally rose like a sea, and did some harm and waste
(chiefly to itself), and fell again; this she knew the Coketown
Hands to be. But, she had scarcely thought more of separating them
into units, than of separating the sea itself into its component

She stood for some moments looking round the room. From the few
chairs, the few books, the common prints, and the bed, she glanced
to the two women, and to Stephen.

'I have come to speak to you, in consequence of what passed just
now. I should like to be serviceable to you, if you will let me.
Is this your wife?'

Rachael raised her eyes, and they sufficiently answered no, and
dropped again.

'I remember,' said Louisa, reddening at her mistake; 'I recollect,
now, to have heard your domestic misfortunes spoken of, though I
was not attending to the particulars at the time. It was not my
meaning to ask a question that would give pain to any one here. If
I should ask any other question that may happen to have that
result, give me credit, if you please, for being in ignorance how
to speak to you as I ought.'

As Stephen had but a little while ago instinctively addressed
himself to her, so she now instinctively addressed herself to
Rachael. Her manner was short and abrupt, yet faltering and timid.

'He has told you what has passed between himself and my husband?
You would be his first resource, I think.'

'I have heard the end of it, young lady,' said Rachael.

'Did I understand, that, being rejected by one employer, he would
probably be rejected by all? I thought he said as much?'

'The chances are very small, young lady - next to nothing - for a
man who gets a bad name among them.'

'What shall I understand that you mean by a bad name?'

'The name of being troublesome.'

'Then, by the prejudices of his own class, and by the prejudices of
the other, he is sacrificed alike? Are the two so deeply separated
in this town, that there is no place whatever for an honest workman
between them?'

Rachael shook her head in silence.

'He fell into suspicion,' said Louisa, 'with his fellow-weavers,
because - he had made a promise not to be one of them. I think it
must have been to you that he made that promise. Might I ask you
why he made it?'

Rachael burst into tears. 'I didn't seek it of him, poor lad. I
prayed him to avoid trouble for his own good, little thinking he'd
come to it through me. But I know he'd die a hundred deaths, ere
ever he'd break his word. I know that of him well.'

Stephen had remained quietly attentive, in his usual thoughtful
attitude, with his hand at his chin. He now spoke in a voice
rather less steady than usual.

'No one, excepting myseln, can ever know what honour, an' what
love, an' respect, I bear to Rachael, or wi' what cause. When I
passed that promess, I towd her true, she were th' Angel o' my
life. 'Twere a solemn promess. 'Tis gone fro' me, for ever.'

Louisa turned her head to him, and bent it with a deference that
was new in her. She looked from him to Rachael, and her features
softened. 'What will you do?' she asked him. And her voice had
softened too.

'Weel, ma'am,' said Stephen, making the best of it, with a smile;
'when I ha finished off, I mun quit this part, and try another.
Fortnet or misfortnet, a man can but try; there's nowt to be done
wi'out tryin' - cept laying down and dying.'

'How will you travel?'

'Afoot, my kind ledy, afoot.'

Louisa coloured, and a purse appeared in her hand. The rustling of
a bank-note was audible, as she unfolded one and laid it on the

'Rachael, will you tell him - for you know how, without offence -
that this is freely his, to help him on his way? Will you entreat
him to take it?'

'I canna do that, young lady,' she answered, turning her head
aside. 'Bless you for thinking o' the poor lad wi' such
tenderness. But 'tis for him to know his heart, and what is right
according to it.'

Louisa looked, in part incredulous, in part frightened, in part
overcome with quick sympathy, when this man of so much self-
command, who had been so plain and steady through the late
interview, lost his composure in a moment, and now stood with his
hand before his face. She stretched out hers, as if she would have
touched him; then checked herself, and remained still.

'Not e'en Rachael,' said Stephen, when he stood again with his face
uncovered, 'could mak sitch a kind offerin, by onny words, kinder.
T' show that I'm not a man wi'out reason and gratitude, I'll tak
two pound. I'll borrow 't for t' pay 't back. 'Twill be the
sweetest work as ever I ha done, that puts it in my power t'
acknowledge once more my lastin thankfulness for this present

She was fain to take up the note again, and to substitute the much
smaller sum he had named. He was neither courtly, nor handsome,
nor picturesque, in any respect; and yet his manner of accepting
it, and of expressing his thanks without more words, had a grace in
it that Lord Chesterfield could not have taught his son in a

Tom had sat upon the bed, swinging one leg and sucking his walking-
stick with sufficient unconcern, until the visit had attained this
stage. Seeing his sister ready to depart, he got up, rather
hurriedly, and put in a word.

'Just wait a moment, Loo! Before we go, I should like to speak to
him a moment. Something comes into my head. If you'll step out on
the stairs, Blackpool, I'll mention it. Never mind a light, man!'
Tom was remarkably impatient of his moving towards the cupboard, to
get one. 'It don't want a light.'

Stephen followed him out, and Tom closed the room door, and held
the lock in his hand.

'I say!' he whispered. 'I think I can do you a good turn. Don't
ask me what it is, because it may not come to anything. But
there's no harm in my trying.'

His breath fell like a flame of fire on Stephen's ear, it was so

'That was our light porter at the Bank,' said Tom, 'who brought you
the message to-night. I call him our light porter, because I
belong to the Bank too.'

Stephen thought, 'What a hurry he is in!' He spoke so confusedly.

'Well!' said Tom. 'Now look here! When are you off?'

'T' day's Monday,' replied Stephen, considering. 'Why, sir, Friday
or Saturday, nigh 'bout.'

'Friday or Saturday,' said Tom. 'Now look here! I am not sure
that I can do you the good turn I want to do you - that's my
sister, you know, in your room - but I may be able to, and if I
should not be able to, there's no harm done. So I tell you what.
You'll know our light porter again?'

'Yes, sure,' said Stephen.

'Very well,' returned Tom. 'When you leave work of a night,
between this and your going away, just hang about the Bank an hour
or so, will you? Don't take on, as if you meant anything, if he
should see you hanging about there; because I shan't put him up to
speak to you, unless I find I can do you the service I want to do
you. In that case he'll have a note or a message for you, but not
else. Now look here! You are sure you understand.'

He had wormed a finger, in the darkness, through a button-hole of
Stephen's coat, and was screwing that corner of the garment tight
up round and round, in an extraordinary manner.

'I understand, sir,' said Stephen.

'Now look here!' repeated Tom. 'Be sure you don't make any mistake
then, and don't forget. I shall tell my sister as we go home, what
I have in view, and she'll approve, I know. Now look here! You're
all right, are you? You understand all about it? Very well then.
Come along, Loo!'

He pushed the door open as he called to her, but did not return
into the room, or wait to be lighted down the narrow stairs. He
was at the bottom when she began to descend, and was in the street
before she could take his arm.

Mrs. Pegler remained in her corner until the brother and sister
were gone, and until Stephen came back with the candle in his hand.
She was in a state of inexpressible admiration of Mrs. Bounderby,
and, like an unaccountable old woman, wept, 'because she was such a
pretty dear.' Yet Mrs. Pegler was so flurried lest the object of
her admiration should return by chance, or anybody else should
come, that her cheerfulness was ended for that night. It was late
too, to people who rose early and worked hard; therefore the party
broke up; and Stephen and Rachael escorted their mysterious
acquaintance to the door of the Travellers' Coffee House, where
they parted from her.

They walked back together to the corner of the street where Rachael
lived, and as they drew nearer and nearer to it, silence crept upon
them. When they came to the dark corner where their unfrequent
meetings always ended, they stopped, still silent, as if both were
afraid to speak.

'I shall strive t' see thee agen, Rachael, afore I go, but if not -

'Thou wilt not, Stephen, I know. 'Tis better that we make up our
minds to be open wi' one another.'

'Thou'rt awlus right. 'Tis bolder and better. I ha been thinkin
then, Rachael, that as 'tis but a day or two that remains, 'twere
better for thee, my dear, not t' be seen wi' me. 'T might bring
thee into trouble, fur no good.'

''Tis not for that, Stephen, that I mind. But thou know'st our old
agreement. 'Tis for that.'

'Well, well,' said he. "Tis better, onnyways.'

'Thou'lt write to me, and tell me all that happens, Stephen?'

'Yes. What can I say now, but Heaven be wi' thee, Heaven bless
thee, Heaven thank thee and reward thee!'

'May it bless thee, Stephen, too, in all thy wanderings, and send
thee peace and rest at last!'

'I towd thee, my dear,' said Stephen Blackpool - 'that night - that
I would never see or think o' onnything that angered me, but thou,
so much better than me, should'st be beside it. Thou'rt beside it
now. Thou mak'st me see it wi' a better eye. Bless thee. Good
night. Good-bye!'

It was but a hurried parting in a common street, yet it was a
sacred remembrance to these two common people. Utilitarian
economists, skeletons of schoolmasters, Commissioners of Fact,
genteel and used-up infidels, gabblers of many little dog's-eared
creeds, the poor you will have always with you. Cultivate in them,
while there is yet time, the utmost graces of the fancies and
affections, to adorn their lives so much in need of ornament; or,
in the day of your triumph, when romance is utterly driven out of
their souls, and they and a bare existence stand face to face,
Reality will take a wolfish turn, and make an end of you.

Stephen worked the next day, and the next, uncheered by a word from
any one, and shunned in all his comings and goings as before. At
the end of the second day, he saw land; at the end of the third,
his loom stood empty.

He had overstayed his hour in the street outside the Bank, on each
of the two first evenings; and nothing had happened there, good or
bad. That he might not be remiss in his part of the engagement, he
resolved to wait full two hours, on this third and last night.

There was the lady who had once kept Mr. Bounderby's house, sitting
at the first-floor window as he had seen her before; and there was
the light porter, sometimes talking with her there, and sometimes
looking over the blind below which had BANK upon it, and sometimes
coming to the door and standing on the steps for a breath of air.
When he first came out, Stephen thought he might be looking for
him, and passed near; but the light porter only cast his winking
eyes upon him slightly, and said nothing.

Two hours were a long stretch of lounging about, after a long day's
labour. Stephen sat upon the step of a door, leaned against a wall
under an archway, strolled up and down, listened for the church
clock, stopped and watched children playing in the street. Some
purpose or other is so natural to every one, that a mere loiterer
always looks and feels remarkable. When the first hour was out,
Stephen even began to have an uncomfortable sensation upon him of
being for the time a disreputable character.

Then came the lamplighter, and two lengthening lines of light all
down the long perspective of the street, until they were blended
and lost in the distance. Mrs. Sparsit closed the first-floor
window, drew down the blind, and went up-stairs. Presently, a
light went up-stairs after her, passing first the fanlight of the
door, and afterwards the two staircase windows, on its way up. By
and by, one corner of the second-floor blind was disturbed, as if
Mrs. Sparsit's eye were there; also the other corner, as if the
light porter's eye were on that side. Still, no communication was
made to Stephen. Much relieved when the two hours were at last
accomplished, he went away at a quick pace, as a recompense for so
much loitering.

He had only to take leave of his landlady, and lie down on his
temporary bed upon the floor; for his bundle was made up for to-
morrow, and all was arranged for his departure. He meant to be
clear of the town very early; before the Hands were in the streets.

It was barely daybreak, when, with a parting look round his room,
mournfully wondering whether he should ever see it again, he went
out. The town was as entirely deserted as if the inhabitants had
abandoned it, rather than hold communication with him. Everything
looked wan at that hour. Even the coming sun made but a pale waste
in the sky, like a sad sea.

By the place where Rachael lived, though it was not in his way; by
the red brick streets; by the great silent factories, not trembling
yet; by the railway, where the danger-lights were waning in the
strengthening day; by the railway's crazy neighbourhood, half
pulled down and half built up; by scattered red brick villas, where
the besmoked evergreens were sprinkled with a dirty powder, like
untidy snuff-takers; by coal-dust paths and many varieties of
ugliness; Stephen got to the top of the hill, and looked back.

Day was shining radiantly upon the town then, and the bells were
going for the morning work. Domestic fires were not yet lighted,
and the high chimneys had the sky to themselves. Puffing out their
poisonous volumes, they would not be long in hiding it; but, for
half an hour, some of the many windows were golden, which showed
the Coketown people a sun eternally in eclipse, through a medium of
smoked glass.

So strange to turn from the chimneys to the birds. So strange, to
have the road-dust on his feet instead of the coal-grit. So
strange to have lived to his time of life, and yet to be beginning
like a boy this summer morning! With these musings in his mind,
and his bundle under his arm, Stephen took his attentive face along
the high road. And the trees arched over him, whispering that he
left a true and loving heart behind.

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