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Charles Dickens > Hard Times > Chapter XXV

Hard Times

Chapter XXV


MRS. SPARSIT, lying by to recover the tone of her nerves in Mr.
Bounderby's retreat, kept such a sharp look-out, night and day,
under her Coriolanian eyebrows, that her eyes, like a couple of
lighthouses on an iron-bound coast, might have warned all prudent
mariners from that bold rock her Roman nose and the dark and craggy
region in its neighbourhood, but for the placidity of her manner.
Although it was hard to believe that her retiring for the night
could be anything but a form, so severely wide awake were those
classical eyes of hers, and so impossible did it seem that her
rigid nose could yield to any relaxing influence, yet her manner of
sitting, smoothing her uncomfortable, not to say, gritty mittens
(they were constructed of a cool fabric like a meat-safe), or of
ambling to unknown places of destination with her foot in her
cotton stirrup, was so perfectly serene, that most observers would
have been constrained to suppose her a dove, embodied by some freak
of nature, in the earthly tabernacle of a bird of the hook-beaked

She was a most wonderful woman for prowling about the house. How
she got from story to story was a mystery beyond solution. A lady
so decorous in herself, and so highly connected, was not to be
suspected of dropping over the banisters or sliding down them, yet
her extraordinary facility of locomotion suggested the wild idea.
Another noticeable circumstance in Mrs. Sparsit was, that she was
never hurried. She would shoot with consummate velocity from the
roof to the hall, yet would be in full possession of her breath and
dignity on the moment of her arrival there. Neither was she ever
seen by human vision to go at a great pace.

She took very kindly to Mr. Harthouse, and had some pleasant
conversation with him soon after her arrival. She made him her
stately curtsey in the garden, one morning before breakfast.

'It appears but yesterday, sir,' said Mrs. Sparsit, 'that I had the
honour of receiving you at the Bank, when you were so good as to
wish to be made acquainted with Mr. Bounderby's address.'

'An occasion, I am sure, not to be forgotten by myself in the
course of Ages,' said Mr. Harthouse, inclining his head to Mrs.
Sparsit with the most indolent of all possible airs.

'We live in a singular world, sir,' said Mrs. Sparsit.

'I have had the honour, by a coincidence of which I am proud, to
have made a remark, similar in effect, though not so
epigrammatically expressed.'

'A singular world, I would say, sir,' pursued Mrs. Sparsit; after
acknowledging the compliment with a drooping of her dark eyebrows,
not altogether so mild in its expression as her voice was in its
dulcet tones; 'as regards the intimacies we form at one time, with
individuals we were quite ignorant of, at another. I recall, sir,
that on that occasion you went so far as to say you were actually
apprehensive of Miss Gradgrind.'

'Your memory does me more honour than my insignificance deserves.
I availed myself of your obliging hints to correct my timidity, and
it is unnecessary to add that they were perfectly accurate. Mrs.
Sparsit's talent for - in fact for anything requiring accuracy -
with a combination of strength of mind - and Family - is too
habitually developed to admit of any question.' He was almost
falling asleep over this compliment; it took him so long to get
through, and his mind wandered so much in the course of its

'You found Miss Gradgrind - I really cannot call her Mrs.
Bounderby; it's very absurd of me - as youthful as I described
her?' asked Mrs. Sparsit, sweetly.

'You drew her portrait perfectly,' said Mr. Harthouse. 'Presented
her dead image.'

'Very engaging, sir,' said Mrs. Sparsit, causing her mittens slowly
to revolve over one another.

'Highly so.'

'It used to be considered,' said Mrs. Sparsit, 'that Miss Gradgrind
was wanting in animation, but I confess she appears to me
considerably and strikingly improved in that respect. Ay, and
indeed here is Mr. Bounderby!' cried Mrs. Sparsit, nodding her head
a great many times, as if she had been talking and thinking of no
one else. 'How do you find yourself this morning, sir? Pray let
us see you cheerful, sir.'

Now, these persistent assuagements of his misery, and lightenings
of his load, had by this time begun to have the effect of making
Mr. Bounderby softer than usual towards Mrs. Sparsit, and harder
than usual to most other people from his wife downward. So, when
Mrs. Sparsit said with forced lightness of heart, 'You want your
breakfast, sir, but I dare say Miss Gradgrind will soon be here to
preside at the table,' Mr. Bounderby replied, 'If I waited to be
taken care of by my wife, ma'am, I believe you know pretty well I
should wait till Doomsday, so I'll trouble you to take charge of
the teapot.' Mrs. Sparsit complied, and assumed her old position
at table.

This again made the excellent woman vastly sentimental. She was so
humble withal, that when Louisa appeared, she rose, protesting she
never could think of sitting in that place under existing
circumstances, often as she had had the honour of making Mr.
Bounderby's breakfast, before Mrs. Gradgrind - she begged pardon,
she meant to say Miss Bounderby - she hoped to be excused, but she
really could not get it right yet, though she trusted to become
familiar with it by and by - had assumed her present position. It
was only (she observed) because Miss Gradgrind happened to be a
little late, and Mr. Bounderby's time was so very precious, and she
knew it of old to be so essential that he should breakfast to the
moment, that she had taken the liberty of complying with his
request; long as his will had been a law to her.

'There! Stop where you are, ma'am,' said Mr. Bounderby, 'stop
where you are! Mrs. Bounderby will be very glad to be relieved of
the trouble, I believe.'

'Don't say that, sir,' returned Mrs. Sparsit, almost with severity,
'because that is very unkind to Mrs. Bounderby. And to be unkind
is not to be you, sir.'

'You may set your mind at rest, ma'am. - You can take it very
quietly, can't you, Loo?' said Mr. Bounderby, in a blustering way
to his wife.

'Of course. It is of no moment. Why should it be of any
importance to me?'

'Why should it be of any importance to any one, Mrs. Sparsit,
ma'am?' said Mr. Bounderby, swelling with a sense of slight. 'You
attach too much importance to these things, ma'am. By George,
you'll be corrupted in some of your notions here. You are old-
fashioned, ma'am. You are behind Tom Gradgrind's children's time.'

'What is the matter with you?' asked Louisa, coldly surprised.
'What has given you offence?'

'Offence!' repeated Bounderby. 'Do you suppose if there was any
offence given me, I shouldn't name it, and request to have it
corrected? I am a straightforward man, I believe. I don't go
beating about for side-winds.'

'I suppose no one ever had occasion to think you too diffident, or
too delicate,' Louisa answered him composedly: 'I have never made
that objection to you, either as a child or as a woman. I don't
understand what you would have.'

'Have?' returned Mr. Bounderby. 'Nothing. Otherwise, don't you,
Loo Bounderby, know thoroughly well that I, Josiah Bounderby of
Coketown, would have it?'

She looked at him, as he struck the table and made the teacups
ring, with a proud colour in her face that was a new change, Mr.
Harthouse thought. 'You are incomprehensible this morning,' said
Louisa. 'Pray take no further trouble to explain yourself. I am
not curious to know your meaning. What does it matter?'

Nothing more was said on this theme, and Mr. Harthouse was soon
idly gay on indifferent subjects. But from this day, the Sparsit
action upon Mr. Bounderby threw Louisa and James Harthouse more
together, and strengthened the dangerous alienation from her
husband and confidence against him with another, into which she had
fallen by degrees so fine that she could not retrace them if she
tried. But whether she ever tried or no, lay hidden in her own
closed heart.

Mrs. Sparsit was so much affected on this particular occasion,
that, assisting Mr. Bounderby to his hat after breakfast, and being
then alone with him in the hall, she imprinted a chaste kiss upon
his hand, murmured 'My benefactor!' and retired, overwhelmed with
grief. Yet it is an indubitable fact, within the cognizance of
this history, that five minutes after he had left the house in the
self-same hat, the same descendant of the Scadgerses and connexion
by matrimony of the Powlers, shook her right-hand mitten at his
portrait, made a contemptuous grimace at that work of art, and said
'Serve you right, you Noodle, and I am glad of it.'

Mr. Bounderby had not been long gone, when Bitzer appeared. Bitzer
had come down by train, shrieking and rattling over the long line
of arches that bestrode the wild country of past and present coal-
pits, with an express from Stone Lodge. It was a hasty note to
inform Louisa that Mrs. Gradgrind lay very ill. She had never been
well within her daughter's knowledge; but, she had declined within
the last few days, had continued sinking all through the night, and
was now as nearly dead, as her limited capacity of being in any
state that implied the ghost of an intention to get out of it,

Accompanied by the lightest of porters, fit colourless servitor at
Death's door when Mrs. Gradgrind knocked, Louisa rumbled to
Coketown, over the coal-pits past and present, and was whirled into
its smoky jaws. She dismissed the messenger to his own devices,
and rode away to her old home.

She had seldom been there since her marriage. Her father was
usually sifting and sifting at his parliamentary cinder-heap in
London (without being observed to turn up many precious articles
among the rubbish), and was still hard at it in the national dust-
yard. Her mother had taken it rather as a disturbance than
otherwise, to be visited, as she reclined upon her sofa; young
people, Louisa felt herself all unfit for; Sissy she had never
softened to again, since the night when the stroller's child had
raised her eyes to look at Mr. Bounderby's intended wife. She had
no inducements to go back, and had rarely gone.

Neither, as she approached her old home now, did any of the best
influences of old home descend upon her. The dreams of childhood -
its airy fables; its graceful, beautiful, humane, impossible
adornments of the world beyond: so good to be believed in once, so
good to be remembered when outgrown, for then the least among them
rises to the stature of a great Charity in the heart, suffering
little children to come into the midst of it, and to keep with
their pure hands a garden in the stony ways of this world, wherein
it were better for all the children of Adam that they should
oftener sun themselves, simple and trustful, and not worldly-wise -
what had she to do with these? Remembrances of how she had
journeyed to the little that she knew, by the enchanted roads of
what she and millions of innocent creatures had hoped and imagined;
of how, first coming upon Reason through the tender light of Fancy,
she had seen it a beneficent god, deferring to gods as great as
itself; not a grim Idol, cruel and cold, with its victims bound
hand to foot, and its big dumb shape set up with a sightless stare,
never to be moved by anything but so many calculated tons of
leverage - what had she to do with these? Her remembrances of home
and childhood were remembrances of the drying up of every spring
and fountain in her young heart as it gushed out. The golden
waters were not there. They were flowing for the fertilization of
the land where grapes are gathered from thorns, and figs from

She went, with a heavy, hardened kind of sorrow upon her, into the
house and into her mother's room. Since the time of her leaving
home, Sissy had lived with the rest of the family on equal terms.
Sissy was at her mother's side; and Jane, her sister, now ten or
twelve years old, was in the room.

There was great trouble before it could be made known to Mrs.
Gradgrind that her eldest child was there. She reclined, propped
up, from mere habit, on a couch: as nearly in her old usual
attitude, as anything so helpless could be kept in. She had
positively refused to take to her bed; on the ground that if she
did, she would never hear the last of it.

Her feeble voice sounded so far away in her bundle of shawls, and
the sound of another voice addressing her seemed to take such a
long time in getting down to her ears, that she might have been
lying at the bottom of a well. The poor lady was nearer Truth than
she ever had been: which had much to do with it.

On being told that Mrs. Bounderby was there, she replied, at cross-
purposes, that she had never called him by that name since he
married Louisa; that pending her choice of an objectionable name,
she had called him J; and that she could not at present depart from
that regulation, not being yet provided with a permanent
substitute. Louisa had sat by her for some minutes, and had spoken
to her often, before she arrived at a clear understanding who it
was. She then seemed to come to it all at once.

'Well, my dear,' said Mrs. Gradgrind, 'and I hope you are going on
satisfactorily to yourself. It was all your father's doing. He
set his heart upon it. And he ought to know.'

'I want to hear of you, mother; not of myself.'

'You want to hear of me, my dear? That's something new, I am sure,
when anybody wants to hear of me. Not at all well, Louisa. Very
faint and giddy.'

'Are you in pain, dear mother?'

'I think there's a pain somewhere in the room,' said Mrs.
Gradgrind, 'but I couldn't positively say that I have got it.'

After this strange speech, she lay silent for some time. Louisa,
holding her hand, could feel no pulse; but kissing it, could see a
slight thin thread of life in fluttering motion.

'You very seldom see your sister,' said Mrs. Gradgrind. 'She grows
like you. I wish you would look at her. Sissy, bring her here.'

She was brought, and stood with her hand in her sister's. Louisa
had observed her with her arm round Sissy's neck, and she felt the
difference of this approach.

'Do you see the likeness, Louisa?'

'Yes, mother. I should think her like me. But - '

'Eh! Yes, I always say so,' Mrs. Gradgrind cried, with unexpected
quickness. 'And that reminds me. I - I want to speak to you, my
dear. Sissy, my good girl, leave us alone a minute.' Louisa had
relinquished the hand: had thought that her sister's was a better
and brighter face than hers had ever been: had seen in it, not
without a rising feeling of resentment, even in that place and at
that time, something of the gentleness of the other face in the
room; the sweet face with the trusting eyes, made paler than
watching and sympathy made it, by the rich dark hair.

Left alone with her mother, Louisa saw her lying with an awful lull
upon her face, like one who was floating away upon some great
water, all resistance over, content to be carried down the stream.
She put the shadow of a hand to her lips again, and recalled her.

'You were going to speak to me, mother.'

'Eh? Yes, to be sure, my dear. You know your father is almost
always away now, and therefore I must write to him about it.'

'About what, mother? Don't be troubled. About what?'

'You must remember, my dear, that whenever I have said anything, on
any subject, I have never heard the last of it: and consequently,
that I have long left off saying anything.'

'I can hear you, mother.' But, it was only by dint of bending down
to her ear, and at the same time attentively watching the lips as
they moved, that she could link such faint and broken sounds into
any chain of connexion.

'You learnt a great deal, Louisa, and so did your brother. Ologies
of all kinds from morning to night. If there is any Ology left, of
any description, that has not been worn to rags in this house, all
I can say is, I hope I shall never hear its name.'

'I can hear you, mother, when you have strength to go on.' This,
to keep her from floating away.

'But there is something - not an Ology at all - that your father
has missed, or forgotten, Louisa. I don't know what it is. I have
often sat with Sissy near me, and thought about it. I shall never
get its name now. But your father may. It makes me restless. I
want to write to him, to find out for God's sake, what it is. Give
me a pen, give me a pen.'

Even the power of restlessness was gone, except from the poor head,
which could just turn from side to side.

She fancied, however, that her request had been complied with, and
that the pen she could not have held was in her hand. It matters
little what figures of wonderful no-meaning she began to trace upon
her wrappers. The hand soon stopped in the midst of them; the
light that had always been feeble and dim behind the weak
transparency, went out; and even Mrs. Gradgrind, emerged from the
shadow in which man walketh and disquieteth himself in vain, took
upon her the dread solemnity of the sages and patriarchs.

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