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Charles Dickens > Hard Times > Chapter XXVI

Hard Times

Chapter XXVI


MRS. SPARSIT'S nerves being slow to recover their tone, the worthy
woman made a stay of some weeks in duration at Mr. Bounderby's
retreat, where, notwithstanding her anchorite turn of mind based
upon her becoming consciousness of her altered station, she
resigned herself with noble fortitude to lodging, as one may say,
in clover, and feeding on the fat of the land. During the whole
term of this recess from the guardianship of the Bank, Mrs. Sparsit
was a pattern of consistency; continuing to take such pity on Mr.
Bounderby to his face, as is rarely taken on man, and to call his
portrait a Noodle to its face, with the greatest acrimony and

Mr. Bounderby, having got it into his explosive composition that
Mrs. Sparsit was a highly superior woman to perceive that he had
that general cross upon him in his deserts (for he had not yet
settled what it was), and further that Louisa would have objected
to her as a frequent visitor if it had comported with his greatness
that she should object to anything he chose to do, resolved not to
lose sight of Mrs. Sparsit easily. So when her nerves were strung
up to the pitch of again consuming sweetbreads in solitude, he said
to her at the dinner-table, on the day before her departure, 'I
tell you what, ma'am; you shall come down here of a Saturday, while
the fine weather lasts, and stay till Monday.' To which Mrs.
Sparsit returned, in effect, though not of the Mahomedan
persuasion: 'To hear is to obey.'

Now, Mrs. Sparsit was not a poetical woman; but she took an idea in
the nature of an allegorical fancy, into her head. Much watching
of Louisa, and much consequent observation of her impenetrable
demeanour, which keenly whetted and sharpened Mrs. Sparsit's edge,
must have given her as it were a lift, in the way of inspiration.
She erected in her mind a mighty Staircase, with a dark pit of
shame and ruin at the bottom; and down those stairs, from day to
day and hour to hour, she saw Louisa coming.

It became the business of Mrs. Sparsit's life, to look up at her
staircase, and to watch Louisa coming down. Sometimes slowly,
sometimes quickly, sometimes several steps at one bout, sometimes
stopping, never turning back. If she had once turned back, it
might have been the death of Mrs. Sparsit in spleen and grief.

She had been descending steadily, to the day, and on the day, when
Mr. Bounderby issued the weekly invitation recorded above. Mrs.
Sparsit was in good spirits, and inclined to be conversational.

'And pray, sir,' said she, 'if I may venture to ask a question
appertaining to any subject on which you show reserve - which is
indeed hardy in me, for I well know you have a reason for
everything you do - have you received intelligence respecting the

'Why, ma'am, no; not yet. Under the circumstances, I didn't expect
it yet. Rome wasn't built in a day, ma'am.'

'Very true, sir,' said Mrs. Sparsit, shaking her head.

'Nor yet in a week, ma'am.'

'No, indeed, sir,' returned Mrs. Sparsit, with a gentle melancholy
upon her.

'In a similar manner, ma'am,' said Bounderby, 'I can wait, you
know. If Romulus and Remus could wait, Josiah Bounderby can wait.
They were better off in their youth than I was, however. They had
a she-wolf for a nurse; I had only a she-wolf for a grandmother.
She didn't give any milk, ma'am; she gave bruises. She was a
regular Alderney at that.'

'Ah!' Mrs. Sparsit sighed and shuddered.

'No, ma'am,' continued Bounderby, 'I have not heard anything more
about it. It's in hand, though; and young Tom, who rather sticks
to business at present - something new for him; he hadn't the
schooling I had - is helping. My injunction is, Keep it quiet, and
let it seem to blow over. Do what you like under the rose, but
don't give a sign of what you're about; or half a hundred of 'em
will combine together and get this fellow who has bolted, out of
reach for good. Keep it quiet, and the thieves will grow in
confidence by little and little, and we shall have 'em.'

'Very sagacious indeed, sir,' said Mrs. Sparsit. 'Very
interesting. The old woman you mentioned, sir - '

'The old woman I mentioned, ma'am,' said Bounderby, cutting the
matter short, as it was nothing to boast about, 'is not laid hold
of; but, she may take her oath she will be, if that is any
satisfaction to her villainous old mind. In the mean time, ma'am,
I am of opinion, if you ask me my opinion, that the less she is
talked about, the better.'

The same evening, Mrs. Sparsit, in her chamber window, resting from
her packing operations, looked towards her great staircase and saw
Louisa still descending.

She sat by Mr. Harthouse, in an alcove in the garden, talking very
low; he stood leaning over her, as they whispered together, and his
face almost touched her hair. 'If not quite!' said Mrs. Sparsit,
straining her hawk's eyes to the utmost. Mrs. Sparsit was too
distant to hear a word of their discourse, or even to know that
they were speaking softly, otherwise than from the expression of
their figures; but what they said was this:

'You recollect the man, Mr. Harthouse?'

'Oh, perfectly!'

'His face, and his manner, and what he said?'

'Perfectly. And an infinitely dreary person he appeared to me to
be. Lengthy and prosy in the extreme. It was knowing to hold
forth, in the humble-virtue school of eloquence; but, I assure you
I thought at the time, "My good fellow, you are over-doing this!"'

'It has been very difficult to me to think ill of that man.'

'My dear Louisa - as Tom says.' Which he never did say. 'You know
no good of the fellow?'

'No, certainly.'

'Nor of any other such person?'

'How can I,' she returned, with more of her first manner on her
than he had lately seen, 'when I know nothing of them, men or

'My dear Louisa, then consent to receive the submissive
representation of your devoted friend, who knows something of
several varieties of his excellent fellow-creatures - for excellent
they are, I am quite ready to believe, in spite of such little
foibles as always helping themselves to what they can get hold of.
This fellow talks. Well; every fellow talks. He professes
morality. Well; all sorts of humbugs profess morality. From the
House of Commons to the House of Correction, there is a general
profession of morality, except among our people; it really is that
exception which makes our people quite reviving. You saw and heard
the case. Here was one of the fluffy classes pulled up extremely
short by my esteemed friend Mr. Bounderby - who, as we know, is not
possessed of that delicacy which would soften so tight a hand. The
member of the fluffy classes was injured, exasperated, left the
house grumbling, met somebody who proposed to him to go in for some
share in this Bank business, went in, put something in his pocket
which had nothing in it before, and relieved his mind extremely.
Really he would have been an uncommon, instead of a common, fellow,
if he had not availed himself of such an opportunity. Or he may
have originated it altogether, if he had the cleverness.'

'I almost feel as though it must be bad in me,' returned Louisa,
after sitting thoughtful awhile, 'to be so ready to agree with you,
and to be so lightened in my heart by what you say.'

'I only say what is reasonable; nothing worse. I have talked it
over with my friend Tom more than once - of course I remain on
terms of perfect confidence with Tom - and he is quite of my
opinion, and I am quite of his. Will you walk?'

They strolled away, among the lanes beginning to be indistinct in
the twilight - she leaning on his arm - and she little thought how
she was going down, down, down, Mrs. Sparsit's staircase.

Night and day, Mrs. Sparsit kept it standing. When Louisa had
arrived at the bottom and disappeared in the gulf, it might fall in
upon her if it would; but, until then, there it was to be, a
Building, before Mrs. Sparsit's eyes. And there Louisa always was,
upon it.

And always gliding down, down, down!

Mrs. Sparsit saw James Harthouse come and go; she heard of him here
and there; she saw the changes of the face he had studied; she,
too, remarked to a nicety how and when it clouded, how and when it
cleared; she kept her black eyes wide open, with no touch of pity,
with no touch of compunction, all absorbed in interest. In the
interest of seeing her, ever drawing, with no hand to stay her,
nearer and nearer to the bottom of this new Giant's Staircase.

With all her deference for Mr. Bounderby as contradistinguished
from his portrait, Mrs. Sparsit had not the smallest intention of
interrupting the descent. Eager to see it accomplished, and yet
patient, she waited for the last fall, as for the ripeness and
fulness of the harvest of her hopes. Hushed in expectancy, she
kept her wary gaze upon the stairs; and seldom so much as darkly
shook her right mitten (with her fist in it), at the figure coming

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