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Charles Dickens > Hard Times > Chapter VII

Hard Times

Chapter VII


MR. BOUNDERBY being a bachelor, an elderly lady presided over his
establishment, in consideration of a certain annual stipend. Mrs.
Sparsit was this lady's name; and she was a prominent figure in
attendance on Mr. Bounderby's car, as it rolled along in triumph
with the Bully of humility inside.

For, Mrs. Sparsit had not only seen different days, but was highly
connected. She had a great aunt living in these very times called
Lady Scadgers. Mr. Sparsit, deceased, of whom she was the relict,
had been by the mother's side what Mrs. Sparsit still called 'a
Powler.' Strangers of limited information and dull apprehension
were sometimes observed not to know what a Powler was, and even to
appear uncertain whether it might be a business, or a political
party, or a profession of faith. The better class of minds,
however, did not need to be informed that the Powlers were an
ancient stock, who could trace themselves so exceedingly far back
that it was not surprising if they sometimes lost themselves -
which they had rather frequently done, as respected horse-flesh,
blind-hookey, Hebrew monetary transactions, and the Insolvent
Debtors' Court.

The late Mr. Sparsit, being by the mother's side a Powler, married
this lady, being by the father's side a Scadgers. Lady Scadgers
(an immensely fat old woman, with an inordinate appetite for
butcher's meat, and a mysterious leg which had now refused to get
out of bed for fourteen years) contrived the marriage, at a period
when Sparsit was just of age, and chiefly noticeable for a slender
body, weakly supported on two long slim props, and surmounted by no
head worth mentioning. He inherited a fair fortune from his uncle,
but owed it all before he came into it, and spent it twice over
immediately afterwards. Thus, when he died, at twenty-four (the
scene of his decease, Calais, and the cause, brandy), he did not
leave his widow, from whom he had been separated soon after the
honeymoon, in affluent circumstances. That bereaved lady, fifteen
years older than he, fell presently at deadly feud with her only
relative, Lady Scadgers; and, partly to spite her ladyship, and
partly to maintain herself, went out at a salary. And here she was
now, in her elderly days, with the Coriolanian style of nose and
the dense black eyebrows which had captivated Sparsit, making Mr.
Bounderby's tea as he took his breakfast.

If Bounderby had been a Conqueror, and Mrs. Sparsit a captive
Princess whom he took about as a feature in his state-processions,
he could not have made a greater flourish with her than he
habitually did. Just as it belonged to his boastfulness to
depreciate his own extraction, so it belonged to it to exalt Mrs.
Sparsit's. In the measure that he would not allow his own youth to
have been attended by a single favourable circumstance, he
brightened Mrs. Sparsit's juvenile career with every possible
advantage, and showered waggon-loads of early roses all over that
lady's path. 'And yet, sir,' he would say, 'how does it turn out
after all? Why here she is at a hundred a year (I give her a
hundred, which she is pleased to term handsome), keeping the house
of Josiah Bounderby of Coketown!'

Nay, he made this foil of his so very widely known, that third
parties took it up, and handled it on some occasions with
considerable briskness. It was one of the most exasperating
attributes of Bounderby, that he not only sang his own praises but
stimulated other men to sing them. There was a moral infection of
clap-trap in him. Strangers, modest enough elsewhere, started up
at dinners in Coketown, and boasted, in quite a rampant way, of
Bounderby. They made him out to be the Royal arms, the Union-Jack,
Magna Charta, John Bull, Habeas Corpus, the Bill of Rights, An
Englishman's house is his castle, Church and State, and God save
the Queen, all put together. And as often (and it was very often)
as an orator of this kind brought into his peroration,

'Princes and lords may flourish or may fade,
A breath can make them, as a breath has made,'

- it was, for certain, more or less understood among the company
that he had heard of Mrs. Sparsit.

'Mr. Bounderby,' said Mrs. Sparsit, 'you are unusually slow, sir,
with your breakfast this morning.'

'Why, ma'am,' he returned, 'I am thinking about Tom Gradgrind's
whim;' Tom Gradgrind, for a bluff independent manner of speaking -
as if somebody were always endeavouring to bribe him with immense
sums to say Thomas, and he wouldn't; 'Tom Gradgrind's whim, ma'am,
of bringing up the tumbling-girl.'

'The girl is now waiting to know,' said Mrs. Sparsit, 'whether she
is to go straight to the school, or up to the Lodge.'

'She must wait, ma'am,' answered Bounderby, 'till I know myself.
We shall have Tom Gradgrind down here presently, I suppose. If he
should wish her to remain here a day or two longer, of course she
can, ma'am.'

'Of course she can if you wish it, Mr. Bounderby.'

'I told him I would give her a shake-down here, last night, in
order that he might sleep on it before he decided to let her have
any association with Louisa.'

'Indeed, Mr. Bounderby? Very thoughtful of you!' Mrs. Sparsit's
Coriolanian nose underwent a slight expansion of the nostrils, and
her black eyebrows contracted as she took a sip of tea.

'It's tolerably clear to me,' said Bounderby, 'that the little puss
can get small good out of such companionship.'

'Are you speaking of young Miss Gradgrind, Mr. Bounderby?'

'Yes, ma'am, I'm speaking of Louisa.'

'Your observation being limited to "little puss,"' said Mrs.
Sparsit, 'and there being two little girls in question, I did not
know which might be indicated by that expression.'

'Louisa,' repeated Mr. Bounderby. 'Louisa, Louisa.'

'You are quite another father to Louisa, sir.' Mrs. Sparsit took a
little more tea; and, as she bent her again contracted eyebrows
over her steaming cup, rather looked as if her classical
countenance were invoking the infernal gods.

'If you had said I was another father to Tom - young Tom, I mean,
not my friend Tom Gradgrind - you might have been nearer the mark.
I am going to take young Tom into my office. Going to have him
under my wing, ma'am.'

'Indeed? Rather young for that, is he not, sir?' Mrs. Spirit's
'sir,' in addressing Mr. Bounderby, was a word of ceremony, rather
exacting consideration for herself in the use, than honouring him.

'I'm not going to take him at once; he is to finish his educational
cramming before then,' said Bounderby. 'By the Lord Harry, he'll
have enough of it, first and last! He'd open his eyes, that boy
would, if he knew how empty of learning my young maw was, at his
time of life.' Which, by the by, he probably did know, for he had
heard of it often enough. 'But it's extraordinary the difficulty I
have on scores of such subjects, in speaking to any one on equal
terms. Here, for example, I have been speaking to you this morning
about tumblers. Why, what do you know about tumblers? At the time
when, to have been a tumbler in the mud of the streets, would have
been a godsend to me, a prize in the lottery to me, you were at the
Italian Opera. You were coming out of the Italian Opera, ma'am, in
white satin and jewels, a blaze of splendour, when I hadn't a penny
to buy a link to light you.'

'I certainly, sir,' returned Mrs. Sparsit, with a dignity serenely
mournful, 'was familiar with the Italian Opera at a very early

'Egad, ma'am, so was I,' said Bounderby, ' - with the wrong side of
it. A hard bed the pavement of its Arcade used to make, I assure
you. People like you, ma'am, accustomed from infancy to lie on
Down feathers, have no idea how hard a paving-stone is, without
trying it. No, no, it's of no use my talking to you about
tumblers. I should speak of foreign dancers, and the West End of
London, and May Fair, and lords and ladies and honourables.'

'I trust, sir,' rejoined Mrs. Sparsit, with decent resignation, 'it
is not necessary that you should do anything of that kind. I hope
I have learnt how to accommodate myself to the changes of life. If
I have acquired an interest in hearing of your instructive
experiences, and can scarcely hear enough of them, I claim no merit
for that, since I believe it is a general sentiment.'

'Well, ma'am,' said her patron, 'perhaps some people may be pleased
to say that they do like to hear, in his own unpolished way, what
Josiah Bounderby, of Coketown, has gone through. But you must
confess that you were born in the lap of luxury, yourself. Come,
ma'am, you know you were born in the lap of luxury.'

'I do not, sir,' returned Mrs. Sparsit with a shake of her head,
'deny it.'

Mr. Bounderby was obliged to get up from table, and stand with his
back to the fire, looking at her; she was such an enhancement of
his position.

'And you were in crack society. Devilish high society,' he said,
warming his legs.

'It is true, sir,' returned Mrs. Sparsit, with an affectation of
humility the very opposite of his, and therefore in no danger of
jostling it.

'You were in the tiptop fashion, and all the rest of it,' said Mr.

'Yes, sir,' returned Mrs. Sparsit, with a kind of social widowhood
upon her. 'It is unquestionably true.'

Mr. Bounderby, bending himself at the knees, literally embraced his
legs in his great satisfaction and laughed aloud. Mr. and Miss
Gradgrind being then announced, he received the former with a shake
of the hand, and the latter with a kiss.

'Can Jupe be sent here, Bounderby?' asked Mr. Gradgrind.

Certainly. So Jupe was sent there. On coming in, she curtseyed to
Mr. Bounderby, and to his friend Tom Gradgrind, and also to Louisa;
but in her confusion unluckily omitted Mrs. Sparsit. Observing
this, the blustrous Bounderby had the following remarks to make:

'Now, I tell you what, my girl. The name of that lady by the
teapot, is Mrs. Sparsit. That lady acts as mistress of this house,
and she is a highly connected lady. Consequently, if ever you come
again into any room in this house, you will make a short stay in it
if you don't behave towards that lady in your most respectful
manner. Now, I don't care a button what you do to me, because I
don't affect to be anybody. So far from having high connections I
have no connections at all, and I come of the scum of the earth.
But towards that lady, I do care what you do; and you shall do what
is deferential and respectful, or you shall not come here.'

'I hope, Bounderby,' said Mr. Gradgrind, in a conciliatory voice,
'that this was merely an oversight.'

'My friend Tom Gradgrind suggests, Mrs. Sparsit,' said Bounderby,
'that this was merely an oversight. Very likely. However, as you
are aware, ma'am, I don't allow of even oversights towards you.'

'You are very good indeed, sir,' returned Mrs. Sparsit, shaking her
head with her State humility. 'It is not worth speaking of.'

Sissy, who all this time had been faintly excusing herself with
tears in her eyes, was now waved over by the master of the house to
Mr. Gradgrind. She stood looking intently at him, and Louisa stood
coldly by, with her eyes upon the ground, while he proceeded thus:

'Jupe, I have made up my mind to take you into my house; and, when
you are not in attendance at the school, to employ you about Mrs.
Gradgrind, who is rather an invalid. I have explained to Miss
Louisa - this is Miss Louisa - the miserable but natural end of
your late career; and you are to expressly understand that the
whole of that subject is past, and is not to be referred to any
more. From this time you begin your history. You are, at present,
ignorant, I know.'

'Yes, sir, very,' she answered, curtseying.

'I shall have the satisfaction of causing you to be strictly
educated; and you will be a living proof to all who come into
communication with you, of the advantages of the training you will
receive. You will be reclaimed and formed. You have been in the
habit now of reading to your father, and those people I found you
among, I dare say?' said Mr. Gradgrind, beckoning her nearer to him
before he said so, and dropping his voice.

'Only to father and Merrylegs, sir. At least I mean to father,
when Merrylegs was always there.'

'Never mind Merrylegs, Jupe,' said Mr. Gradgrind, with a passing
frown. 'I don't ask about him. I understand you to have been in
the habit of reading to your father?'

'O, yes, sir, thousands of times. They were the happiest - O, of
all the happy times we had together, sir!'

It was only now when her sorrow broke out, that Louisa looked at

'And what,' asked Mr. Gradgrind, in a still lower voice, 'did you
read to your father, Jupe?'

'About the Fairies, sir, and the Dwarf, and the Hunchback, and the
Genies,' she sobbed out; 'and about - '

'Hush!' said Mr. Gradgrind, 'that is enough. Never breathe a word
of such destructive nonsense any more. Bounderby, this is a case
for rigid training, and I shall observe it with interest.'

'Well,' returned Mr. Bounderby, 'I have given you my opinion
already, and I shouldn't do as you do. But, very well, very well.
Since you are bent upon it, very well!'

So, Mr. Gradgrind and his daughter took Cecilia Jupe off with them
to Stone Lodge, and on the way Louisa never spoke one word, good or
bad. And Mr. Bounderby went about his daily pursuits. And Mrs.
Sparsit got behind her eyebrows and meditated in the gloom of that
retreat, all the evening.

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