Hard Times, by Charles Dickens

Chapter XI— No Way Out

THE Fairy palaces burst into illumination, before pale morning showed the monstrous serpents of smoke trailing themselves over Coketown. A clattering of clogs upon the pavement; a rapid ringing of bells; and all the melancholy mad elephants, polished and oiled up for the day’s monotony, were at their heavy exercise again.

Stephen bent over his loom, quiet, watchful, and steady. A special contrast, as every man was in the forest of looms where Stephen worked, to the crashing, smashing, tearing piece of mechanism at which he laboured. Never fear, good people of an anxious turn of mind, that Art will consign Nature to oblivion. Set anywhere, side by side, the work of GOD and the work of man; and the former, even though it be a troop of Hands of very small account, will gain in dignity from the comparison.

So many hundred Hands in this Mill; so many hundred horse Steam Power. It is known, to the force of a single pound weight, what the engine will do; but, not all the calculators of the National Debt can tell me the capacity for good or evil, for love or hatred, for patriotism or discontent, for the decomposition of virtue into vice, or the reverse, at any single moment in the soul of one of these its quiet servants, with the composed faces and the regulated actions. There is no mystery in it; there is an unfathomable mystery in the meanest of them, for ever. — Supposing we were to reverse our arithmetic for material objects, and to govern these awful unknown quantities by other means!

The day grew strong, and showed itself outside, even against the flaming lights within. The lights were turned out, and the work went on. The rain fell, and the Smoke-serpents, submissive to the curse of all that tribe, trailed themselves upon the earth. In the waste-yard outside, the steam from the escape pipe, the litter of barrels and old iron, the shining heaps of coals, the ashes everywhere, were shrouded in a veil of mist and rain.

The work went on, until the noon-bell rang. More clattering upon the pavements. The looms, and wheels, and Hands all out of gear for an hour.

Stephen came out of the hot mill into the damp wind and cold wet streets, haggard and worn. He turned from his own class and his own quarter, taking nothing but a little bread as he walked along, towards the hill on which his principal employer lived, in a red house with black outside shutters, green inside blinds, a black street door, up two white steps, BOUNDERBY (in letters very like himself) upon a brazen plate, and a round brazen door-handle underneath it, like a brazen full-stop.

Mr. Bounderby was at his lunch. So Stephen had expected. Would his servant say that one of the Hands begged leave to speak to him? Message in return, requiring name of such Hand. Stephen Blackpool. There was nothing troublesome against Stephen Blackpool; yes, he might come in.

Stephen Blackpool in the parlour. Mr. Bounderby (whom he just knew by sight), at lunch on chop and sherry. Mrs. Sparsit netting at the fireside, in a side-saddle attitude, with one foot in a cotton stirrup. It was a part, at once of Mrs. Sparsit’s dignity and service, not to lunch. She supervised the meal officially, but implied that in her own stately person she considered lunch a weakness.

‘Now, Stephen,’ said Mr. Bounderby, ‘what’s the matter with you?’

Stephen made a bow. Not a servile one — these Hands will never do that! Lord bless you, sir, you’ll never catch them at that, if they have been with you twenty years! — and, as a complimentary toilet for Mrs. Sparsit, tucked his neckerchief ends into his waistcoat.

‘Now, you know,’ said Mr. Bounderby, taking some sherry, ‘we have never had any difficulty with you, and you have never been one of the unreasonable ones. You don’t expect to be set up in a coach and six, and to be fed on turtle soup and venison, with a gold spoon, as a good many of ’em do!’ Mr. Bounderby always represented this to be the sole, immediate, and direct object of any Hand who was not entirely satisfied; ‘and therefore I know already that you have not come here to make a complaint. Now, you know, I am certain of that, beforehand.’

‘No, sir, sure I ha’ not coom for nowt o’ th’ kind.’

Mr. Bounderby seemed agreeably surprised, notwithstanding his previous strong conviction. ‘Very well,’ he returned. ‘You’re a steady Hand, and I was not mistaken. Now, let me hear what it’s all about. As it’s not that, let me hear what it is. What have you got to say? Out with it, lad!’

Stephen happened to glance towards Mrs. Sparsit. ‘I can go, Mr. Bounderby, if you wish it,’ said that self-sacrificing lady, making a feint of taking her foot out of the stirrup.

Mr. Bounderby stayed her, by holding a mouthful of chop in suspension before swallowing it, and putting out his left hand. Then, withdrawing his hand and swallowing his mouthful of chop, he said to Stephen:

‘Now you know, this good lady is a born lady, a high lady. You are not to suppose because she keeps my house for me, that she hasn’t been very high up the tree — ah, up at the top of the tree! Now, if you have got anything to say that can’t be said before a born lady, this lady will leave the room. If what you have got to say can be said before a born lady, this lady will stay where she is.’

‘Sir, I hope I never had nowt to say, not fitten for a born lady to year, sin’ I were born mysen’,’ was the reply, accompanied with a slight flush.

‘Very well,’ said Mr. Bounderby, pushing away his plate, and leaning back. ‘Fire away!’

‘I ha’ coom,’ Stephen began, raising his eyes from the floor, after a moment’s consideration, ‘to ask yo yor advice. I need ‘t overmuch. I were married on Eas’r Monday nineteen year sin, long and dree. She were a young lass — pretty enow — wi’ good accounts of herseln. Well! She went bad — soon. Not along of me. Gonnows I were not a unkind husband to her.’

‘I have heard all this before,’ said Mr. Bounderby. ‘She took to drinking, left off working, sold the furniture, pawned the clothes, and played old Gooseberry.’

‘I were patient wi’ her.’

(‘The more fool you, I think,’ said Mr. Bounderby, in confidence to his wine-glass.)

‘I were very patient wi’ her. I tried to wean her fra ‘t ower and ower agen. I tried this, I tried that, I tried t’other. I ha’ gone home, many’s the time, and found all vanished as I had in the world, and her without a sense left to bless herseln lying on bare ground. I ha’ dun ‘t not once, not twice — twenty time!’

Every line in his face deepened as he said it, and put in its affecting evidence of the suffering he had undergone.

‘From bad to worse, from worse to worsen. She left me. She disgraced herseln everyways, bitter and bad. She coom back, she coom back, she coom back. What could I do t’ hinder her? I ha’ walked the streets nights long, ere ever I’d go home. I ha’ gone t’ th’ brigg, minded to fling myseln ower, and ha’ no more on’t. I ha’ bore that much, that I were owd when I were young.’

Mrs. Sparsit, easily ambling along with her netting-needles, raised the Coriolanian eyebrows and shook her head, as much as to say, ‘The great know trouble as well as the small. Please to turn your humble eye in My direction.’

‘I ha’ paid her to keep awa’ fra’ me. These five year I ha’ paid her. I ha’ gotten decent fewtrils about me agen. I ha’ lived hard and sad, but not ashamed and fearfo’ a’ the minnits o’ my life. Last night, I went home. There she lay upon my har-stone! There she is!’

In the strength of his misfortune, and the energy of his distress, he fired for the moment like a proud man. In another moment, he stood as he had stood all the time — his usual stoop upon him; his pondering face addressed to Mr. Bounderby, with a curious expression on it, half shrewd, half perplexed, as if his mind were set upon unravelling something very difficult; his hat held tight in his left hand, which rested on his hip; his right arm, with a rugged propriety and force of action, very earnestly emphasizing what he said: not least so when it always paused, a little bent, but not withdrawn, as he paused.

‘I was acquainted with all this, you know,’ said Mr. Bounderby, ‘except the last clause, long ago. It’s a bad job; that’s what it is. You had better have been satisfied as you were, and not have got married. However, it’s too late to say that.’

‘Was it an unequal marriage, sir, in point of years?’ asked Mrs. Sparsit.

‘You hear what this lady asks. Was it an unequal marriage in point of years, this unlucky job of yours?’ said Mr. Bounderby.

‘Not e’en so. I were one-and-twenty myseln; she were twenty nighbut.’

‘Indeed, sir?’ said Mrs. Sparsit to her Chief, with great placidity. ‘I inferred, from its being so miserable a marriage, that it was probably an unequal one in point of years.’

Mr. Bounderby looked very hard at the good lady in a side-long way that had an odd sheepishness about it. He fortified himself with a little more sherry.

‘Well? Why don’t you go on?’ he then asked, turning rather irritably on Stephen Blackpool.

‘I ha’ coom to ask yo, sir, how I am to be ridded o’ this woman.’ Stephen infused a yet deeper gravity into the mixed expression of his attentive face. Mrs. Sparsit uttered a gentle ejaculation, as having received a moral shock.

‘What do you mean?’ said Bounderby, getting up to lean his back against the chimney-piece. ‘What are you talking about? You took her for better for worse.’

‘I mun’ be ridden o’ her. I cannot bear ‘t nommore. I ha’ lived under ‘t so long, for that I ha’ had’n the pity and comforting words o’ th’ best lass living or dead. Haply, but for her, I should ha’ gone battering mad.’

‘He wishes to be free, to marry the female of whom he speaks, I fear, sir,’ observed Mrs. Sparsit in an undertone, and much dejected by the immorality of the people.

‘I do. The lady says what’s right. I do. I were a coming to ‘t. I ha’ read i’ th’ papers that great folk (fair faw ’em a’! I wishes ’em no hurt!) are not bonded together for better for worst so fast, but that they can be set free fro’ their misfortnet marriages, an’ marry ower agen. When they dunnot agree, for that their tempers is ill-sorted, they has rooms o’ one kind an’ another in their houses, above a bit, and they can live asunders. We fok ha’ only one room, and we can’t. When that won’t do, they ha’ gowd an’ other cash, an’ they can say “This for yo’ an’ that for me,” an’ they can go their separate ways. We can’t. Spite o’ all that, they can be set free for smaller wrongs than mine. So, I mun be ridden o’ this woman, and I want t’ know how?’

‘No how,’ returned Mr. Bounderby.

‘If I do her any hurt, sir, there’s a law to punish me?’

‘Of course there is.’

‘If I flee from her, there’s a law to punish me?’

‘Of course there is.’

‘If I marry t’oother dear lass, there’s a law to punish me?’

‘Of course there is.’

‘If I was to live wi’ her an’ not marry her — saying such a thing could be, which it never could or would, an’ her so good — there’s a law to punish me, in every innocent child belonging to me?’

‘Of course there is.’

‘Now, a’ God’s name,’ said Stephen Blackpool, ‘show me the law to help me!’

‘Hem! There’s a sanctity in this relation of life,’ said Mr. Bounderby, ‘and — and — it must be kept up.’

‘No no, dunnot say that, sir. ‘Tan’t kep’ up that way. Not that way. ’Tis kep’ down that way. I’m a weaver, I were in a fact’ry when a chilt, but I ha’ gotten een to see wi’ and eern to year wi’. I read in th’ papers every ‘Sizes, every Sessions — and you read too — I know it! — with dismay — how th’ supposed unpossibility o’ ever getting unchained from one another, at any price, on any terms, brings blood upon this land, and brings many common married fok to battle, murder, and sudden death. Let us ha’ this, right understood. Mine’s a grievous case, an’ I want — if yo will be so good — t’ know the law that helps me.’

‘Now, I tell you what!’ said Mr. Bounderby, putting his hands in his pockets. ‘There is such a law.’

Stephen, subsiding into his quiet manner, and never wandering in his attention, gave a nod.

‘But it’s not for you at all. It costs money. It costs a mint of money.’

‘How much might that be?’ Stephen calmly asked.

‘Why, you’d have to go to Doctors’ Commons with a suit, and you’d have to go to a court of Common Law with a suit, and you’d have to go to the House of Lords with a suit, and you’d have to get an Act of Parliament to enable you to marry again, and it would cost you (if it was a case of very plain sailing), I suppose from a thousand to fifteen hundred pound,’ said Mr. Bounderby. ‘Perhaps twice the money.’

‘There’s no other law?’

‘Certainly not.’

‘Why then, sir,’ said Stephen, turning white, and motioning with that right hand of his, as if he gave everything to the four winds, ‘’tis a muddle. ’Tis just a muddle a’toogether, an’ the sooner I am dead, the better.’

(Mrs. Sparsit again dejected by the impiety of the people.)

‘Pooh, pooh! Don’t you talk nonsense, my good fellow,’ said Mr. Bounderby, ‘about things you don’t understand; and don’t you call the Institutions of your country a muddle, or you’ll get yourself into a real muddle one of these fine mornings. The institutions of your country are not your piece-work, and the only thing you have got to do, is, to mind your piece-work. You didn’t take your wife for fast and for loose; but for better for worse. If she has turned out worse — why, all we have got to say is, she might have turned out better.’

‘’Tis a muddle,’ said Stephen, shaking his head as he moved to the door. ‘’Tis a’ a muddle!’

‘Now, I’ll tell you what!’ Mr. Bounderby resumed, as a valedictory address. ‘With what I shall call your unhallowed opinions, you have been quite shocking this lady: who, as I have already told you, is a born lady, and who, as I have not already told you, has had her own marriage misfortunes to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds — tens of Thousands of Pounds!’ (he repeated it with great relish). ‘Now, you have always been a steady Hand hitherto; but my opinion is, and so I tell you plainly, that you are turning into the wrong road. You have been listening to some mischievous stranger or other — they’re always about — and the best thing you can do is, to come out of that. Now you know;’ here his countenance expressed marvellous acuteness; ‘I can see as far into a grindstone as another man; farther than a good many, perhaps, because I had my nose well kept to it when I was young. I see traces of the turtle soup, and venison, and gold spoon in this. Yes, I do!’ cried Mr. Bounderby, shaking his head with obstinate cunning. ‘By the Lord Harry, I do!’

With a very different shake of the head and deep sigh, Stephen said, ‘Thank you, sir, I wish you good day.’ So he left Mr. Bounderby swelling at his own portrait on the wall, as if he were going to explode himself into it; and Mrs. Sparsit still ambling on with her foot in her stirrup, looking quite cast down by the popular vices.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:30