Hard Times, by Charles Dickens

Chapter XIV— The Great Manufacturer

TIME went on in Coketown like its own machinery: so much material wrought up, so much fuel consumed, so many powers worn out, so much money made. But, less inexorable than iron, steal, and brass, it brought its varying seasons even into that wilderness of smoke and brick, and made the only stand that ever was made in the place against its direful uniformity.

‘Louisa is becoming,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, ‘almost a young woman.’

Time, with his innumerable horse-power, worked away, not minding what anybody said, and presently turned out young Thomas a foot taller than when his father had last taken particular notice of him.

‘Thomas is becoming,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, ‘almost a young man.’

Time passed Thomas on in the mill, while his father was thinking about it, and there he stood in a long-tailed coat and a stiff shirt-collar.

‘Really,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, ‘the period has arrived when Thomas ought to go to Bounderby.’

Time, sticking to him, passed him on into Bounderby’s Bank, made him an inmate of Bounderby’s house, necessitated the purchase of his first razor, and exercised him diligently in his calculations relative to number one.

The same great manufacturer, always with an immense variety of work on hand, in every stage of development, passed Sissy onward in his mill, and worked her up into a very pretty article indeed.

‘I fear, Jupe,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, ‘that your continuance at the school any longer would be useless.’

‘I am afraid it would, sir,’ Sissy answered with a curtsey.

‘I cannot disguise from you, Jupe,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, knitting his brow, ‘that the result of your probation there has disappointed me; has greatly disappointed me. You have not acquired, under Mr. and Mrs. M’Choakumchild, anything like that amount of exact knowledge which I looked for. You are extremely deficient in your facts. Your acquaintance with figures is very limited. You are altogether backward, and below the mark.’

‘I am sorry, sir,’ she returned; ‘but I know it is quite true. Yet I have tried hard, sir.’

‘Yes,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, ‘yes, I believe you have tried hard; I have observed you, and I can find no fault in that respect.’

‘Thank you, sir. I have thought sometimes;’ Sissy very timid here; ‘that perhaps I tried to learn too much, and that if I had asked to be allowed to try a little less, I might have — ’

‘No, Jupe, no,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, shaking his head in his profoundest and most eminently practical way. ‘No. The course you pursued, you pursued according to the system — the system — and there is no more to be said about it. I can only suppose that the circumstances of your early life were too unfavourable to the development of your reasoning powers, and that we began too late. Still, as I have said already, I am disappointed.’

‘I wish I could have made a better acknowledgment, sir, of your kindness to a poor forlorn girl who had no claim upon you, and of your protection of her.’

‘Don’t shed tears,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘Don’t shed tears. I don’t complain of you. You are an affectionate, earnest, good young woman — and — and we must make that do.’

‘Thank you, sir, very much,’ said Sissy, with a grateful curtsey.

‘You are useful to Mrs. Gradgrind, and (in a generally pervading way) you are serviceable in the family also; so I understand from Miss Louisa, and, indeed, so I have observed myself. I therefore hope,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, ‘that you can make yourself happy in those relations.’

‘I should have nothing to wish, sir, if — ’

‘I understand you,’ said Mr. Gradgrind; ‘you still refer to your father. I have heard from Miss Louisa that you still preserve that bottle. Well! If your training in the science of arriving at exact results had been more successful, you would have been wiser on these points. I will say no more.’

He really liked Sissy too well to have a contempt for her; otherwise he held her calculating powers in such very slight estimation that he must have fallen upon that conclusion. Somehow or other, he had become possessed by an idea that there was something in this girl which could hardly be set forth in a tabular form. Her capacity of definition might be easily stated at a very low figure, her mathematical knowledge at nothing; yet he was not sure that if he had been required, for example, to tick her off into columns in a parliamentary return, he would have quite known how to divide her.

In some stages of his manufacture of the human fabric, the processes of Time are very rapid. Young Thomas and Sissy being both at such a stage of their working up, these changes were effected in a year or two; while Mr. Gradgrind himself seemed stationary in his course, and underwent no alteration.

Except one, which was apart from his necessary progress through the mill. Time hustled him into a little noisy and rather dirty machinery, in a by-comer, and made him Member of Parliament for Coketown: one of the respected members for ounce weights and measures, one of the representatives of the multiplication table, one of the deaf honourable gentlemen, dumb honourable gentlemen, blind honourable gentlemen, lame honourable gentlemen, dead honourable gentlemen, to every other consideration. Else wherefore live we in a Christian land, eighteen hundred and odd years after our Master?

All this while, Louisa had been passing on, so quiet and reserved, and so much given to watching the bright ashes at twilight as they fell into the grate, and became extinct, that from the period when her father had said she was almost a young woman — which seemed but yesterday — she had scarcely attracted his notice again, when he found her quite a young woman.

‘Quite a young woman,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, musing. ‘Dear me!’

Soon after this discovery, he became more thoughtful than usual for several days, and seemed much engrossed by one subject. On a certain night, when he was going out, and Louisa came to bid him good-bye before his departure — as he was not to be home until late and she would not see him again until the morning — he held her in his arms, looking at her in his kindest manner, and said:

‘My dear Louisa, you are a woman!’

She answered with the old, quick, searching look of the night when she was found at the Circus; then cast down her eyes. ‘Yes, father.’

‘My dear,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, ‘I must speak with you alone and seriously. Come to me in my room after breakfast to-morrow, will you?’

‘Yes, father.’

‘Your hands are rather cold, Louisa. Are you not well?’

‘Quite well, father.’

‘And cheerful?’

She looked at him again, and smiled in her peculiar manner. ‘I am as cheerful, father, as I usually am, or usually have been.’

‘That’s well,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. So, he kissed her and went away; and Louisa returned to the serene apartment of the haircutting character, and leaning her elbow on her hand, looked again at the short-lived sparks that so soon subsided into ashes.

‘Are you there, Loo?’ said her brother, looking in at the door. He was quite a young gentleman of pleasure now, and not quite a prepossessing one.

‘Dear Tom,’ she answered, rising and embracing him, ‘how long it is since you have been to see me!’

‘Why, I have been otherwise engaged, Loo, in the evenings; and in the daytime old Bounderby has been keeping me at it rather. But I touch him up with you when he comes it too strong, and so we preserve an understanding. I say! Has father said anything particular to you to-day or yesterday, Loo?’

‘No, Tom. But he told me to-night that he wished to do so in the morning.’

‘Ah! That’s what I mean,’ said Tom. ‘Do you know where he is to-night?’ — with a very deep expression.

‘No.’

‘Then I’ll tell you. He’s with old Bounderby. They are having a regular confab together up at the Bank. Why at the Bank, do you think? Well, I’ll tell you again. To keep Mrs. Sparsit’s ears as far off as possible, I expect.’

With her hand upon her brother’s shoulder, Louisa still stood looking at the fire. Her brother glanced at her face with greater interest than usual, and, encircling her waist with his arm, drew her coaxingly to him.

‘You are very fond of me, an’t you, Loo?’

‘Indeed I am, Tom, though you do let such long intervals go by without coming to see me.’

‘Well, sister of mine,’ said Tom, ‘when you say that, you are near my thoughts. We might be so much oftener together — mightn’t we? Always together, almost — mightn’t we? It would do me a great deal of good if you were to make up your mind to I know what, Loo. It would be a splendid thing for me. It would be uncommonly jolly!’

Her thoughtfulness baffled his cunning scrutiny. He could make nothing of her face. He pressed her in his arm, and kissed her cheek. She returned the kiss, but still looked at the fire.

‘I say, Loo! I thought I’d come, and just hint to you what was going on: though I supposed you’d most likely guess, even if you didn’t know. I can’t stay, because I’m engaged to some fellows to-night. You won’t forget how fond you are of me?’

‘No, dear Tom, I won’t forget.’

‘That’s a capital girl,’ said Tom. ‘Good-bye, Loo.’

She gave him an affectionate good-night, and went out with him to the door, whence the fires of Coketown could be seen, making the distance lurid. She stood there, looking steadfastly towards them, and listening to his departing steps. They retreated quickly, as glad to get away from Stone Lodge; and she stood there yet, when he was gone and all was quiet. It seemed as if, first in her own fire within the house, and then in the fiery haze without, she tried to discover what kind of woof Old Time, that greatest and longest-established Spinner of all, would weave from the threads he had already spun into a woman. But his factory is a secret place, his work is noiseless, and his Hands are mutes.

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