Hard Times, by Charles Dickens

Chapter XV— Father and Daughter

ALTHOUGH Mr. Gradgrind did not take after Blue Beard, his room was quite a blue chamber in its abundance of blue books. Whatever they could prove (which is usually anything you like), they proved there, in an army constantly strengthening by the arrival of new recruits. In that charmed apartment, the most complicated social questions were cast up, got into exact totals, and finally settled — if those concerned could only have been brought to know it. As if an astronomical observatory should be made without any windows, and the astronomer within should arrange the starry universe solely by pen, ink, and paper, so Mr. Gradgrind, in his Observatory (and there are many like it), had no need to cast an eye upon the teeming myriads of human beings around him, but could settle all their destinies on a slate, and wipe out all their tears with one dirty little bit of sponge.

To this Observatory, then: a stern room, with a deadly statistical clock in it, which measured every second with a beat like a rap upon a coffin-lid; Louisa repaired on the appointed morning. A window looked towards Coketown; and when she sat down near her father’s table, she saw the high chimneys and the long tracts of smoke looming in the heavy distance gloomily.

‘My dear Louisa,’ said her father, ‘I prepared you last night to give me your serious attention in the conversation we are now going to have together. You have been so well trained, and you do, I am happy to say, so much justice to the education you have received, that I have perfect confidence in your good sense. You are not impulsive, you are not romantic, you are accustomed to view everything from the strong dispassionate ground of reason and calculation. From that ground alone, I know you will view and consider what I am going to communicate.’

He waited, as if he would have been glad that she said something. But she said never a word.

‘Louisa, my dear, you are the subject of a proposal of marriage that has been made to me.’

Again he waited, and again she answered not one word. This so far surprised him, as to induce him gently to repeat, ‘a proposal of marriage, my dear.’ To which she returned, without any visible emotion whatever:

‘I hear you, father. I am attending, I assure you.’

‘Well!’ said Mr. Gradgrind, breaking into a smile, after being for the moment at a loss, ‘you are even more dispassionate than I expected, Louisa. Or, perhaps, you are not unprepared for the announcement I have it in charge to make?’

‘I cannot say that, father, until I hear it. Prepared or unprepared, I wish to hear it all from you. I wish to hear you state it to me, father.’

Strange to relate, Mr. Gradgrind was not so collected at this moment as his daughter was. He took a paper-knife in his hand, turned it over, laid it down, took it up again, and even then had to look along the blade of it, considering how to go on.

‘What you say, my dear Louisa, is perfectly reasonable. I have undertaken then to let you know that — in short, that Mr. Bounderby has informed me that he has long watched your progress with particular interest and pleasure, and has long hoped that the time might ultimately arrive when he should offer you his hand in marriage. That time, to which he has so long, and certainly with great constancy, looked forward, is now come. Mr. Bounderby has made his proposal of marriage to me, and has entreated me to make it known to you, and to express his hope that you will take it into your favourable consideration.’

Silence between them. The deadly statistical clock very hollow. The distant smoke very black and heavy.

‘Father,’ said Louisa, ‘do you think I love Mr. Bounderby?’

Mr. Gradgrind was extremely discomfited by this unexpected question. ‘Well, my child,’ he returned, ‘I— really — cannot take upon myself to say.’

‘Father,’ pursued Louisa in exactly the same voice as before, ‘do you ask me to love Mr. Bounderby?’

‘My dear Louisa, no. No. I ask nothing.’

‘Father,’ she still pursued, ‘does Mr. Bounderby ask me to love him?’

‘Really, my dear,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, ‘it is difficult to answer your question — ’

‘Difficult to answer it, Yes or No, father?

‘Certainly, my dear. Because;’ here was something to demonstrate, and it set him up again; ‘because the reply depends so materially, Louisa, on the sense in which we use the expression. Now, Mr. Bounderby does not do you the injustice, and does not do himself the injustice, of pretending to anything fanciful, fantastic, or (I am using synonymous terms) sentimental. Mr. Bounderby would have seen you grow up under his eyes, to very little purpose, if he could so far forget what is due to your good sense, not to say to his, as to address you from any such ground. Therefore, perhaps the expression itself — I merely suggest this to you, my dear — may be a little misplaced.’

‘What would you advise me to use in its stead, father?’

‘Why, my dear Louisa,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, completely recovered by this time, ‘I would advise you (since you ask me) to consider this question, as you have been accustomed to consider every other question, simply as one of tangible Fact. The ignorant and the giddy may embarrass such subjects with irrelevant fancies, and other absurdities that have no existence, properly viewed — really no existence — but it is no compliment to you to say, that you know better. Now, what are the Facts of this case? You are, we will say in round numbers, twenty years of age; Mr. Bounderby is, we will say in round numbers, fifty. There is some disparity in your respective years, but in your means and positions there is none; on the contrary, there is a great suitability. Then the question arises, Is this one disparity sufficient to operate as a bar to such a marriage? In considering this question, it is not unimportant to take into account the statistics of marriage, so far as they have yet been obtained, in England and Wales. I find, on reference to the figures, that a large proportion of these marriages are contracted between parties of very unequal ages, and that the elder of these contracting parties is, in rather more than three-fourths of these instances, the bridegroom. It is remarkable as showing the wide prevalence of this law, that among the natives of the British possessions in India, also in a considerable part of China, and among the Calmucks of Tartary, the best means of computation yet furnished us by travellers, yield similar results. The disparity I have mentioned, therefore, almost ceases to be disparity, and (virtually) all but disappears.’

‘What do you recommend, father,’ asked Louisa, her reserved composure not in the least affected by these gratifying results, ‘that I should substitute for the term I used just now? For the misplaced expression?’

‘Louisa,’ returned her father, ‘it appears to me that nothing can be plainer. Confining yourself rigidly to Fact, the question of Fact you state to yourself is: Does Mr. Bounderby ask me to marry him? Yes, he does. The sole remaining question then is: Shall I marry him? I think nothing can be plainer than that?’

‘Shall I marry him?’ repeated Louisa, with great deliberation.

‘Precisely. And it is satisfactory to me, as your father, my dear Louisa, to know that you do not come to the consideration of that question with the previous habits of mind, and habits of life, that belong to many young women.’

‘No, father,’ she returned, ‘I do not.’

‘I now leave you to judge for yourself,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘I have stated the case, as such cases are usually stated among practical minds; I have stated it, as the case of your mother and myself was stated in its time. The rest, my dear Louisa, is for you to decide.’

From the beginning, she had sat looking at him fixedly. As he now leaned back in his chair, and bent his deep-set eyes upon her in his turn, perhaps he might have seen one wavering moment in her, when she was impelled to throw herself upon his breast, and give him the pent-up confidences of her heart. But, to see it, he must have overleaped at a bound the artificial barriers he had for many years been erecting, between himself and all those subtle essences of humanity which will elude the utmost cunning of algebra until the last trumpet ever to be sounded shall blow even algebra to wreck. The barriers were too many and too high for such a leap. With his unbending, utilitarian, matter-of-fact face, he hardened her again; and the moment shot away into the plumbless depths of the past, to mingle with all the lost opportunities that are drowned there.

Removing her eyes from him, she sat so long looking silently towards the town, that he said, at length: ‘Are you consulting the chimneys of the Coketown works, Louisa?’

‘There seems to be nothing there but languid and monotonous smoke. Yet when the night comes, Fire bursts out, father!’ she answered, turning quickly.

‘Of course I know that, Louisa. I do not see the application of the remark.’ To do him justice he did not, at all.

She passed it away with a slight motion of her hand, and concentrating her attention upon him again, said, ‘Father, I have often thought that life is very short.’ — This was so distinctly one of his subjects that he interposed.

‘It is short, no doubt, my dear. Still, the average duration of human life is proved to have increased of late years. The calculations of various life assurance and annuity offices, among other figures which cannot go wrong, have established the fact.’

‘I speak of my own life, father.’

‘O indeed? Still,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, ‘I need not point out to you, Louisa, that it is governed by the laws which govern lives in the aggregate.’

‘While it lasts, I would wish to do the little I can, and the little I am fit for. What does it matter?’

Mr. Gradgrind seemed rather at a loss to understand the last four words; replying, ‘How, matter? What matter, my dear?’

‘Mr. Bounderby,’ she went on in a steady, straight way, without regarding this, ‘asks me to marry him. The question I have to ask myself is, shall I marry him? That is so, father, is it not? You have told me so, father. Have you not?’

‘Certainly, my dear.’

‘Let it be so. Since Mr. Bounderby likes to take me thus, I am satisfied to accept his proposal. Tell him, father, as soon as you please, that this was my answer. Repeat it, word for word, if you can, because I should wish him to know what I said.’

‘It is quite right, my dear,’ retorted her father approvingly, ‘to be exact. I will observe your very proper request. Have you any wish in reference to the period of your marriage, my child?’

‘None, father. What does it matter!’

Mr. Gradgrind had drawn his chair a little nearer to her, and taken her hand. But, her repetition of these words seemed to strike with some little discord on his ear. He paused to look at her, and, still holding her hand, said:

‘Louisa, I have not considered it essential to ask you one question, because the possibility implied in it appeared to me to be too remote. But perhaps I ought to do so. You have never entertained in secret any other proposal?’

‘Father,’ she returned, almost scornfully, ‘what other proposal can have been made to me? Whom have I seen? Where have I been? What are my heart’s experiences?’

‘My dear Louisa,’ returned Mr. Gradgrind, reassured and satisfied. ‘You correct me justly. I merely wished to discharge my duty.’

‘What do I know, father,’ said Louisa in her quiet manner, ‘of tastes and fancies; of aspirations and affections; of all that part of my nature in which such light things might have been nourished? What escape have I had from problems that could be demonstrated, and realities that could be grasped?’ As she said it, she unconsciously closed her hand, as if upon a solid object, and slowly opened it as though she were releasing dust or ash.

‘My dear,’ assented her eminently practical parent, ‘quite true, quite true.’

‘Why, father,’ she pursued, ‘what a strange question to ask me! The baby-preference that even I have heard of as common among children, has never had its innocent resting-place in my breast. You have been so careful of me, that I never had a child’s heart. You have trained me so well, that I never dreamed a child’s dream. You have dealt so wisely with me, father, from my cradle to this hour, that I never had a child’s belief or a child’s fear.’

Mr. Gradgrind was quite moved by his success, and by this testimony to it. ‘My dear Louisa,’ said he, ‘you abundantly repay my care. Kiss me, my dear girl.’

So, his daughter kissed him. Detaining her in his embrace, he said, ‘I may assure you now, my favourite child, that I am made happy by the sound decision at which you have arrived. Mr. Bounderby is a very remarkable man; and what little disparity can be said to exist between you — if any — is more than counterbalanced by the tone your mind has acquired. It has always been my object so to educate you, as that you might, while still in your early youth, be (if I may so express myself) almost any age. Kiss me once more, Louisa. Now, let us go and find your mother.’

Accordingly, they went down to the drawing-room, where the esteemed lady with no nonsense about her, was recumbent as usual, while Sissy worked beside her. She gave some feeble signs of returning animation when they entered, and presently the faint transparency was presented in a sitting attitude.

‘Mrs. Gradgrind,’ said her husband, who had waited for the achievement of this feat with some impatience, ‘allow me to present to you Mrs. Bounderby.’

‘Oh!’ said Mrs. Gradgrind, ‘so you have settled it! Well, I’m sure I hope your health may be good, Louisa; for if your head begins to split as soon as you are married, which was the case with mine, I cannot consider that you are to be envied, though I have no doubt you think you are, as all girls do. However, I give you joy, my dear — and I hope you may now turn all your ological studies to good account, I am sure I do! I must give you a kiss of congratulation, Louisa; but don’t touch my right shoulder, for there’s something running down it all day long. And now you see,’ whimpered Mrs. Gradgrind, adjusting her shawls after the affectionate ceremony, ‘I shall be worrying myself, morning, noon, and night, to know what I am to call him!’

‘Mrs. Gradgrind,’ said her husband, solemnly, ‘what do you mean?’

‘Whatever I am to call him, Mr. Gradgrind, when he is married to Louisa! I must call him something. It’s impossible,’ said Mrs. Gradgrind, with a mingled sense of politeness and injury, ‘to be constantly addressing him and never giving him a name. I cannot call him Josiah, for the name is insupportable to me. You yourself wouldn’t hear of Joe, you very well know. Am I to call my own son-in-law, Mister! Not, I believe, unless the time has arrived when, as an invalid, I am to be trampled upon by my relations. Then, what am I to call him!’

Nobody present having any suggestion to offer in the remarkable emergency, Mrs. Gradgrind departed this life for the time being, after delivering the following codicil to her remarks already executed:

‘As to the wedding, all I ask, Louisa, is, — and I ask it with a fluttering in my chest, which actually extends to the soles of my feet, — that it may take place soon. Otherwise, I know it is one of those subjects I shall never hear the last of.’

When Mr. Gradgrind had presented Mrs. Bounderby, Sissy had suddenly turned her head, and looked, in wonder, in pity, in sorrow, in doubt, in a multitude of emotions, towards Louisa. Louisa had known it, and seen it, without looking at her. From that moment she was impassive, proud and cold — held Sissy at a distance — changed to her altogether.

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