Hard Times, by Charles Dickens

Chapter XVI— Husband and Wife

Mr. Bounderby’s first disquietude on hearing of his happiness, was occasioned by the necessity of imparting it to Mrs. Sparsit. He could not make up his mind how to do that, or what the consequences of the step might be. Whether she would instantly depart, bag and baggage, to Lady Scadgers, or would positively refuse to budge from the premises; whether she would be plaintive or abusive, tearful or tearing; whether she would break her heart, or break the looking-glass; Mr. Bounderby could not all foresee. However, as it must be done, he had no choice but to do it; so, after attempting several letters, and failing in them all, he resolved to do it by word of mouth.

On his way home, on the evening he set aside for this momentous purpose, he took the precaution of stepping into a chemist’s shop and buying a bottle of the very strongest smelling-salts. ‘By George!’ said Mr. Bounderby, ‘if she takes it in the fainting way, I’ll have the skin off her nose, at all events!’ But, in spite of being thus forearmed, he entered his own house with anything but a courageous air; and appeared before the object of his misgivings, like a dog who was conscious of coming direct from the pantry.

‘Good evening, Mr. Bounderby!’

‘Good evening, ma’am, good evening.’ He drew up his chair, and Mrs. Sparsit drew back hers, as who should say, ‘Your fireside, sir. I freely admit it. It is for you to occupy it all, if you think proper.’

‘Don’t go to the North Pole, ma’am!’ said Mr. Bounderby.

‘Thank you, sir,’ said Mrs. Sparsit, and returned, though short of her former position.

Mr. Bounderby sat looking at her, as, with the points of a stiff, sharp pair of scissors, she picked out holes for some inscrutable ornamental purpose, in a piece of cambric. An operation which, taken in connexion with the bushy eyebrows and the Roman nose, suggested with some liveliness the idea of a hawk engaged upon the eyes of a tough little bird. She was so steadfastly occupied, that many minutes elapsed before she looked up from her work; when she did so Mr. Bounderby bespoke her attention with a hitch of his head.

‘Mrs. Sparsit, ma’am,’ said Mr. Bounderby, putting his hands in his pockets, and assuring himself with his right hand that the cork of the little bottle was ready for use, ‘I have no occasion to say to you, that you are not only a lady born and bred, but a devilish sensible woman.’

‘Sir,’ returned the lady, ‘this is indeed not the first time that you have honoured me with similar expressions of your good opinion.’

‘Mrs. Sparsit, ma’am,’ said Mr. Bounderby, ‘I am going to astonish you.’

‘Yes, sir?’ returned Mrs. Sparsit, interrogatively, and in the most tranquil manner possible. She generally wore mittens, and she now laid down her work, and smoothed those mittens.

‘I am going, ma’am,’ said Bounderby, ‘to marry Tom Gradgrind’s daughter.’

‘Yes, sir,’ returned Mrs. Sparsit. ‘I hope you may be happy, Mr. Bounderby. Oh, indeed I hope you may be happy, sir!’ And she said it with such great condescension as well as with such great compassion for him, that Bounderby, — far more disconcerted than if she had thrown her workbox at the mirror, or swooned on the hearthrug, — corked up the smelling-salts tight in his pocket, and thought, ‘Now confound this woman, who could have even guessed that she would take it in this way!’

‘I wish with all my heart, sir,’ said Mrs. Sparsit, in a highly superior manner; somehow she seemed, in a moment, to have established a right to pity him ever afterwards; ‘that you may be in all respects very happy.’

‘Well, ma’am,’ returned Bounderby, with some resentment in his tone: which was clearly lowered, though in spite of himself, ‘I am obliged to you. I hope I shall be.’

‘Do you, sir!’ said Mrs. Sparsit, with great affability. ‘But naturally you do; of course you do.’

A very awkward pause on Mr. Bounderby’s part, succeeded. Mrs. Sparsit sedately resumed her work and occasionally gave a small cough, which sounded like the cough of conscious strength and forbearance.

‘Well, ma’am,’ resumed Bounderby, ‘under these circumstances, I imagine it would not be agreeable to a character like yours to remain here, though you would be very welcome here.’

‘Oh, dear no, sir, I could on no account think of that!’ Mrs. Sparsit shook her head, still in her highly superior manner, and a little changed the small cough — coughing now, as if the spirit of prophecy rose within her, but had better be coughed down.

‘However, ma’am,’ said Bounderby, ‘there are apartments at the Bank, where a born and bred lady, as keeper of the place, would be rather a catch than otherwise; and if the same terms — ’

‘I beg your pardon, sir. You were so good as to promise that you would always substitute the phrase, annual compliment.’

‘Well, ma’am, annual compliment. If the same annual compliment would be acceptable there, why, I see nothing to part us, unless you do.’

‘Sir,’ returned Mrs. Sparsit. ‘The proposal is like yourself, and if the position I shall assume at the Bank is one that I could occupy without descending lower in the social scale — ’

‘Why, of course it is,’ said Bounderby. ‘If it was not, ma’am, you don’t suppose that I should offer it to a lady who has moved in the society you have moved in. Not that I care for such society, you know! But you do.’

‘Mr. Bounderby, you are very considerate.’

‘You’ll have your own private apartments, and you’ll have your coals and your candles, and all the rest of it, and you’ll have your maid to attend upon you, and you’ll have your light porter to protect you, and you’ll be what I take the liberty of considering precious comfortable,’ said Bounderby.

‘Sir,’ rejoined Mrs. Sparsit, ‘say no more. In yielding up my trust here, I shall not be freed from the necessity of eating the bread of dependence:’ she might have said the sweetbread, for that delicate article in a savoury brown sauce was her favourite supper: ‘and I would rather receive it from your hand, than from any other. Therefore, sir, I accept your offer gratefully, and with many sincere acknowledgments for past favours. And I hope, sir,’ said Mrs. Sparsit, concluding in an impressively compassionate manner, ‘I fondly hope that Miss Gradgrind may be all you desire, and deserve!’

Nothing moved Mrs. Sparsit from that position any more. It was in vain for Bounderby to bluster or to assert himself in any of his explosive ways; Mrs. Sparsit was resolved to have compassion on him, as a Victim. She was polite, obliging, cheerful, hopeful; but, the more polite, the more obliging, the more cheerful, the more hopeful, the more exemplary altogether, she; the forlorner Sacrifice and Victim, he. She had that tenderness for his melancholy fate, that his great red countenance used to break out into cold perspirations when she looked at him.

Meanwhile the marriage was appointed to be solemnized in eight weeks’ time, and Mr. Bounderby went every evening to Stone Lodge as an accepted wooer. Love was made on these occasions in the form of bracelets; and, on all occasions during the period of betrothal, took a manufacturing aspect. Dresses were made, jewellery was made, cakes and gloves were made, settlements were made, and an extensive assortment of Facts did appropriate honour to the contract. The business was all Fact, from first to last. The Hours did not go through any of those rosy performances, which foolish poets have ascribed to them at such times; neither did the clocks go any faster, or any slower, than at other seasons. The deadly statistical recorder in the Gradgrind observatory knocked every second on the head as it was born, and buried it with his accustomed regularity.

So the day came, as all other days come to people who will only stick to reason; and when it came, there were married in the church of the florid wooden legs — that popular order of architecture — Josiah Bounderby Esquire of Coketown, to Louisa eldest daughter of Thomas Gradgrind Esquire of Stone Lodge, M.P. for that borough. And when they were united in holy matrimony, they went home to breakfast at Stone Lodge aforesaid.

There was an improving party assembled on the auspicious occasion, who knew what everything they had to eat and drink was made of, and how it was imported or exported, and in what quantities, and in what bottoms, whether native or foreign, and all about it. The bridesmaids, down to little Jane Gradgrind, were, in an intellectual point of view, fit helpmates for the calculating boy; and there was no nonsense about any of the company.

After breakfast, the bridegroom addressed them in the following terms:

‘Ladies and gentlemen, I am Josiah Bounderby of Coketown. Since you have done my wife and myself the honour of drinking our healths and happiness, I suppose I must acknowledge the same; though, as you all know me, and know what I am, and what my extraction was, you won’t expect a speech from a man who, when he sees a Post, says “that’s a Post,” and when he sees a Pump, says “that’s a Pump,” and is not to be got to call a Post a Pump, or a Pump a Post, or either of them a Toothpick. If you want a speech this morning, my friend and father-in-law, Tom Gradgrind, is a Member of Parliament, and you know where to get it. I am not your man. However, if I feel a little independent when I look around this table to-day, and reflect how little I thought of marrying Tom Gradgrind’s daughter when I was a ragged street-boy, who never washed his face unless it was at a pump, and that not oftener than once a fortnight, I hope I may be excused. So, I hope you like my feeling independent; if you don’t, I can’t help it. I do feel independent. Now I have mentioned, and you have mentioned, that I am this day married to Tom Gradgrind’s daughter. I am very glad to be so. It has long been my wish to be so. I have watched her bringing-up, and I believe she is worthy of me. At the same time — not to deceive you — I believe I am worthy of her. So, I thank you, on both our parts, for the good-will you have shown towards us; and the best wish I can give the unmarried part of the present company, is this: I hope every bachelor may find as good a wife as I have found. And I hope every spinster may find as good a husband as my wife has found.’

Shortly after which oration, as they were going on a nuptial trip to Lyons, in order that Mr. Bounderby might take the opportunity of seeing how the Hands got on in those parts, and whether they, too, required to be fed with gold spoons; the happy pair departed for the railroad. The bride, in passing down-stairs, dressed for her journey, found Tom waiting for her — flushed, either with his feelings, or the vinous part of the breakfast.

‘What a game girl you are, to be such a first-rate sister, Loo!’ whispered Tom.

She clung to him as she should have clung to some far better nature that day, and was a little shaken in her reserved composure for the first time.

‘Old Bounderby’s quite ready,’ said Tom. ‘Time’s up. Good-bye! I shall be on the look-out for you, when you come back. I say, my dear Loo! AN’T it uncommonly jolly now!’

End of the First Book

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