Hard Times, by Charles Dickens

Chapter II— Mr. James Harthouse

THE Gradgrind party wanted assistance in cutting the throats of the Graces. They went about recruiting; and where could they enlist recruits more hopefully, than among the fine gentlemen who, having found out everything to be worth nothing, were equally ready for anything?

Moreover, the healthy spirits who had mounted to this sublime height were attractive to many of the Gradgrind school. They liked fine gentlemen; they pretended that they did not, but they did. They became exhausted in imitation of them; and they yaw-yawed in their speech like them; and they served out, with an enervated air, the little mouldy rations of political economy, on which they regaled their disciples. There never before was seen on earth such a wonderful hybrid race as was thus produced.

Among the fine gentlemen not regularly belonging to the Gradgrind school, there was one of a good family and a better appearance, with a happy turn of humour which had told immensely with the House of Commons on the occasion of his entertaining it with his (and the Board of Directors) view of a railway accident, in which the most careful officers ever known, employed by the most liberal managers ever heard of, assisted by the finest mechanical contrivances ever devised, the whole in action on the best line ever constructed, had killed five people and wounded thirty-two, by a casualty without which the excellence of the whole system would have been positively incomplete. Among the slain was a cow, and among the scattered articles unowned, a widow’s cap. And the honourable member had so tickled the House (which has a delicate sense of humour) by putting the cap on the cow, that it became impatient of any serious reference to the Coroner’s Inquest, and brought the railway off with Cheers and Laughter.

Now, this gentleman had a younger brother of still better appearance than himself, who had tried life as a Cornet of Dragoons, and found it a bore; and had afterwards tried it in the train of an English minister abroad, and found it a bore; and had then strolled to Jerusalem, and got bored there; and had then gone yachting about the world, and got bored everywhere. To whom this honourable and jocular, member fraternally said one day, ‘Jem, there’s a good opening among the hard Fact fellows, and they want men. I wonder you don’t go in for statistics.’ Jem, rather taken by the novelty of the idea, and very hard up for a change, was as ready to ‘go in’ for statistics as for anything else. So, he went in. He coached himself up with a blue-book or two; and his brother put it about among the hard Fact fellows, and said, ‘If you want to bring in, for any place, a handsome dog who can make you a devilish good speech, look after my brother Jem, for he’s your man.’ After a few dashes in the public meeting way, Mr. Gradgrind and a council of political sages approved of Jem, and it was resolved to send him down to Coketown, to become known there and in the neighbourhood. Hence the letter Jem had last night shown to Mrs. Sparsit, which Mr. Bounderby now held in his hand; superscribed, ‘Josiah Bounderby, Esquire, Banker, Coketown. Specially to introduce James Harthouse, Esquire. Thomas Gradgrind.’

Within an hour of the receipt of this dispatch and Mr. James Harthouse’s card, Mr. Bounderby put on his hat and went down to the Hotel. There he found Mr. James Harthouse looking out of window, in a state of mind so disconsolate, that he was already half-disposed to ‘go in’ for something else.

‘My name, sir,’ said his visitor, ‘is Josiah Bounderby, of Coketown.’

Mr. James Harthouse was very happy indeed (though he scarcely looked so) to have a pleasure he had long expected.

‘Coketown, sir,’ said Bounderby, obstinately taking a chair, ‘is not the kind of place you have been accustomed to. Therefore, if you will allow me — or whether you will or not, for I am a plain man — I’ll tell you something about it before we go any further.’

Mr. Harthouse would be charmed.

‘Don’t be too sure of that,’ said Bounderby. ‘I don’t promise it. First of all, you see our smoke. That’s meat and drink to us. It’s the healthiest thing in the world in all respects, and particularly for the lungs. If you are one of those who want us to consume it, I differ from you. We are not going to wear the bottoms of our boilers out any faster than we wear ’em out now, for all the humbugging sentiment in Great Britain and Ireland.’

By way of ‘going in’ to the fullest extent, Mr. Harthouse rejoined, ‘Mr. Bounderby, I assure you I am entirely and completely of your way of thinking. On conviction.’

‘I am glad to hear it,’ said Bounderby. ‘Now, you have heard a lot of talk about the work in our mills, no doubt. You have? Very good. I’ll state the fact of it to you. It’s the pleasantest work there is, and it’s the lightest work there is, and it’s the best-paid work there is. More than that, we couldn’t improve the mills themselves, unless we laid down Turkey carpets on the floors. Which we’re not a-going to do.’

‘Mr. Bounderby, perfectly right.’

‘Lastly,’ said Bounderby, ‘as to our Hands. There’s not a Hand in this town, sir, man, woman, or child, but has one ultimate object in life. That object is, to be fed on turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon. Now, they’re not a-going — none of ’em — ever to be fed on turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon. And now you know the place.’

Mr. Harthouse professed himself in the highest degree instructed and refreshed, by this condensed epitome of the whole Coketown question.

‘Why, you see,’ replied Mr. Bounderby, ‘it suits my disposition to have a full understanding with a man, particularly with a public man, when I make his acquaintance. I have only one thing more to say to you, Mr. Harthouse, before assuring you of the pleasure with which I shall respond, to the utmost of my poor ability, to my friend Tom Gradgrind’s letter of introduction. You are a man of family. Don’t you deceive yourself by supposing for a moment that I am a man of family. I am a bit of dirty riff-raff, and a genuine scrap of tag, rag, and bobtail.’

If anything could have exalted Jem’s interest in Mr. Bounderby, it would have been this very circumstance. Or, so he told him.

‘So now,’ said Bounderby, ‘we may shake hands on equal terms. I say, equal terms, because although I know what I am, and the exact depth of the gutter I have lifted myself out of, better than any man does, I am as proud as you are. I am just as proud as you are. Having now asserted my independence in a proper manner, I may come to how do you find yourself, and I hope you’re pretty well.’

The better, Mr. Harthouse gave him to understand as they shook hands, for the salubrious air of Coketown. Mr. Bounderby received the answer with favour.

‘Perhaps you know,’ said he, ‘or perhaps you don’t know, I married Tom Gradgrind’s daughter. If you have nothing better to do than to walk up town with me, I shall be glad to introduce you to Tom Gradgrind’s daughter.’

‘Mr. Bounderby,’ said Jem, ‘you anticipate my dearest wishes.’

They went out without further discourse; and Mr. Bounderby piloted the new acquaintance who so strongly contrasted with him, to the private red brick dwelling, with the black outside shutters, the green inside blinds, and the black street door up the two white steps. In the drawing-room of which mansion, there presently entered to them the most remarkable girl Mr. James Harthouse had ever seen. She was so constrained, and yet so careless; so reserved, and yet so watchful; so cold and proud, and yet so sensitively ashamed of her husband’s braggart humility — from which she shrunk as if every example of it were a cut or a blow; that it was quite a new sensation to observe her. In face she was no less remarkable than in manner. Her features were handsome; but their natural play was so locked up, that it seemed impossible to guess at their genuine expression. Utterly indifferent, perfectly self-reliant, never at a loss, and yet never at her ease, with her figure in company with them there, and her mind apparently quite alone — it was of no use ‘going in’ yet awhile to comprehend this girl, for she baffled all penetration.

From the mistress of the house, the visitor glanced to the house itself. There was no mute sign of a woman in the room. No graceful little adornment, no fanciful little device, however trivial, anywhere expressed her influence. Cheerless and comfortless, boastfully and doggedly rich, there the room stared at its present occupants, unsoftened and unrelieved by the least trace of any womanly occupation. As Mr. Bounderby stood in the midst of his household gods, so those unrelenting divinities occupied their places around Mr. Bounderby, and they were worthy of one another, and well matched.

‘This, sir,’ said Bounderby, ‘is my wife, Mrs. Bounderby: Tom Gradgrind’s eldest daughter. Loo, Mr. James Harthouse. Mr. Harthouse has joined your father’s muster-roll. If he is not Torn Gradgrind’s colleague before long, I believe we shall at least hear of him in connexion with one of our neighbouring towns. You observe, Mr. Harthouse, that my wife is my junior. I don’t know what she saw in me to marry me, but she saw something in me, I suppose, or she wouldn’t have married me. She has lots of expensive knowledge, sir, political and otherwise. If you want to cram for anything, I should be troubled to recommend you to a better adviser than Loo Bounderby.’

To a more agreeable adviser, or one from whom he would be more likely to learn, Mr. Harthouse could never be recommended.

‘Come!’ said his host. ‘If you’re in the complimentary line, you’ll get on here, for you’ll meet with no competition. I have never been in the way of learning compliments myself, and I don’t profess to understand the art of paying ’em. In fact, despise ’em. But, your bringing-up was different from mine; mine was a real thing, by George! You’re a gentleman, and I don’t pretend to be one. I am Josiah Bounderby of Coketown, and that’s enough for me. However, though I am not influenced by manners and station, Loo Bounderby may be. She hadn’t my advantages — disadvantages you would call ’em, but I call ’em advantages — so you’ll not waste your power, I dare say.’

‘Mr. Bounderby,’ said Jem, turning with a smile to Louisa, ‘is a noble animal in a comparatively natural state, quite free from the harness in which a conventional hack like myself works.’

‘You respect Mr. Bounderby very much,’ she quietly returned. ‘It is natural that you should.’

He was disgracefully thrown out, for a gentleman who had seen so much of the world, and thought, ‘Now, how am I to take this?’

‘You are going to devote yourself, as I gather from what Mr. Bounderby has said, to the service of your country. You have made up your mind,’ said Louisa, still standing before him where she had first stopped — in all the singular contrariety of her self-possession, and her being obviously very ill at ease — ‘to show the nation the way out of all its difficulties.’

‘Mrs. Bounderby,’ he returned, laughing, ‘upon my honour, no. I will make no such pretence to you. I have seen a little, here and there, up and down; I have found it all to be very worthless, as everybody has, and as some confess they have, and some do not; and I am going in for your respected father’s opinions — really because I have no choice of opinions, and may as well back them as anything else.’

‘Have you none of your own?’ asked Louisa.

‘I have not so much as the slightest predilection left. I assure you I attach not the least importance to any opinions. The result of the varieties of boredom I have undergone, is a conviction (unless conviction is too industrious a word for the lazy sentiment I entertain on the subject), that any set of ideas will do just as much good as any other set, and just as much harm as any other set. There’s an English family with a charming Italian motto. What will be, will be. It’s the only truth going!’

This vicious assumption of honesty in dishonesty — a vice so dangerous, so deadly, and so common — seemed, he observed, a little to impress her in his favour. He followed up the advantage, by saying in his pleasantest manner: a manner to which she might attach as much or as little meaning as she pleased: ‘The side that can prove anything in a line of units, tens, hundreds, and thousands, Mrs. Bounderby, seems to me to afford the most fun, and to give a man the best chance. I am quite as much attached to it as if I believed it. I am quite ready to go in for it, to the same extent as if I believed it. And what more could I possibly do, if I did believe it!’

‘You are a singular politician,’ said Louisa.

‘Pardon me; I have not even that merit. We are the largest party in the state, I assure you, Mrs. Bounderby, if we all fell out of our adopted ranks and were reviewed together.’

Mr. Bounderby, who had been in danger of bursting in silence, interposed here with a project for postponing the family dinner till half-past six, and taking Mr. James Harthouse in the meantime on a round of visits to the voting and interesting notabilities of Coketown and its vicinity. The round of visits was made; and Mr. James Harthouse, with a discreet use of his blue coaching, came off triumphantly, though with a considerable accession of boredom.

In the evening, he found the dinner-table laid for four, but they sat down only three. It was an appropriate occasion for Mr. Bounderby to discuss the flavour of the hap’orth of stewed eels he had purchased in the streets at eight years old; and also of the inferior water, specially used for laying the dust, with which he had washed down that repast. He likewise entertained his guest over the soup and fish, with the calculation that he (Bounderby) had eaten in his youth at least three horses under the guise of polonies and saveloys. These recitals, Jem, in a languid manner, received with ‘charming!’ every now and then; and they probably would have decided him to ‘go in’ for Jerusalem again to-morrow morning, had he been less curious respecting Louisa.

‘Is there nothing,’ he thought, glancing at her as she sat at the head of the table, where her youthful figure, small and slight, but very graceful, looked as pretty as it looked misplaced; ‘is there nothing that will move that face?’

Yes! By Jupiter, there was something, and here it was, in an unexpected shape. Tom appeared. She changed as the door opened, and broke into a beaming smile.

A beautiful smile. Mr. James Harthouse might not have thought so much of it, but that he had wondered so long at her impassive face. She put out her hand — a pretty little soft hand; and her fingers closed upon her brother’s, as if she would have carried them to her lips.

‘Ay, ay?’ thought the visitor. ‘This whelp is the only creature she cares for. So, so!’

The whelp was presented, and took his chair. The appellation was not flattering, but not unmerited.

‘When I was your age, young Tom,’ said Bounderby, ‘I was punctual, or I got no dinner!’

‘When you were my age,’ resumed Tom, ‘you hadn’t a wrong balance to get right, and hadn’t to dress afterwards.’

‘Never mind that now,’ said Bounderby.

‘Well, then,’ grumbled Tom. ‘Don’t begin with me.’

‘Mrs. Bounderby,’ said Harthouse, perfectly hearing this under-strain as it went on; ‘your brother’s face is quite familiar to me. Can I have seen him abroad? Or at some public school, perhaps?’

‘No,’ she resumed, quite interested, ‘he has never been abroad yet, and was educated here, at home. Tom, love, I am telling Mr. Harthouse that he never saw you abroad.’

‘No such luck, sir,’ said Tom.

There was little enough in him to brighten her face, for he was a sullen young fellow, and ungracious in his manner even to her. So much the greater must have been the solitude of her heart, and her need of some one on whom to bestow it. ‘So much the more is this whelp the only creature she has ever cared for,’ thought Mr. James Harthouse, turning it over and over. ‘So much the more. So much the more.’

Both in his sister’s presence, and after she had left the room, the whelp took no pains to hide his contempt for Mr. Bounderby, whenever he could indulge it without the observation of that independent man, by making wry faces, or shutting one eye. Without responding to these telegraphic communications, Mr. Harthouse encouraged him much in the course of the evening, and showed an unusual liking for him. At last, when he rose to return to his hotel, and was a little doubtful whether he knew the way by night, the whelp immediately proffered his services as guide, and turned out with him to escort him thither.

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