Hard Times, by Charles Dickens

Chapter IV— Men and Brothers

‘OH, my friends, the down-trodden operatives of Coketown! Oh, my friends and fellow-countrymen, the slaves of an iron-handed and a grinding despotism! Oh, my friends and fellow-sufferers, and fellow-workmen, and fellow-men! I tell you that the hour is come, when we must rally round one another as One united power, and crumble into dust the oppressors that too long have battened upon the plunder of our families, upon the sweat of our brows, upon the labour of our hands, upon the strength of our sinews, upon the God-created glorious rights of Humanity, and upon the holy and eternal privileges of Brotherhood!’

‘Good!’ ‘Hear, hear, hear!’ ‘Hurrah!’ and other cries, arose in many voices from various parts of the densely crowded and suffocatingly close Hall, in which the orator, perched on a stage, delivered himself of this and what other froth and fume he had in him. He had declaimed himself into a violent heat, and was as hoarse as he was hot. By dint of roaring at the top of his voice under a flaring gaslight, clenching his fists, knitting his brows, setting his teeth, and pounding with his arms, he had taken so much out of himself by this time, that he was brought to a stop, and called for a glass of water.

As he stood there, trying to quench his fiery face with his drink of water, the comparison between the orator and the crowd of attentive faces turned towards him, was extremely to his disadvantage. Judging him by Nature’s evidence, he was above the mass in very little but the stage on which he stood. In many great respects he was essentially below them. He was not so honest, he was not so manly, he was not so good-humoured; he substituted cunning for their simplicity, and passion for their safe solid sense. An ill-made, high-shouldered man, with lowering brows, and his features crushed into an habitually sour expression, he contrasted most unfavourably, even in his mongrel dress, with the great body of his hearers in their plain working clothes. Strange as it always is to consider any assembly in the act of submissively resigning itself to the dreariness of some complacent person, lord or commoner, whom three-fourths of it could, by no human means, raise out of the slough of inanity to their own intellectual level, it was particularly strange, and it was even particularly affecting, to see this crowd of earnest faces, whose honesty in the main no competent observer free from bias could doubt, so agitated by such a leader.

Good! Hear, hear! Hurrah! The eagerness both of attention and intention, exhibited in all the countenances, made them a most impressive sight. There was no carelessness, no languor, no idle curiosity; none of the many shades of indifference to be seen in all other assemblies, visible for one moment there. That every man felt his condition to be, somehow or other, worse than it might be; that every man considered it incumbent on him to join the rest, towards the making of it better; that every man felt his only hope to be in his allying himself to the comrades by whom he was surrounded; and that in this belief, right or wrong (unhappily wrong then), the whole of that crowd were gravely, deeply, faithfully in earnest; must have been as plain to any one who chose to see what was there, as the bare beams of the roof and the whitened brick walls. Nor could any such spectator fail to know in his own breast, that these men, through their very delusions, showed great qualities, susceptible of being turned to the happiest and best account; and that to pretend (on the strength of sweeping axioms, howsoever cut and dried) that they went astray wholly without cause, and of their own irrational wills, was to pretend that there could be smoke without fire, death without birth, harvest without seed, anything or everything produced from nothing.

The orator having refreshed himself, wiped his corrugated forehead from left to right several times with his handkerchief folded into a pad, and concentrated all his revived forces, in a sneer of great disdain and bitterness.

‘But oh, my friends and brothers! Oh, men and Englishmen, the down-trodden operatives of Coketown! What shall we say of that man — that working-man, that I should find it necessary so to libel the glorious name — who, being practically and well acquainted with the grievances and wrongs of you, the injured pith and marrow of this land, and having heard you, with a noble and majestic unanimity that will make Tyrants tremble, resolve for to subscribe to the funds of the United Aggregate Tribunal, and to abide by the injunctions issued by that body for your benefit, whatever they may be — what, I ask you, will you say of that working-man, since such I must acknowledge him to be, who, at such a time, deserts his post, and sells his flag; who, at such a time, turns a traitor and a craven and a recreant, who, at such a time, is not ashamed to make to you the dastardly and humiliating avowal that he will hold himself aloof, and will not be one of those associated in the gallant stand for Freedom and for Right?’

The assembly was divided at this point. There were some groans and hisses, but the general sense of honour was much too strong for the condemnation of a man unheard. ‘Be sure you’re right, Slackbridge!’ ‘Put him up!’ ‘Let’s hear him!’ Such things were said on many sides. Finally, one strong voice called out, ‘Is the man heer? If the man’s heer, Slackbridge, let’s hear the man himseln, ‘stead o’ yo.’ Which was received with a round of applause.

Slackbridge, the orator, looked about him with a withering smile; and, holding out his right hand at arm’s length (as the manner of all Slackbridges is), to still the thundering sea, waited until there was a profound silence.

‘Oh, my friends and fellow-men!’ said Slackbridge then, shaking his head with violent scorn, ‘I do not wonder that you, the prostrate sons of labour, are incredulous of the existence of such a man. But he who sold his birthright for a mess of pottage existed, and Judas Iscariot existed, and Castlereagh existed, and this man exists!’

Here, a brief press and confusion near the stage, ended in the man himself standing at the orator’s side before the concourse. He was pale and a little moved in the face — his lips especially showed it; but he stood quiet, with his left hand at his chin, waiting to be heard. There was a chairman to regulate the proceedings, and this functionary now took the case into his own hands.

‘My friends,’ said he, ‘by virtue o’ my office as your president, I askes o’ our friend Slackbridge, who may be a little over hetter in this business, to take his seat, whiles this man Stephen Blackpool is heern. You all know this man Stephen Blackpool. You know him awlung o’ his misfort’ns, and his good name.’

With that, the chairman shook him frankly by the hand, and sat down again. Slackbridge likewise sat down, wiping his hot forehead — always from left to right, and never the reverse way.

‘My friends,’ Stephen began, in the midst of a dead calm; ‘I ha’ hed what’s been spok’n o’ me, and ’tis lickly that I shan’t mend it. But I’d liefer you’d hearn the truth concernin myseln, fro my lips than fro onny other man’s, though I never cud’n speak afore so monny, wi’out bein moydert and muddled.’

Slackbridge shook his head as if he would shake it off, in his bitterness.

‘I’m th’ one single Hand in Bounderby’s mill, o’ a’ the men theer, as don’t coom in wi’ th’ proposed reg’lations. I canna coom in wi’ ’em. My friends, I doubt their doin’ yo onny good. Licker they’ll do yo hurt.’

Slackbridge laughed, folded his arms, and frowned sarcastically.

‘But ‘t an’t sommuch for that as I stands out. If that were aw, I’d coom in wi’ th’ rest. But I ha’ my reasons — mine, yo see — for being hindered; not on’y now, but awlus — awlus — life long!’

Slackbridge jumped up and stood beside him, gnashing and tearing. ‘Oh, my friends, what but this did I tell you? Oh, my fellow-countrymen, what warning but this did I give you? And how shows this recreant conduct in a man on whom unequal laws are known to have fallen heavy? Oh, you Englishmen, I ask you how does this subornation show in one of yourselves, who is thus consenting to his own undoing and to yours, and to your children’s and your children’s children’s?’

There was some applause, and some crying of Shame upon the man; but the greater part of the audience were quiet. They looked at Stephen’s worn face, rendered more pathetic by the homely emotions it evinced; and, in the kindness of their nature, they were more sorry than indignant.

‘’Tis this Delegate’s trade for t’ speak,’ said Stephen, ‘an’ he’s paid for ‘t, an’ he knows his work. Let him keep to ‘t. Let him give no heed to what I ha had’n to bear. That’s not for him. That’s not for nobbody but me.’

There was a propriety, not to say a dignity in these words, that made the hearers yet more quiet and attentive. The same strong voice called out, ‘Slackbridge, let the man be heern, and howd thee tongue!’ Then the place was wonderfully still.

‘My brothers,’ said Stephen, whose low voice was distinctly heard, ‘and my fellow-workmen — for that yo are to me, though not, as I knows on, to this delegate here — I ha but a word to sen, and I could sen nommore if I was to speak till Strike o’ day. I know weel, aw what’s afore me. I know weel that yo aw resolve to ha nommore ado wi’ a man who is not wi’ yo in this matther. I know weel that if I was a lyin parisht i’ th’ road, yo’d feel it right to pass me by, as a forrenner and stranger. What I ha getn, I mun mak th’ best on.’

‘Stephen Blackpool,’ said the chairman, rising, ‘think on ‘t agen. Think on ‘t once agen, lad, afore thou’rt shunned by aw owd friends.’

There was an universal murmur to the same effect, though no man articulated a word. Every eye was fixed on Stephen’s face. To repent of his determination, would be to take a load from all their minds. He looked around him, and knew that it was so. Not a grain of anger with them was in his heart; he knew them, far below their surface weaknesses and misconceptions, as no one but their fellow-labourer could.

‘I ha thowt on ‘t, above a bit, sir. I simply canna coom in. I mun go th’ way as lays afore me. I mun tak my leave o’ aw heer.’

He made a sort of reverence to them by holding up his arms, and stood for the moment in that attitude; not speaking until they slowly dropped at his sides.

‘Monny’s the pleasant word as soom heer has spok’n wi’ me; monny’s the face I see heer, as I first seen when I were yoong and lighter heart’n than now. I ha’ never had no fratch afore, sin ever I were born, wi’ any o’ my like; Gonnows I ha’ none now that’s o’ my makin’. Yo’ll ca’ me traitor and that — yo I mean t’ say,’ addressing Slackbridge, ‘but ’tis easier to ca’ than mak’ out. So let be.’

He had moved away a pace or two to come down from the platform, when he remembered something he had not said, and returned again.

‘Haply,’ he said, turning his furrowed face slowly about, that he might as it were individually address the whole audience, those both near and distant; ‘haply, when this question has been tak’n up and discoosed, there’ll be a threat to turn out if I’m let to work among yo. I hope I shall die ere ever such a time cooms, and I shall work solitary among yo unless it cooms — truly, I mun do ‘t, my friends; not to brave yo, but to live. I ha nobbut work to live by; and wheerever can I go, I who ha worked sin I were no heighth at aw, in Coketown heer? I mak’ no complaints o’ bein turned to the wa’, o’ bein outcasten and overlooken fro this time forrard, but hope I shall be let to work. If there is any right for me at aw, my friends, I think ’tis that.’

Not a word was spoken. Not a sound was audible in the building, but the slight rustle of men moving a little apart, all along the centre of the room, to open a means of passing out, to the man with whom they had all bound themselves to renounce companionship. Looking at no one, and going his way with a lowly steadiness upon him that asserted nothing and sought nothing, Old Stephen, with all his troubles on his head, left the scene.

Then Slackbridge, who had kept his oratorical arm extended during the going out, as if he were repressing with infinite solicitude and by a wonderful moral power the vehement passions of the multitude, applied himself to raising their spirits. Had not the Roman Brutus, oh, my British countrymen, condemned his son to death; and had not the Spartan mothers, oh my soon to be victorious friends, driven their flying children on the points of their enemies’ swords? Then was it not the sacred duty of the men of Coketown, with forefathers before them, an admiring world in company with them, and a posterity to come after them, to hurl out traitors from the tents they had pitched in a sacred and a God-like cause? The winds of heaven answered Yes; and bore Yes, east, west, north, and south. And consequently three cheers for the United Aggregate Tribunal!

Slackbridge acted as fugleman, and gave the time. The multitude of doubtful faces (a little conscience-stricken) brightened at the sound, and took it up. Private feeling must yield to the common cause. Hurrah! The roof yet vibrated with the cheering, when the assembly dispersed.

Thus easily did Stephen Blackpool fall into the loneliest of lives, the life of solitude among a familiar crowd. The stranger in the land who looks into ten thousand faces for some answering look and never finds it, is in cheering society as compared with him who passes ten averted faces daily, that were once the countenances of friends. Such experience was to be Stephen’s now, in every waking moment of his life; at his work, on his way to it and from it, at his door, at his window, everywhere. By general consent, they even avoided that side of the street on which he habitually walked; and left it, of all the working men, to him only.

He had been for many years, a quiet silent man, associating but little with other men, and used to companionship with his own thoughts. He had never known before the strength of the want in his heart for the frequent recognition of a nod, a look, a word; or the immense amount of relief that had been poured into it by drops through such small means. It was even harder than he could have believed possible, to separate in his own conscience his abandonment by all his fellows from a baseless sense of shame and disgrace.

The first four days of his endurance were days so long and heavy, that he began to be appalled by the prospect before him. Not only did he see no Rachael all the time, but he avoided every chance of seeing her; for, although he knew that the prohibition did not yet formally extend to the women working in the factories, he found that some of them with whom he was acquainted were changed to him, and he feared to try others, and dreaded that Rachael might be even singled out from the rest if she were seen in his company. So, he had been quite alone during the four days, and had spoken to no one, when, as he was leaving his work at night, a young man of a very light complexion accosted him in the street.

‘Your name’s Blackpool, ain’t it?’ said the young man.

Stephen coloured to find himself with his hat in his hand, in his gratitude for being spoken to, or in the suddenness of it, or both. He made a feint of adjusting the lining, and said, ‘Yes.’

‘You are the Hand they have sent to Coventry, I mean?’ said Bitzer, the very light young man in question.

Stephen answered ‘Yes,’ again.

‘I supposed so, from their all appearing to keep away from you. Mr. Bounderby wants to speak to you. You know his house, don’t you?’

Stephen said ‘Yes,’ again.

‘Then go straight up there, will you?’ said Bitzer. ‘You’re expected, and have only to tell the servant it’s you. I belong to the Bank; so, if you go straight up without me (I was sent to fetch you), you’ll save me a walk.’

Stephen, whose way had been in the contrary direction, turned about, and betook himself as in duty bound, to the red brick castle of the giant Bounderby.

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