Hard Times, by Charles Dickens

Chapter V— Men and Masters

‘WELL, Stephen,’ said Bounderby, in his windy manner, ‘what’s this I hear? What have these pests of the earth been doing to you? Come in, and speak up.’

It was into the drawing-room that he was thus bidden. A tea-table was set out; and Mr. Bounderby’s young wife, and her brother, and a great gentleman from London, were present. To whom Stephen made his obeisance, closing the door and standing near it, with his hat in his hand.

‘This is the man I was telling you about, Harthouse,’ said Mr. Bounderby. The gentleman he addressed, who was talking to Mrs. Bounderby on the sofa, got up, saying in an indolent way, ‘Oh really?’ and dawdled to the hearthrug where Mr. Bounderby stood.

‘Now,’ said Bounderby, ‘speak up!’

After the four days he had passed, this address fell rudely and discordantly on Stephen’s ear. Besides being a rough handling of his wounded mind, it seemed to assume that he really was the self-interested deserter he had been called.

‘What were it, sir,’ said Stephen, ‘as yo were pleased to want wi’ me?’

‘Why, I have told you,’ returned Bounderby. ‘Speak up like a man, since you are a man, and tell us about yourself and this Combination.’

‘Wi’ yor pardon, sir,’ said Stephen Blackpool, ‘I ha’ nowt to sen about it.’

Mr. Bounderby, who was always more or less like a Wind, finding something in his way here, began to blow at it directly.

‘Now, look here, Harthouse,’ said he, ‘here’s a specimen of ’em. When this man was here once before, I warned this man against the mischievous strangers who are always about — and who ought to be hanged wherever they are found — and I told this man that he was going in the wrong direction. Now, would you believe it, that although they have put this mark upon him, he is such a slave to them still, that he’s afraid to open his lips about them?’

‘I sed as I had nowt to sen, sir; not as I was fearfo’ o’ openin’ my lips.’

‘You said! Ah! I know what you said; more than that, I know what you mean, you see. Not always the same thing, by the Lord Harry! Quite different things. You had better tell us at once, that that fellow Slackbridge is not in the town, stirring up the people to mutiny; and that he is not a regular qualified leader of the people: that is, a most confounded scoundrel. You had better tell us so at once; you can’t deceive me. You want to tell us so. Why don’t you?’

‘I’m as sooary as yo, sir, when the people’s leaders is bad,’ said Stephen, shaking his head. ‘They taks such as offers. Haply ’tis na’ the sma’est o’ their misfortuns when they can get no better.’

The wind began to get boisterous.

‘Now, you’ll think this pretty well, Harthouse,’ said Mr. Bounderby. ‘You’ll think this tolerably strong. You’ll say, upon my soul this is a tidy specimen of what my friends have to deal with; but this is nothing, sir! You shall hear me ask this man a question. Pray, Mr. Blackpool’ — wind springing up very fast — ‘may I take the liberty of asking you how it happens that you refused to be in this Combination?’

‘How ‘t happens?’

‘Ah!’ said Mr. Bounderby, with his thumbs in the arms of his coat, and jerking his head and shutting his eyes in confidence with the opposite wall: ‘how it happens.’

‘I’d leefer not coom to ‘t, sir; but sin you put th’ question — an’ not want’n t’ be ill-manner’n — I’ll answer. I ha passed a promess.’

‘Not to me, you know,’ said Bounderby. (Gusty weather with deceitful calms. One now prevailing.)

‘O no, sir. Not to yo.’

‘As for me, any consideration for me has had just nothing at all to do with it,’ said Bounderby, still in confidence with the wall. ‘If only Josiah Bounderby of Coketown had been in question, you would have joined and made no bones about it?’

‘Why yes, sir. ’Tis true.’

‘Though he knows,’ said Mr. Bounderby, now blowing a gale, ‘that there are a set of rascals and rebels whom transportation is too good for! Now, Mr. Harthouse, you have been knocking about in the world some time. Did you ever meet with anything like that man out of this blessed country?’ And Mr. Bounderby pointed him out for inspection, with an angry finger.

‘Nay, ma’am,’ said Stephen Blackpool, staunchly protesting against the words that had been used, and instinctively addressing himself to Louisa, after glancing at her face. ‘Not rebels, nor yet rascals. Nowt o’ th’ kind, ma’am, nowt o’ th’ kind. They’ve not doon me a kindness, ma’am, as I know and feel. But there’s not a dozen men amoong ’em, ma’am — a dozen? Not six — but what believes as he has doon his duty by the rest and by himseln. God forbid as I, that ha’ known, and had’n experience o’ these men aw my life — I, that ha’ ett’n an’ droonken wi’ ’em, an’ seet’n wi’ ’em, and toil’n wi’ ’em, and lov’n ’em, should fail fur to stan by ’em wi’ the truth, let ’em ha’ doon to me what they may!’

He spoke with the rugged earnestness of his place and character — deepened perhaps by a proud consciousness that he was faithful to his class under all their mistrust; but he fully remembered where he was, and did not even raise his voice.

‘No, ma’am, no. They’re true to one another, faithfo’ to one another, ‘fectionate to one another, e’en to death. Be poor amoong ’em, be sick amoong ’em, grieve amoong ’em for onny o’ th’ monny causes that carries grief to the poor man’s door, an’ they’ll be tender wi’ yo, gentle wi’ yo, comfortable wi’ yo, Chrisen wi’ yo. Be sure o’ that, ma’am. They’d be riven to bits, ere ever they’d be different.’

‘In short,’ said Mr. Bounderby, ‘it’s because they are so full of virtues that they have turned you adrift. Go through with it while you are about it. Out with it.’

‘How ’tis, ma’am,’ resumed Stephen, appearing still to find his natural refuge in Louisa’s face, ‘that what is best in us fok, seems to turn us most to trouble an’ misfort’n an’ mistake, I dunno. But ’tis so. I know ’tis, as I know the heavens is over me ahint the smoke. We’re patient too, an’ wants in general to do right. An’ I canna think the fawt is aw wi’ us.’

‘Now, my friend,’ said Mr. Bounderby, whom he could not have exasperated more, quite unconscious of it though he was, than by seeming to appeal to any one else, ‘if you will favour me with your attention for half a minute, I should like to have a word or two with you. You said just now, that you had nothing to tell us about this business. You are quite sure of that before we go any further.’

‘Sir, I am sure on ‘t.’

‘Here’s a gentleman from London present,’ Mr. Bounderby made a backhanded point at Mr. James Harthouse with his thumb, ‘a Parliament gentleman. I should like him to hear a short bit of dialogue between you and me, instead of taking the substance of it — for I know precious well, beforehand, what it will be; nobody knows better than I do, take notice! — instead of receiving it on trust from my mouth.’

Stephen bent his head to the gentleman from London, and showed a rather more troubled mind than usual. He turned his eyes involuntarily to his former refuge, but at a look from that quarter (expressive though instantaneous) he settled them on Mr. Bounderby’s face.

‘Now, what do you complain of?’ asked Mr. Bounderby.

‘I ha’ not coom here, sir,’ Stephen reminded him, ‘to complain. I coom for that I were sent for.’

‘What,’ repeated Mr. Bounderby, folding his arms, ‘do you people, in a general way, complain of?’

Stephen looked at him with some little irresolution for a moment, and then seemed to make up his mind.

‘Sir, I were never good at showin o ‘t, though I ha had’n my share in feeling o ‘t. ‘Deed we are in a muddle, sir. Look round town — so rich as ’tis — and see the numbers o’ people as has been broughten into bein heer, fur to weave, an’ to card, an’ to piece out a livin’, aw the same one way, somehows, ‘twixt their cradles and their graves. Look how we live, an’ wheer we live, an’ in what numbers, an’ by what chances, and wi’ what sameness; and look how the mills is awlus a goin, and how they never works us no nigher to ony dis’ant object — ceptin awlus, Death. Look how you considers of us, and writes of us, and talks of us, and goes up wi’ yor deputations to Secretaries o’ State ‘bout us, and how yo are awlus right, and how we are awlus wrong, and never had’n no reason in us sin ever we were born. Look how this ha growen an’ growen, sir, bigger an’ bigger, broader an’ broader, harder an’ harder, fro year to year, fro generation unto generation. Who can look on ‘t, sir, and fairly tell a man ’tis not a muddle?’

‘Of course,’ said Mr. Bounderby. ‘Now perhaps you’ll let the gentleman know, how you would set this muddle (as you’re so fond of calling it) to rights.’

‘I donno, sir. I canna be expecten to ‘t. ’Tis not me as should be looken to for that, sir. ’Tis them as is put ower me, and ower aw the rest of us. What do they tak upon themseln, sir, if not to do’t?’

‘I’ll tell you something towards it, at any rate,’ returned Mr. Bounderby. ‘We will make an example of half a dozen Slackbridges. We’ll indict the blackguards for felony, and get ’em shipped off to penal settlements.’

Stephen gravely shook his head.

‘Don’t tell me we won’t, man,’ said Mr. Bounderby, by this time blowing a hurricane, ‘because we will, I tell you!’

‘Sir,’ returned Stephen, with the quiet confidence of absolute certainty, ‘if yo was t’ tak a hundred Slackbridges — aw as there is, and aw the number ten times towd — an’ was t’ sew ’em up in separate sacks, an’ sink ’em in the deepest ocean as were made ere ever dry land coom to be, yo’d leave the muddle just wheer ’tis. Mischeevous strangers!’ said Stephen, with an anxious smile; ‘when ha we not heern, I am sure, sin ever we can call to mind, o’ th’ mischeevous strangers! ’Tis not by them the trouble’s made, sir. ’Tis not wi’ them ‘t commences. I ha no favour for ’em — I ha no reason to favour ’em — but ’tis hopeless and useless to dream o’ takin them fro their trade, ‘stead o’ takin their trade fro them! Aw that’s now about me in this room were heer afore I coom, an’ will be heer when I am gone. Put that clock aboard a ship an’ pack it off to Norfolk Island, an’ the time will go on just the same. So ’tis wi’ Slackbridge every bit.’

Reverting for a moment to his former refuge, he observed a cautionary movement of her eyes towards the door. Stepping back, he put his hand upon the lock. But he had not spoken out of his own will and desire; and he felt it in his heart a noble return for his late injurious treatment to be faithful to the last to those who had repudiated him. He stayed to finish what was in his mind.

‘Sir, I canna, wi’ my little learning an’ my common way, tell the genelman what will better aw this — though some working men o’ this town could, above my powers — but I can tell him what I know will never do ‘t. The strong hand will never do ‘t. Vict’ry and triumph will never do ‘t. Agreeing fur to mak one side unnat’rally awlus and for ever right, and toother side unnat’rally awlus and for ever wrong, will never, never do ‘t. Nor yet lettin alone will never do ‘t. Let thousands upon thousands alone, aw leading the like lives and aw faw’en into the like muddle, and they will be as one, and yo will be as anoother, wi’ a black unpassable world betwixt yo, just as long or short a time as sich-like misery can last. Not drawin nigh to fok, wi’ kindness and patience an’ cheery ways, that so draws nigh to one another in their monny troubles, and so cherishes one another in their distresses wi’ what they need themseln — like, I humbly believe, as no people the genelman ha seen in aw his travels can beat — will never do ‘t till th’ Sun turns t’ ice. Most o’ aw, rating ’em as so much Power, and reg’latin ’em as if they was figures in a soom, or machines: wi’out loves and likens, wi’out memories and inclinations, wi’out souls to weary and souls to hope — when aw goes quiet, draggin on wi’ ’em as if they’d nowt o’ th’ kind, and when aw goes onquiet, reproachin ’em for their want o’ sitch humanly feelins in their dealins wi’ yo — this will never do ‘t, sir, till God’s work is onmade.’

Stephen stood with the open door in his hand, waiting to know if anything more were expected of him.

‘Just stop a moment,’ said Mr. Bounderby, excessively red in the face. ‘I told you, the last time you were here with a grievance, that you had better turn about and come out of that. And I also told you, if you remember, that I was up to the gold spoon look-out.’

‘I were not up to ‘t myseln, sir; I do assure yo.’

‘Now it’s clear to me,’ said Mr. Bounderby, ‘that you are one of those chaps who have always got a grievance. And you go about, sowing it and raising crops. That’s the business of your life, my friend.’

Stephen shook his head, mutely protesting that indeed he had other business to do for his life.

‘You are such a waspish, raspish, ill-conditioned chap, you see,’ said Mr. Bounderby, ‘that even your own Union, the men who know you best, will have nothing to do with you. I never thought those fellows could be right in anything; but I tell you what! I so far go along with them for a novelty, that I’ll have nothing to do with you either.’

Stephen raised his eyes quickly to his face.

‘You can finish off what you’re at,’ said Mr. Bounderby, with a meaning nod, ‘and then go elsewhere.’

‘Sir, yo know weel,’ said Stephen expressively, ‘that if I canna get work wi’ yo, I canna get it elsewheer.’

The reply was, ‘What I know, I know; and what you know, you know. I have no more to say about it.’

Stephen glanced at Louisa again, but her eyes were raised to his no more; therefore, with a sigh, and saying, barely above his breath, ‘Heaven help us aw in this world!’ he departed.

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