Hard Times, by Charles Dickens

Chapter VI— Fading Away

IT was falling dark when Stephen came out of Mr. Bounderby’s house. The shadows of night had gathered so fast, that he did not look about him when he closed the door, but plodded straight along the street. Nothing was further from his thoughts than the curious old woman he had encountered on his previous visit to the same house, when he heard a step behind him that he knew, and turning, saw her in Rachael’s company.

He saw Rachael first, as he had heard her only.

‘Ah, Rachael, my dear! Missus, thou wi’ her!’

‘Well, and now you are surprised to be sure, and with reason I must say,’ the old woman returned. ‘Here I am again, you see.’

‘But how wi’ Rachael?’ said Stephen, falling into their step, walking between them, and looking from the one to the other.

‘Why, I come to be with this good lass pretty much as I came to be with you,’ said the old woman, cheerfully, taking the reply upon herself. ‘My visiting time is later this year than usual, for I have been rather troubled with shortness of breath, and so put it off till the weather was fine and warm. For the same reason I don’t make all my journey in one day, but divide it into two days, and get a bed to-night at the Travellers’ Coffee House down by the railroad (a nice clean house), and go back Parliamentary, at six in the morning. Well, but what has this to do with this good lass, says you? I’m going to tell you. I have heard of Mr. Bounderby being married. I read it in the paper, where it looked grand — oh, it looked fine!’ the old woman dwelt on it with strange enthusiasm: ‘and I want to see his wife. I have never seen her yet. Now, if you’ll believe me, she hasn’t come out of that house since noon to-day. So not to give her up too easily, I was waiting about, a little last bit more, when I passed close to this good lass two or three times; and her face being so friendly I spoke to her, and she spoke to me. There!’ said the old woman to Stephen, ‘you can make all the rest out for yourself now, a deal shorter than I can, I dare say!’

Once again, Stephen had to conquer an instinctive propensity to dislike this old woman, though her manner was as honest and simple as a manner possibly could be. With a gentleness that was as natural to him as he knew it to be to Rachael, he pursued the subject that interested her in her old age.

‘Well, missus,’ said he, ‘I ha seen the lady, and she were young and hansom. Wi’ fine dark thinkin eyes, and a still way, Rachael, as I ha never seen the like on.’

‘Young and handsome. Yes!’ cried the old woman, quite delighted. ‘As bonny as a rose! And what a happy wife!’

‘Aye, missus, I suppose she be,’ said Stephen. But with a doubtful glance at Rachael.

‘Suppose she be? She must be. She’s your master’s wife,’ returned the old woman.

Stephen nodded assent. ‘Though as to master,’ said he, glancing again at Rachael, ‘not master onny more. That’s aw enden ‘twixt him and me.’

‘Have you left his work, Stephen?’ asked Rachael, anxiously and quickly.

‘Why, Rachael,’ he replied, ‘whether I ha lef’n his work, or whether his work ha lef’n me, cooms t’ th’ same. His work and me are parted. ’Tis as weel so — better, I were thinkin when yo coom up wi’ me. It would ha brought’n trouble upon trouble if I had stayed theer. Haply ’tis a kindness to monny that I go; haply ’tis a kindness to myseln; anyways it mun be done. I mun turn my face fro Coketown fur th’ time, and seek a fort’n, dear, by beginnin fresh.’

‘Where will you go, Stephen?’

‘I donno t’night,’ said he, lifting off his hat, and smoothing his thin hair with the flat of his hand. ‘But I’m not goin t’night, Rachael, nor yet t’morrow. ‘Tan’t easy overmuch t’ know wheer t’ turn, but a good heart will coom to me.’

Herein, too, the sense of even thinking unselfishly aided him. Before he had so much as closed Mr. Bounderby’s door, he had reflected that at least his being obliged to go away was good for her, as it would save her from the chance of being brought into question for not withdrawing from him. Though it would cost him a hard pang to leave her, and though he could think of no similar place in which his condemnation would not pursue him, perhaps it was almost a relief to be forced away from the endurance of the last four days, even to unknown difficulties and distresses.

So he said, with truth, ‘I’m more leetsome, Rachael, under ‘t, than I could’n ha believed.’ It was not her part to make his burden heavier. She answered with her comforting smile, and the three walked on together.

Age, especially when it strives to be self-reliant and cheerful, finds much consideration among the poor. The old woman was so decent and contented, and made so light of her infirmities, though they had increased upon her since her former interview with Stephen, that they both took an interest in her. She was too sprightly to allow of their walking at a slow pace on her account, but she was very grateful to be talked to, and very willing to talk to any extent: so, when they came to their part of the town, she was more brisk and vivacious than ever.

‘Come to my poor place, missus,’ said Stephen, ‘and tak a coop o’ tea. Rachael will coom then; and arterwards I’ll see thee safe t’ thy Travellers’ lodgin. ‘T may be long, Rachael, ere ever I ha th’ chance o’ thy coompany agen.’

They complied, and the three went on to the house where he lodged. When they turned into a narrow street, Stephen glanced at his window with a dread that always haunted his desolate home; but it was open, as he had left it, and no one was there. The evil spirit of his life had flitted away again, months ago, and he had heard no more of her since. The only evidence of her last return now, were the scantier moveables in his room, and the grayer hair upon his head.

He lighted a candle, set out his little tea-board, got hot water from below, and brought in small portions of tea and sugar, a loaf, and some butter from the nearest shop. The bread was new and crusty, the butter fresh, and the sugar lump, of course — in fulfilment of the standard testimony of the Coketown magnates, that these people lived like princes, sir. Rachael made the tea (so large a party necessitated the borrowing of a cup), and the visitor enjoyed it mightily. It was the first glimpse of sociality the host had had for many days. He too, with the world a wide heath before him, enjoyed the meal — again in corroboration of the magnates, as exemplifying the utter want of calculation on the part of these people, sir.

‘I ha never thowt yet, missus,’ said Stephen, ‘o’ askin thy name.’

The old lady announced herself as ‘Mrs. Pegler.’

‘A widder, I think?’ said Stephen.

‘Oh, many long years!’ Mrs. Pegler’s husband (one of the best on record) was already dead, by Mrs. Pegler’s calculation, when Stephen was born.

‘‘Twere a bad job, too, to lose so good a one,’ said Stephen. ‘Onny children?’

Mrs. Pegler’s cup, rattling against her saucer as she held it, denoted some nervousness on her part. ‘No,’ she said. ‘Not now, not now.’

‘Dead, Stephen,’ Rachael softly hinted.

‘I’m sooary I ha spok’n on ‘t,’ said Stephen, ‘I ought t’ hadn in my mind as I might touch a sore place. I— I blame myseln.’

While he excused himself, the old lady’s cup rattled more and more. ‘I had a son,’ she said, curiously distressed, and not by any of the usual appearances of sorrow; ‘and he did well, wonderfully well. But he is not to be spoken of if you please. He is — ’ Putting down her cup, she moved her hands as if she would have added, by her action, ‘dead!’ Then she said aloud, ‘I have lost him.’

Stephen had not yet got the better of his having given the old lady pain, when his landlady came stumbling up the narrow stairs, and calling him to the door, whispered in his ear. Mrs. Pegler was by no means deaf, for she caught a word as it was uttered.

‘Bounderby!’ she cried, in a suppressed voice, starting up from the table. ‘Oh hide me! Don’t let me be seen for the world. Don’t let him come up till I’ve got away. Pray, pray!’ She trembled, and was excessively agitated; getting behind Rachael, when Rachael tried to reassure her; and not seeming to know what she was about.

‘But hearken, missus, hearken,’ said Stephen, astonished. “Tisn’t Mr. Bounderby; ’tis his wife. Yo’r not fearfo’ o’ her. Yo was hey-go-mad about her, but an hour sin.’

‘But are you sure it’s the lady, and not the gentleman?’ she asked, still trembling.

‘Certain sure!’

‘Well then, pray don’t speak to me, nor yet take any notice of me,’ said the old woman. ‘Let me be quite to myself in this corner.’

Stephen nodded; looking to Rachael for an explanation, which she was quite unable to give him; took the candle, went downstairs, and in a few moments returned, lighting Louisa into the room. She was followed by the whelp.

Rachael had risen, and stood apart with her shawl and bonnet in her hand, when Stephen, himself profoundly astonished by this visit, put the candle on the table. Then he too stood, with his doubled hand upon the table near it, waiting to be addressed.

For the first time in her life Louisa had come into one of the dwellings of the Coketown Hands; for the first time in her life she was face to face with anything like individuality in connection with them. She knew of their existence by hundreds and by thousands. She knew what results in work a given number of them would produce in a given space of time. She knew them in crowds passing to and from their nests, like ants or beetles. But she knew from her reading infinitely more of the ways of toiling insects than of these toiling men and women.

Something to be worked so much and paid so much, and there ended; something to be infallibly settled by laws of supply and demand; something that blundered against those laws, and floundered into difficulty; something that was a little pinched when wheat was dear, and over-ate itself when wheat was cheap; something that increased at such a rate of percentage, and yielded such another percentage of crime, and such another percentage of pauperism; something wholesale, of which vast fortunes were made; something that occasionally rose like a sea, and did some harm and waste (chiefly to itself), and fell again; this she knew the Coketown Hands to be. But, she had scarcely thought more of separating them into units, than of separating the sea itself into its component drops.

She stood for some moments looking round the room. From the few chairs, the few books, the common prints, and the bed, she glanced to the two women, and to Stephen.

‘I have come to speak to you, in consequence of what passed just now. I should like to be serviceable to you, if you will let me. Is this your wife?’

Rachael raised her eyes, and they sufficiently answered no, and dropped again.

‘I remember,’ said Louisa, reddening at her mistake; ‘I recollect, now, to have heard your domestic misfortunes spoken of, though I was not attending to the particulars at the time. It was not my meaning to ask a question that would give pain to any one here. If I should ask any other question that may happen to have that result, give me credit, if you please, for being in ignorance how to speak to you as I ought.’

As Stephen had but a little while ago instinctively addressed himself to her, so she now instinctively addressed herself to Rachael. Her manner was short and abrupt, yet faltering and timid.

‘He has told you what has passed between himself and my husband? You would be his first resource, I think.’

‘I have heard the end of it, young lady,’ said Rachael.

‘Did I understand, that, being rejected by one employer, he would probably be rejected by all? I thought he said as much?’

‘The chances are very small, young lady — next to nothing — for a man who gets a bad name among them.’

‘What shall I understand that you mean by a bad name?’

‘The name of being troublesome.’

‘Then, by the prejudices of his own class, and by the prejudices of the other, he is sacrificed alike? Are the two so deeply separated in this town, that there is no place whatever for an honest workman between them?’

Rachael shook her head in silence.

‘He fell into suspicion,’ said Louisa, ‘with his fellow-weavers, because — he had made a promise not to be one of them. I think it must have been to you that he made that promise. Might I ask you why he made it?’

Rachael burst into tears. ‘I didn’t seek it of him, poor lad. I prayed him to avoid trouble for his own good, little thinking he’d come to it through me. But I know he’d die a hundred deaths, ere ever he’d break his word. I know that of him well.’

Stephen had remained quietly attentive, in his usual thoughtful attitude, with his hand at his chin. He now spoke in a voice rather less steady than usual.

‘No one, excepting myseln, can ever know what honour, an’ what love, an’ respect, I bear to Rachael, or wi’ what cause. When I passed that promess, I towd her true, she were th’ Angel o’ my life. ‘Twere a solemn promess. ’Tis gone fro’ me, for ever.’

Louisa turned her head to him, and bent it with a deference that was new in her. She looked from him to Rachael, and her features softened. ‘What will you do?’ she asked him. And her voice had softened too.

‘Weel, ma’am,’ said Stephen, making the best of it, with a smile; ‘when I ha finished off, I mun quit this part, and try another. Fortnet or misfortnet, a man can but try; there’s nowt to be done wi’out tryin’ — cept laying down and dying.’

‘How will you travel?’

‘Afoot, my kind ledy, afoot.’

Louisa coloured, and a purse appeared in her hand. The rustling of a bank-note was audible, as she unfolded one and laid it on the table.

‘Rachael, will you tell him — for you know how, without offence — that this is freely his, to help him on his way? Will you entreat him to take it?’

‘I canna do that, young lady,’ she answered, turning her head aside. ‘Bless you for thinking o’ the poor lad wi’ such tenderness. But ’tis for him to know his heart, and what is right according to it.’

Louisa looked, in part incredulous, in part frightened, in part overcome with quick sympathy, when this man of so much self-command, who had been so plain and steady through the late interview, lost his composure in a moment, and now stood with his hand before his face. She stretched out hers, as if she would have touched him; then checked herself, and remained still.

‘Not e’en Rachael,’ said Stephen, when he stood again with his face uncovered, ‘could mak sitch a kind offerin, by onny words, kinder. T’ show that I’m not a man wi’out reason and gratitude, I’ll tak two pound. I’ll borrow ‘t for t’ pay ‘t back. ‘Twill be the sweetest work as ever I ha done, that puts it in my power t’ acknowledge once more my lastin thankfulness for this present action.’

She was fain to take up the note again, and to substitute the much smaller sum he had named. He was neither courtly, nor handsome, nor picturesque, in any respect; and yet his manner of accepting it, and of expressing his thanks without more words, had a grace in it that Lord Chesterfield could not have taught his son in a century.

Tom had sat upon the bed, swinging one leg and sucking his walking-stick with sufficient unconcern, until the visit had attained this stage. Seeing his sister ready to depart, he got up, rather hurriedly, and put in a word.

‘Just wait a moment, Loo! Before we go, I should like to speak to him a moment. Something comes into my head. If you’ll step out on the stairs, Blackpool, I’ll mention it. Never mind a light, man!’ Tom was remarkably impatient of his moving towards the cupboard, to get one. ‘It don’t want a light.’

Stephen followed him out, and Tom closed the room door, and held the lock in his hand.

‘I say!’ he whispered. ‘I think I can do you a good turn. Don’t ask me what it is, because it may not come to anything. But there’s no harm in my trying.’

His breath fell like a flame of fire on Stephen’s ear, it was so hot.

‘That was our light porter at the Bank,’ said Tom, ‘who brought you the message to-night. I call him our light porter, because I belong to the Bank too.’

Stephen thought, ‘What a hurry he is in!’ He spoke so confusedly.

‘Well!’ said Tom. ‘Now look here! When are you off?’

‘T’ day’s Monday,’ replied Stephen, considering. ‘Why, sir, Friday or Saturday, nigh ‘bout.’

‘Friday or Saturday,’ said Tom. ‘Now look here! I am not sure that I can do you the good turn I want to do you — that’s my sister, you know, in your room — but I may be able to, and if I should not be able to, there’s no harm done. So I tell you what. You’ll know our light porter again?’

‘Yes, sure,’ said Stephen.

‘Very well,’ returned Tom. ‘When you leave work of a night, between this and your going away, just hang about the Bank an hour or so, will you? Don’t take on, as if you meant anything, if he should see you hanging about there; because I shan’t put him up to speak to you, unless I find I can do you the service I want to do you. In that case he’ll have a note or a message for you, but not else. Now look here! You are sure you understand.’

He had wormed a finger, in the darkness, through a button-hole of Stephen’s coat, and was screwing that corner of the garment tight up round and round, in an extraordinary manner.

‘I understand, sir,’ said Stephen.

‘Now look here!’ repeated Tom. ‘Be sure you don’t make any mistake then, and don’t forget. I shall tell my sister as we go home, what I have in view, and she’ll approve, I know. Now look here! You’re all right, are you? You understand all about it? Very well then. Come along, Loo!’

He pushed the door open as he called to her, but did not return into the room, or wait to be lighted down the narrow stairs. He was at the bottom when she began to descend, and was in the street before she could take his arm.

Mrs. Pegler remained in her corner until the brother and sister were gone, and until Stephen came back with the candle in his hand. She was in a state of inexpressible admiration of Mrs. Bounderby, and, like an unaccountable old woman, wept, ‘because she was such a pretty dear.’ Yet Mrs. Pegler was so flurried lest the object of her admiration should return by chance, or anybody else should come, that her cheerfulness was ended for that night. It was late too, to people who rose early and worked hard; therefore the party broke up; and Stephen and Rachael escorted their mysterious acquaintance to the door of the Travellers’ Coffee House, where they parted from her.

They walked back together to the corner of the street where Rachael lived, and as they drew nearer and nearer to it, silence crept upon them. When they came to the dark corner where their unfrequent meetings always ended, they stopped, still silent, as if both were afraid to speak.

‘I shall strive t’ see thee agen, Rachael, afore I go, but if not — ‘

‘Thou wilt not, Stephen, I know. ’Tis better that we make up our minds to be open wi’ one another.’

‘Thou’rt awlus right. ’Tis bolder and better. I ha been thinkin then, Rachael, that as ’tis but a day or two that remains, ‘twere better for thee, my dear, not t’ be seen wi’ me. ‘T might bring thee into trouble, fur no good.’

‘’Tis not for that, Stephen, that I mind. But thou know’st our old agreement. ’Tis for that.’

‘Well, well,’ said he. “Tis better, onnyways.’

‘Thou’lt write to me, and tell me all that happens, Stephen?’

‘Yes. What can I say now, but Heaven be wi’ thee, Heaven bless thee, Heaven thank thee and reward thee!’

‘May it bless thee, Stephen, too, in all thy wanderings, and send thee peace and rest at last!’

‘I towd thee, my dear,’ said Stephen Blackpool — ‘that night — that I would never see or think o’ onnything that angered me, but thou, so much better than me, should’st be beside it. Thou’rt beside it now. Thou mak’st me see it wi’ a better eye. Bless thee. Good night. Good-bye!’

It was but a hurried parting in a common street, yet it was a sacred remembrance to these two common people. Utilitarian economists, skeletons of schoolmasters, Commissioners of Fact, genteel and used-up infidels, gabblers of many little dog’s-eared creeds, the poor you will have always with you. Cultivate in them, while there is yet time, the utmost graces of the fancies and affections, to adorn their lives so much in need of ornament; or, in the day of your triumph, when romance is utterly driven out of their souls, and they and a bare existence stand face to face, Reality will take a wolfish turn, and make an end of you.

Stephen worked the next day, and the next, uncheered by a word from any one, and shunned in all his comings and goings as before. At the end of the second day, he saw land; at the end of the third, his loom stood empty.

He had overstayed his hour in the street outside the Bank, on each of the two first evenings; and nothing had happened there, good or bad. That he might not be remiss in his part of the engagement, he resolved to wait full two hours, on this third and last night.

There was the lady who had once kept Mr. Bounderby’s house, sitting at the first-floor window as he had seen her before; and there was the light porter, sometimes talking with her there, and sometimes looking over the blind below which had BANK upon it, and sometimes coming to the door and standing on the steps for a breath of air. When he first came out, Stephen thought he might be looking for him, and passed near; but the light porter only cast his winking eyes upon him slightly, and said nothing.

Two hours were a long stretch of lounging about, after a long day’s labour. Stephen sat upon the step of a door, leaned against a wall under an archway, strolled up and down, listened for the church clock, stopped and watched children playing in the street. Some purpose or other is so natural to every one, that a mere loiterer always looks and feels remarkable. When the first hour was out, Stephen even began to have an uncomfortable sensation upon him of being for the time a disreputable character.

Then came the lamplighter, and two lengthening lines of light all down the long perspective of the street, until they were blended and lost in the distance. Mrs. Sparsit closed the first-floor window, drew down the blind, and went up-stairs. Presently, a light went up-stairs after her, passing first the fanlight of the door, and afterwards the two staircase windows, on its way up. By and by, one corner of the second-floor blind was disturbed, as if Mrs. Sparsit’s eye were there; also the other corner, as if the light porter’s eye were on that side. Still, no communication was made to Stephen. Much relieved when the two hours were at last accomplished, he went away at a quick pace, as a recompense for so much loitering.

He had only to take leave of his landlady, and lie down on his temporary bed upon the floor; for his bundle was made up for to-morrow, and all was arranged for his departure. He meant to be clear of the town very early; before the Hands were in the streets.

It was barely daybreak, when, with a parting look round his room, mournfully wondering whether he should ever see it again, he went out. The town was as entirely deserted as if the inhabitants had abandoned it, rather than hold communication with him. Everything looked wan at that hour. Even the coming sun made but a pale waste in the sky, like a sad sea.

By the place where Rachael lived, though it was not in his way; by the red brick streets; by the great silent factories, not trembling yet; by the railway, where the danger-lights were waning in the strengthening day; by the railway’s crazy neighbourhood, half pulled down and half built up; by scattered red brick villas, where the besmoked evergreens were sprinkled with a dirty powder, like untidy snuff-takers; by coal-dust paths and many varieties of ugliness; Stephen got to the top of the hill, and looked back.

Day was shining radiantly upon the town then, and the bells were going for the morning work. Domestic fires were not yet lighted, and the high chimneys had the sky to themselves. Puffing out their poisonous volumes, they would not be long in hiding it; but, for half an hour, some of the many windows were golden, which showed the Coketown people a sun eternally in eclipse, through a medium of smoked glass.

So strange to turn from the chimneys to the birds. So strange, to have the road-dust on his feet instead of the coal-grit. So strange to have lived to his time of life, and yet to be beginning like a boy this summer morning! With these musings in his mind, and his bundle under his arm, Stephen took his attentive face along the high road. And the trees arched over him, whispering that he left a true and loving heart behind.

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