Hard Times, by Charles Dickens

Chapter IX— Hearing the Last of It

Mrs. Sparsit, lying by to recover the tone of her nerves in Mr. Bounderby’s retreat, kept such a sharp look-out, night and day, under her Coriolanian eyebrows, that her eyes, like a couple of lighthouses on an iron-bound coast, might have warned all prudent mariners from that bold rock her Roman nose and the dark and craggy region in its neighbourhood, but for the placidity of her manner. Although it was hard to believe that her retiring for the night could be anything but a form, so severely wide awake were those classical eyes of hers, and so impossible did it seem that her rigid nose could yield to any relaxing influence, yet her manner of sitting, smoothing her uncomfortable, not to say, gritty mittens (they were constructed of a cool fabric like a meat-safe), or of ambling to unknown places of destination with her foot in her cotton stirrup, was so perfectly serene, that most observers would have been constrained to suppose her a dove, embodied by some freak of nature, in the earthly tabernacle of a bird of the hook-beaked order.

She was a most wonderful woman for prowling about the house. How she got from story to story was a mystery beyond solution. A lady so decorous in herself, and so highly connected, was not to be suspected of dropping over the banisters or sliding down them, yet her extraordinary facility of locomotion suggested the wild idea. Another noticeable circumstance in Mrs. Sparsit was, that she was never hurried. She would shoot with consummate velocity from the roof to the hall, yet would be in full possession of her breath and dignity on the moment of her arrival there. Neither was she ever seen by human vision to go at a great pace.

She took very kindly to Mr. Harthouse, and had some pleasant conversation with him soon after her arrival. She made him her stately curtsey in the garden, one morning before breakfast.

‘It appears but yesterday, sir,’ said Mrs. Sparsit, ‘that I had the honour of receiving you at the Bank, when you were so good as to wish to be made acquainted with Mr. Bounderby’s address.’

‘An occasion, I am sure, not to be forgotten by myself in the course of Ages,’ said Mr. Harthouse, inclining his head to Mrs. Sparsit with the most indolent of all possible airs.

‘We live in a singular world, sir,’ said Mrs. Sparsit.

‘I have had the honour, by a coincidence of which I am proud, to have made a remark, similar in effect, though not so epigrammatically expressed.’

‘A singular world, I would say, sir,’ pursued Mrs. Sparsit; after acknowledging the compliment with a drooping of her dark eyebrows, not altogether so mild in its expression as her voice was in its dulcet tones; ‘as regards the intimacies we form at one time, with individuals we were quite ignorant of, at another. I recall, sir, that on that occasion you went so far as to say you were actually apprehensive of Miss Gradgrind.’

‘Your memory does me more honour than my insignificance deserves. I availed myself of your obliging hints to correct my timidity, and it is unnecessary to add that they were perfectly accurate. Mrs. Sparsit’s talent for — in fact for anything requiring accuracy — with a combination of strength of mind — and Family — is too habitually developed to admit of any question.’ He was almost falling asleep over this compliment; it took him so long to get through, and his mind wandered so much in the course of its execution.

‘You found Miss Gradgrind — I really cannot call her Mrs. Bounderby; it’s very absurd of me — as youthful as I described her?’ asked Mrs. Sparsit, sweetly.

‘You drew her portrait perfectly,’ said Mr. Harthouse. ‘Presented her dead image.’

‘Very engaging, sir,’ said Mrs. Sparsit, causing her mittens slowly to revolve over one another.

‘Highly so.’

‘It used to be considered,’ said Mrs. Sparsit, ‘that Miss Gradgrind was wanting in animation, but I confess she appears to me considerably and strikingly improved in that respect. Ay, and indeed here is Mr. Bounderby!’ cried Mrs. Sparsit, nodding her head a great many times, as if she had been talking and thinking of no one else. ‘How do you find yourself this morning, sir? Pray let us see you cheerful, sir.’

Now, these persistent assuagements of his misery, and lightenings of his load, had by this time begun to have the effect of making Mr. Bounderby softer than usual towards Mrs. Sparsit, and harder than usual to most other people from his wife downward. So, when Mrs. Sparsit said with forced lightness of heart, ‘You want your breakfast, sir, but I dare say Miss Gradgrind will soon be here to preside at the table,’ Mr. Bounderby replied, ‘If I waited to be taken care of by my wife, ma’am, I believe you know pretty well I should wait till Doomsday, so I’ll trouble you to take charge of the teapot.’ Mrs. Sparsit complied, and assumed her old position at table.

This again made the excellent woman vastly sentimental. She was so humble withal, that when Louisa appeared, she rose, protesting she never could think of sitting in that place under existing circumstances, often as she had had the honour of making Mr. Bounderby’s breakfast, before Mrs. Gradgrind — she begged pardon, she meant to say Miss Bounderby — she hoped to be excused, but she really could not get it right yet, though she trusted to become familiar with it by and by — had assumed her present position. It was only (she observed) because Miss Gradgrind happened to be a little late, and Mr. Bounderby’s time was so very precious, and she knew it of old to be so essential that he should breakfast to the moment, that she had taken the liberty of complying with his request; long as his will had been a law to her.

‘There! Stop where you are, ma’am,’ said Mr. Bounderby, ‘stop where you are! Mrs. Bounderby will be very glad to be relieved of the trouble, I believe.’

‘Don’t say that, sir,’ returned Mrs. Sparsit, almost with severity, ‘because that is very unkind to Mrs. Bounderby. And to be unkind is not to be you, sir.’

‘You may set your mind at rest, ma’am. — You can take it very quietly, can’t you, Loo?’ said Mr. Bounderby, in a blustering way to his wife.

‘Of course. It is of no moment. Why should it be of any importance to me?’

‘Why should it be of any importance to any one, Mrs. Sparsit, ma’am?’ said Mr. Bounderby, swelling with a sense of slight. ‘You attach too much importance to these things, ma’am. By George, you’ll be corrupted in some of your notions here. You are old-fashioned, ma’am. You are behind Tom Gradgrind’s children’s time.’

‘What is the matter with you?’ asked Louisa, coldly surprised. ‘What has given you offence?’

‘Offence!’ repeated Bounderby. ‘Do you suppose if there was any offence given me, I shouldn’t name it, and request to have it corrected? I am a straightforward man, I believe. I don’t go beating about for side-winds.’

‘I suppose no one ever had occasion to think you too diffident, or too delicate,’ Louisa answered him composedly: ‘I have never made that objection to you, either as a child or as a woman. I don’t understand what you would have.’

‘Have?’ returned Mr. Bounderby. ‘Nothing. Otherwise, don’t you, Loo Bounderby, know thoroughly well that I, Josiah Bounderby of Coketown, would have it?’

She looked at him, as he struck the table and made the teacups ring, with a proud colour in her face that was a new change, Mr. Harthouse thought. ‘You are incomprehensible this morning,’ said Louisa. ‘Pray take no further trouble to explain yourself. I am not curious to know your meaning. What does it matter?’

Nothing more was said on this theme, and Mr. Harthouse was soon idly gay on indifferent subjects. But from this day, the Sparsit action upon Mr. Bounderby threw Louisa and James Harthouse more together, and strengthened the dangerous alienation from her husband and confidence against him with another, into which she had fallen by degrees so fine that she could not retrace them if she tried. But whether she ever tried or no, lay hidden in her own closed heart.

Mrs. Sparsit was so much affected on this particular occasion, that, assisting Mr. Bounderby to his hat after breakfast, and being then alone with him in the hall, she imprinted a chaste kiss upon his hand, murmured ‘My benefactor!’ and retired, overwhelmed with grief. Yet it is an indubitable fact, within the cognizance of this history, that five minutes after he had left the house in the self-same hat, the same descendant of the Scadgerses and connexion by matrimony of the Powlers, shook her right-hand mitten at his portrait, made a contemptuous grimace at that work of art, and said ‘Serve you right, you Noodle, and I am glad of it.’

Mr. Bounderby had not been long gone, when Bitzer appeared. Bitzer had come down by train, shrieking and rattling over the long line of arches that bestrode the wild country of past and present coal-pits, with an express from Stone Lodge. It was a hasty note to inform Louisa that Mrs. Gradgrind lay very ill. She had never been well within her daughter’s knowledge; but, she had declined within the last few days, had continued sinking all through the night, and was now as nearly dead, as her limited capacity of being in any state that implied the ghost of an intention to get out of it, allowed.

Accompanied by the lightest of porters, fit colourless servitor at Death’s door when Mrs. Gradgrind knocked, Louisa rumbled to Coketown, over the coal-pits past and present, and was whirled into its smoky jaws. She dismissed the messenger to his own devices, and rode away to her old home.

She had seldom been there since her marriage. Her father was usually sifting and sifting at his parliamentary cinder-heap in London (without being observed to turn up many precious articles among the rubbish), and was still hard at it in the national dust-yard. Her mother had taken it rather as a disturbance than otherwise, to be visited, as she reclined upon her sofa; young people, Louisa felt herself all unfit for; Sissy she had never softened to again, since the night when the stroller’s child had raised her eyes to look at Mr. Bounderby’s intended wife. She had no inducements to go back, and had rarely gone.

Neither, as she approached her old home now, did any of the best influences of old home descend upon her. The dreams of childhood — its airy fables; its graceful, beautiful, humane, impossible adornments of the world beyond: so good to be believed in once, so good to be remembered when outgrown, for then the least among them rises to the stature of a great Charity in the heart, suffering little children to come into the midst of it, and to keep with their pure hands a garden in the stony ways of this world, wherein it were better for all the children of Adam that they should oftener sun themselves, simple and trustful, and not worldly-wise — what had she to do with these? Remembrances of how she had journeyed to the little that she knew, by the enchanted roads of what she and millions of innocent creatures had hoped and imagined; of how, first coming upon Reason through the tender light of Fancy, she had seen it a beneficent god, deferring to gods as great as itself; not a grim Idol, cruel and cold, with its victims bound hand to foot, and its big dumb shape set up with a sightless stare, never to be moved by anything but so many calculated tons of leverage — what had she to do with these? Her remembrances of home and childhood were remembrances of the drying up of every spring and fountain in her young heart as it gushed out. The golden waters were not there. They were flowing for the fertilization of the land where grapes are gathered from thorns, and figs from thistles.

She went, with a heavy, hardened kind of sorrow upon her, into the house and into her mother’s room. Since the time of her leaving home, Sissy had lived with the rest of the family on equal terms. Sissy was at her mother’s side; and Jane, her sister, now ten or twelve years old, was in the room.

There was great trouble before it could be made known to Mrs. Gradgrind that her eldest child was there. She reclined, propped up, from mere habit, on a couch: as nearly in her old usual attitude, as anything so helpless could be kept in. She had positively refused to take to her bed; on the ground that if she did, she would never hear the last of it.

Her feeble voice sounded so far away in her bundle of shawls, and the sound of another voice addressing her seemed to take such a long time in getting down to her ears, that she might have been lying at the bottom of a well. The poor lady was nearer Truth than she ever had been: which had much to do with it.

On being told that Mrs. Bounderby was there, she replied, at cross-purposes, that she had never called him by that name since he married Louisa; that pending her choice of an objectionable name, she had called him J; and that she could not at present depart from that regulation, not being yet provided with a permanent substitute. Louisa had sat by her for some minutes, and had spoken to her often, before she arrived at a clear understanding who it was. She then seemed to come to it all at once.

‘Well, my dear,’ said Mrs. Gradgrind, ‘and I hope you are going on satisfactorily to yourself. It was all your father’s doing. He set his heart upon it. And he ought to know.’

‘I want to hear of you, mother; not of myself.’

‘You want to hear of me, my dear? That’s something new, I am sure, when anybody wants to hear of me. Not at all well, Louisa. Very faint and giddy.’

‘Are you in pain, dear mother?’

‘I think there’s a pain somewhere in the room,’ said Mrs. Gradgrind, ‘but I couldn’t positively say that I have got it.’

After this strange speech, she lay silent for some time. Louisa, holding her hand, could feel no pulse; but kissing it, could see a slight thin thread of life in fluttering motion.

‘You very seldom see your sister,’ said Mrs. Gradgrind. ‘She grows like you. I wish you would look at her. Sissy, bring her here.’

She was brought, and stood with her hand in her sister’s. Louisa had observed her with her arm round Sissy’s neck, and she felt the difference of this approach.

‘Do you see the likeness, Louisa?’

‘Yes, mother. I should think her like me. But — ’

‘Eh! Yes, I always say so,’ Mrs. Gradgrind cried, with unexpected quickness. ‘And that reminds me. I— I want to speak to you, my dear. Sissy, my good girl, leave us alone a minute.’ Louisa had relinquished the hand: had thought that her sister’s was a better and brighter face than hers had ever been: had seen in it, not without a rising feeling of resentment, even in that place and at that time, something of the gentleness of the other face in the room; the sweet face with the trusting eyes, made paler than watching and sympathy made it, by the rich dark hair.

Left alone with her mother, Louisa saw her lying with an awful lull upon her face, like one who was floating away upon some great water, all resistance over, content to be carried down the stream. She put the shadow of a hand to her lips again, and recalled her.

‘You were going to speak to me, mother.’

‘Eh? Yes, to be sure, my dear. You know your father is almost always away now, and therefore I must write to him about it.’

‘About what, mother? Don’t be troubled. About what?’

‘You must remember, my dear, that whenever I have said anything, on any subject, I have never heard the last of it: and consequently, that I have long left off saying anything.’

‘I can hear you, mother.’ But, it was only by dint of bending down to her ear, and at the same time attentively watching the lips as they moved, that she could link such faint and broken sounds into any chain of connexion.

‘You learnt a great deal, Louisa, and so did your brother. Ologies of all kinds from morning to night. If there is any Ology left, of any description, that has not been worn to rags in this house, all I can say is, I hope I shall never hear its name.’

‘I can hear you, mother, when you have strength to go on.’ This, to keep her from floating away.

‘But there is something — not an Ology at all — that your father has missed, or forgotten, Louisa. I don’t know what it is. I have often sat with Sissy near me, and thought about it. I shall never get its name now. But your father may. It makes me restless. I want to write to him, to find out for God’s sake, what it is. Give me a pen, give me a pen.’

Even the power of restlessness was gone, except from the poor head, which could just turn from side to side.

She fancied, however, that her request had been complied with, and that the pen she could not have held was in her hand. It matters little what figures of wonderful no-meaning she began to trace upon her wrappers. The hand soon stopped in the midst of them; the light that had always been feeble and dim behind the weak transparency, went out; and even Mrs. Gradgrind, emerged from the shadow in which man walketh and disquieteth himself in vain, took upon her the dread solemnity of the sages and patriarchs.

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