Hard Times, by Charles Dickens

Chapter X— Mrs. Sparsit’s Staircase

Mrs. Sparsit’s nerves being slow to recover their tone, the worthy woman made a stay of some weeks in duration at Mr. Bounderby’s retreat, where, notwithstanding her anchorite turn of mind based upon her becoming consciousness of her altered station, she resigned herself with noble fortitude to lodging, as one may say, in clover, and feeding on the fat of the land. During the whole term of this recess from the guardianship of the Bank, Mrs. Sparsit was a pattern of consistency; continuing to take such pity on Mr. Bounderby to his face, as is rarely taken on man, and to call his portrait a Noodle to its face, with the greatest acrimony and contempt.

Mr. Bounderby, having got it into his explosive composition that Mrs. Sparsit was a highly superior woman to perceive that he had that general cross upon him in his deserts (for he had not yet settled what it was), and further that Louisa would have objected to her as a frequent visitor if it had comported with his greatness that she should object to anything he chose to do, resolved not to lose sight of Mrs. Sparsit easily. So when her nerves were strung up to the pitch of again consuming sweetbreads in solitude, he said to her at the dinner-table, on the day before her departure, ‘I tell you what, ma’am; you shall come down here of a Saturday, while the fine weather lasts, and stay till Monday.’ To which Mrs. Sparsit returned, in effect, though not of the Mahomedan persuasion: ‘To hear is to obey.’

Now, Mrs. Sparsit was not a poetical woman; but she took an idea in the nature of an allegorical fancy, into her head. Much watching of Louisa, and much consequent observation of her impenetrable demeanour, which keenly whetted and sharpened Mrs. Sparsit’s edge, must have given her as it were a lift, in the way of inspiration. She erected in her mind a mighty Staircase, with a dark pit of shame and ruin at the bottom; and down those stairs, from day to day and hour to hour, she saw Louisa coming.

It became the business of Mrs. Sparsit’s life, to look up at her staircase, and to watch Louisa coming down. Sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, sometimes several steps at one bout, sometimes stopping, never turning back. If she had once turned back, it might have been the death of Mrs. Sparsit in spleen and grief.

She had been descending steadily, to the day, and on the day, when Mr. Bounderby issued the weekly invitation recorded above. Mrs. Sparsit was in good spirits, and inclined to be conversational.

‘And pray, sir,’ said she, ‘if I may venture to ask a question appertaining to any subject on which you show reserve — which is indeed hardy in me, for I well know you have a reason for everything you do — have you received intelligence respecting the robbery?’

‘Why, ma’am, no; not yet. Under the circumstances, I didn’t expect it yet. Rome wasn’t built in a day, ma’am.’

‘Very true, sir,’ said Mrs. Sparsit, shaking her head.

‘Nor yet in a week, ma’am.’

‘No, indeed, sir,’ returned Mrs. Sparsit, with a gentle melancholy upon her.

‘In a similar manner, ma’am,’ said Bounderby, ‘I can wait, you know. If Romulus and Remus could wait, Josiah Bounderby can wait. They were better off in their youth than I was, however. They had a she-wolf for a nurse; I had only a she-wolf for a grandmother. She didn’t give any milk, ma’am; she gave bruises. She was a regular Alderney at that.’

‘Ah!’ Mrs. Sparsit sighed and shuddered.

‘No, ma’am,’ continued Bounderby, ‘I have not heard anything more about it. It’s in hand, though; and young Tom, who rather sticks to business at present — something new for him; he hadn’t the schooling I had — is helping. My injunction is, Keep it quiet, and let it seem to blow over. Do what you like under the rose, but don’t give a sign of what you’re about; or half a hundred of ’em will combine together and get this fellow who has bolted, out of reach for good. Keep it quiet, and the thieves will grow in confidence by little and little, and we shall have ’em.’

‘Very sagacious indeed, sir,’ said Mrs. Sparsit. ‘Very interesting. The old woman you mentioned, sir — ’

‘The old woman I mentioned, ma’am,’ said Bounderby, cutting the matter short, as it was nothing to boast about, ‘is not laid hold of; but, she may take her oath she will be, if that is any satisfaction to her villainous old mind. In the mean time, ma’am, I am of opinion, if you ask me my opinion, that the less she is talked about, the better.’

The same evening, Mrs. Sparsit, in her chamber window, resting from her packing operations, looked towards her great staircase and saw Louisa still descending.

She sat by Mr. Harthouse, in an alcove in the garden, talking very low; he stood leaning over her, as they whispered together, and his face almost touched her hair. ‘If not quite!’ said Mrs. Sparsit, straining her hawk’s eyes to the utmost. Mrs. Sparsit was too distant to hear a word of their discourse, or even to know that they were speaking softly, otherwise than from the expression of their figures; but what they said was this:

‘You recollect the man, Mr. Harthouse?’

‘Oh, perfectly!’

‘His face, and his manner, and what he said?’

‘Perfectly. And an infinitely dreary person he appeared to me to be. Lengthy and prosy in the extreme. It was knowing to hold forth, in the humble-virtue school of eloquence; but, I assure you I thought at the time, “My good fellow, you are over-doing this!”’

‘It has been very difficult to me to think ill of that man.’

‘My dear Louisa — as Tom says.’ Which he never did say. ‘You know no good of the fellow?’

‘No, certainly.’

‘Nor of any other such person?’

‘How can I,’ she returned, with more of her first manner on her than he had lately seen, ‘when I know nothing of them, men or women?’

‘My dear Louisa, then consent to receive the submissive representation of your devoted friend, who knows something of several varieties of his excellent fellow-creatures — for excellent they are, I am quite ready to believe, in spite of such little foibles as always helping themselves to what they can get hold of. This fellow talks. Well; every fellow talks. He professes morality. Well; all sorts of humbugs profess morality. From the House of Commons to the House of Correction, there is a general profession of morality, except among our people; it really is that exception which makes our people quite reviving. You saw and heard the case. Here was one of the fluffy classes pulled up extremely short by my esteemed friend Mr. Bounderby — who, as we know, is not possessed of that delicacy which would soften so tight a hand. The member of the fluffy classes was injured, exasperated, left the house grumbling, met somebody who proposed to him to go in for some share in this Bank business, went in, put something in his pocket which had nothing in it before, and relieved his mind extremely. Really he would have been an uncommon, instead of a common, fellow, if he had not availed himself of such an opportunity. Or he may have originated it altogether, if he had the cleverness.’

‘I almost feel as though it must be bad in me,’ returned Louisa, after sitting thoughtful awhile, ‘to be so ready to agree with you, and to be so lightened in my heart by what you say.’

‘I only say what is reasonable; nothing worse. I have talked it over with my friend Tom more than once — of course I remain on terms of perfect confidence with Tom — and he is quite of my opinion, and I am quite of his. Will you walk?’

They strolled away, among the lanes beginning to be indistinct in the twilight — she leaning on his arm — and she little thought how she was going down, down, down, Mrs. Sparsit’s staircase.

Night and day, Mrs. Sparsit kept it standing. When Louisa had arrived at the bottom and disappeared in the gulf, it might fall in upon her if it would; but, until then, there it was to be, a Building, before Mrs. Sparsit’s eyes. And there Louisa always was, upon it.

And always gliding down, down, down!

Mrs. Sparsit saw James Harthouse come and go; she heard of him here and there; she saw the changes of the face he had studied; she, too, remarked to a nicety how and when it clouded, how and when it cleared; she kept her black eyes wide open, with no touch of pity, with no touch of compunction, all absorbed in interest. In the interest of seeing her, ever drawing, with no hand to stay her, nearer and nearer to the bottom of this new Giant’s Staircase.

With all her deference for Mr. Bounderby as contradistinguished from his portrait, Mrs. Sparsit had not the smallest intention of interrupting the descent. Eager to see it accomplished, and yet patient, she waited for the last fall, as for the ripeness and fulness of the harvest of her hopes. Hushed in expectancy, she kept her wary gaze upon the stairs; and seldom so much as darkly shook her right mitten (with her fist in it), at the figure coming down.

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