Hard Times, by Charles Dickens

Chapter XII— Down

THE national dustmen, after entertaining one another with a great many noisy little fights among themselves, had dispersed for the present, and Mr. Gradgrind was at home for the vacation.

He sat writing in the room with the deadly statistical clock, proving something no doubt — probably, in the main, that the Good Samaritan was a Bad Economist. The noise of the rain did not disturb him much; but it attracted his attention sufficiently to make him raise his head sometimes, as if he were rather remonstrating with the elements. When it thundered very loudly, he glanced towards Coketown, having it in his mind that some of the tall chimneys might be struck by lightning.

The thunder was rolling into distance, and the rain was pouring down like a deluge, when the door of his room opened. He looked round the lamp upon his table, and saw, with amazement, his eldest daughter.

‘Louisa!’

‘Father, I want to speak to you.’

‘What is the matter? How strange you look! And good Heaven,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, wondering more and more, ‘have you come here exposed to this storm?’

She put her hands to her dress, as if she hardly knew. ‘Yes.’ Then she uncovered her head, and letting her cloak and hood fall where they might, stood looking at him: so colourless, so dishevelled, so defiant and despairing, that he was afraid of her.

‘What is it? I conjure you, Louisa, tell me what is the matter.’

She dropped into a chair before him, and put her cold hand on his arm.

‘Father, you have trained me from my cradle?’

‘Yes, Louisa.’

‘I curse the hour in which I was born to such a destiny.’

He looked at her in doubt and dread, vacantly repeating: ‘Curse the hour? Curse the hour?’

‘How could you give me life, and take from me all the inappreciable things that raise it from the state of conscious death? Where are the graces of my soul? Where are the sentiments of my heart? What have you done, O father, what have you done, with the garden that should have bloomed once, in this great wilderness here!’

She struck herself with both her hands upon her bosom.

‘If it had ever been here, its ashes alone would save me from the void in which my whole life sinks. I did not mean to say this; but, father, you remember the last time we conversed in this room?’

He had been so wholly unprepared for what he heard now, that it was with difficulty he answered, ‘Yes, Louisa.’

‘What has risen to my lips now, would have risen to my lips then, if you had given me a moment’s help. I don’t reproach you, father. What you have never nurtured in me, you have never nurtured in yourself; but O! if you had only done so long ago, or if you had only neglected me, what a much better and much happier creature I should have been this day!’

On hearing this, after all his care, he bowed his head upon his hand and groaned aloud.

‘Father, if you had known, when we were last together here, what even I feared while I strove against it — as it has been my task from infancy to strive against every natural prompting that has arisen in my heart; if you had known that there lingered in my breast, sensibilities, affections, weaknesses capable of being cherished into strength, defying all the calculations ever made by man, and no more known to his arithmetic than his Creator is, — would you have given me to the husband whom I am now sure that I hate?’

He said, ‘No. No, my poor child.’

‘Would you have doomed me, at any time, to the frost and blight that have hardened and spoiled me? Would you have robbed me — for no one’s enrichment — only for the greater desolation of this world — of the immaterial part of my life, the spring and summer of my belief, my refuge from what is sordid and bad in the real things around me, my school in which I should have learned to be more humble and more trusting with them, and to hope in my little sphere to make them better?’

‘O no, no. No, Louisa.’

‘Yet, father, if I had been stone blind; if I had groped my way by my sense of touch, and had been free, while I knew the shapes and surfaces of things, to exercise my fancy somewhat, in regard to them; I should have been a million times wiser, happier, more loving, more contented, more innocent and human in all good respects, than I am with the eyes I have. Now, hear what I have come to say.’

He moved, to support her with his arm. She rising as he did so, they stood close together: she, with a hand upon his shoulder, looking fixedly in his face.

‘With a hunger and thirst upon me, father, which have never been for a moment appeased; with an ardent impulse towards some region where rules, and figures, and definitions were not quite absolute; I have grown up, battling every inch of my way.’

‘I never knew you were unhappy, my child.’

‘Father, I always knew it. In this strife I have almost repulsed and crushed my better angel into a demon. What I have learned has left me doubting, misbelieving, despising, regretting, what I have not learned; and my dismal resource has been to think that life would soon go by, and that nothing in it could be worth the pain and trouble of a contest.’

‘And you so young, Louisa!’ he said with pity.

‘And I so young. In this condition, father — for I show you now, without fear or favour, the ordinary deadened state of my mind as I know it — you proposed my husband to me. I took him. I never made a pretence to him or you that I loved him. I knew, and, father, you knew, and he knew, that I never did. I was not wholly indifferent, for I had a hope of being pleasant and useful to Tom. I made that wild escape into something visionary, and have slowly found out how wild it was. But Tom had been the subject of all the little tenderness of my life; perhaps he became so because I knew so well how to pity him. It matters little now, except as it may dispose you to think more leniently of his errors.’

As her father held her in his arms, she put her other hand upon his other shoulder, and still looking fixedly in his face, went on.

‘When I was irrevocably married, there rose up into rebellion against the tie, the old strife, made fiercer by all those causes of disparity which arise out of our two individual natures, and which no general laws shall ever rule or state for me, father, until they shall be able to direct the anatomist where to strike his knife into the secrets of my soul.’

‘Louisa!’ he said, and said imploringly; for he well remembered what had passed between them in their former interview.

‘I do not reproach you, father, I make no complaint. I am here with another object.’

‘What can I do, child? Ask me what you will.’

‘I am coming to it. Father, chance then threw into my way a new acquaintance; a man such as I had had no experience of; used to the world; light, polished, easy; making no pretences; avowing the low estimate of everything, that I was half afraid to form in secret; conveying to me almost immediately, though I don’t know how or by what degrees, that he understood me, and read my thoughts. I could not find that he was worse than I. There seemed to be a near affinity between us. I only wondered it should be worth his while, who cared for nothing else, to care so much for me.’

‘For you, Louisa!’

Her father might instinctively have loosened his hold, but that he felt her strength departing from her, and saw a wild dilating fire in the eyes steadfastly regarding him.

‘I say nothing of his plea for claiming my confidence. It matters very little how he gained it. Father, he did gain it. What you know of the story of my marriage, he soon knew, just as well.’

Her father’s face was ashy white, and he held her in both his arms.

‘I have done no worse, I have not disgraced you. But if you ask me whether I have loved him, or do love him, I tell you plainly, father, that it may be so. I don’t know.’

She took her hands suddenly from his shoulders, and pressed them both upon her side; while in her face, not like itself — and in her figure, drawn up, resolute to finish by a last effort what she had to say — the feelings long suppressed broke loose.

‘This night, my husband being away, he has been with me, declaring himself my lover. This minute he expects me, for I could release myself of his presence by no other means. I do not know that I am sorry, I do not know that I am ashamed, I do not know that I am degraded in my own esteem. All that I know is, your philosophy and your teaching will not save me. Now, father, you have brought me to this. Save me by some other means!’

He tightened his hold in time to prevent her sinking on the floor, but she cried out in a terrible voice, ‘I shall die if you hold me! Let me fall upon the ground!’ And he laid her down there, and saw the pride of his heart and the triumph of his system, lying, an insensible heap, at his feet.

End of the Second Book

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