Hard Times, by Charles Dickens

Chapter VII— Whelp–Hunting

BEFORE the ring formed round the Old Hell Shaft was broken, one figure had disappeared from within it. Mr. Bounderby and his shadow had not stood near Louisa, who held her father’s arm, but in a retired place by themselves. When Mr. Gradgrind was summoned to the couch, Sissy, attentive to all that happened, slipped behind that wicked shadow — a sight in the horror of his face, if there had been eyes there for any sight but one — and whispered in his ear. Without turning his head, he conferred with her a few moments, and vanished. Thus the whelp had gone out of the circle before the people moved.

When the father reached home, he sent a message to Mr. Bounderby’s, desiring his son to come to him directly. The reply was, that Mr. Bounderby having missed him in the crowd, and seeing nothing of him since, had supposed him to be at Stone Lodge.

‘I believe, father,’ said Louisa, ‘he will not come back to town to-night.’ Mr. Gradgrind turned away, and said no more.

In the morning, he went down to the Bank himself as soon as it was opened, and seeing his son’s place empty (he had not the courage to look in at first) went back along the street to meet Mr. Bounderby on his way there. To whom he said that, for reasons he would soon explain, but entreated not then to be asked for, he had found it necessary to employ his son at a distance for a little while. Also, that he was charged with the duty of vindicating Stephen Blackpool’s memory, and declaring the thief. Mr. Bounderby quite confounded, stood stock-still in the street after his father-in-law had left him, swelling like an immense soap-bubble, without its beauty.

Mr. Gradgrind went home, locked himself in his room, and kept it all that day. When Sissy and Louisa tapped at his door, he said, without opening it, ‘Not now, my dears; in the evening.’ On their return in the evening, he said, ‘I am not able yet — to-morrow.’ He ate nothing all day, and had no candle after dark; and they heard him walking to and fro late at night.

But, in the morning he appeared at breakfast at the usual hour, and took his usual place at the table. Aged and bent he looked, and quite bowed down; and yet he looked a wiser man, and a better man, than in the days when in this life he wanted nothing — but Facts. Before he left the room, he appointed a time for them to come to him; and so, with his gray head drooping, went away.

‘Dear father,’ said Louisa, when they kept their appointment, ‘you have three young children left. They will be different, I will be different yet, with Heaven’s help.’

She gave her hand to Sissy, as if she meant with her help too.

‘Your wretched brother,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘Do you think he had planned this robbery, when he went with you to the lodging?’

‘I fear so, father. I know he had wanted money very much, and had spent a great deal.’

‘The poor man being about to leave the town, it came into his evil brain to cast suspicion on him?’

‘I think it must have flashed upon him while he sat there, father. For I asked him to go there with me. The visit did not originate with him.’

‘He had some conversation with the poor man. Did he take him aside?’

‘He took him out of the room. I asked him afterwards, why he had done so, and he made a plausible excuse; but since last night, father, and when I remember the circumstances by its light, I am afraid I can imagine too truly what passed between them.’

‘Let me know,’ said her father, ‘if your thoughts present your guilty brother in the same dark view as mine.’

‘I fear, father,’ hesitated Louisa, ‘that he must have made some representation to Stephen Blackpool — perhaps in my name, perhaps in his own — which induced him to do in good faith and honesty, what he had never done before, and to wait about the Bank those two or three nights before he left the town.’

‘Too plain!’ returned the father. ‘Too plain!’

He shaded his face, and remained silent for some moments. Recovering himself, he said:

‘And now, how is he to be found? How is he to be saved from justice? In the few hours that I can possibly allow to elapse before I publish the truth, how is he to be found by us, and only by us? Ten thousand pounds could not effect it.’

‘Sissy has effected it, father.’

He raised his eyes to where she stood, like a good fairy in his house, and said in a tone of softened gratitude and grateful kindness, ‘It is always you, my child!’

‘We had our fears,’ Sissy explained, glancing at Louisa, ‘before yesterday; and when I saw you brought to the side of the litter last night, and heard what passed (being close to Rachael all the time), I went to him when no one saw, and said to him, “Don’t look at me. See where your father is. Escape at once, for his sake and your own!” He was in a tremble before I whispered to him, and he started and trembled more then, and said, “Where can I go? I have very little money, and I don’t know who will hide me!” I thought of father’s old circus. I have not forgotten where Mr. Sleary goes at this time of year, and I read of him in a paper only the other day. I told him to hurry there, and tell his name, and ask Mr. Sleary to hide him till I came. “I’ll get to him before the morning,” he said. And I saw him shrink away among the people.’

‘Thank Heaven!’ exclaimed his father. ‘He may be got abroad yet.’

It was the more hopeful as the town to which Sissy had directed him was within three hours’ journey of Liverpool, whence he could be swiftly dispatched to any part of the world. But, caution being necessary in communicating with him — for there was a greater danger every moment of his being suspected now, and nobody could be sure at heart but that Mr. Bounderby himself, in a bullying vein of public zeal, might play a Roman part — it was consented that Sissy and Louisa should repair to the place in question, by a circuitous course, alone; and that the unhappy father, setting forth in an opposite direction, should get round to the same bourne by another and wider route. It was further agreed that he should not present himself to Mr. Sleary, lest his intentions should be mistrusted, or the intelligence of his arrival should cause his son to take flight anew; but, that the communication should be left to Sissy and Louisa to open; and that they should inform the cause of so much misery and disgrace, of his father’s being at hand and of the purpose for which they had come. When these arrangements had been well considered and were fully understood by all three, it was time to begin to carry them into execution. Early in the afternoon, Mr. Gradgrind walked direct from his own house into the country, to be taken up on the line by which he was to travel; and at night the remaining two set forth upon their different course, encouraged by not seeing any face they knew.

The two travelled all night, except when they were left, for odd numbers of minutes, at branch-places, up illimitable flights of steps, or down wells — which was the only variety of those branches — and, early in the morning, were turned out on a swamp, a mile or two from the town they sought. From this dismal spot they were rescued by a savage old postilion, who happened to be up early, kicking a horse in a fly: and so were smuggled into the town by all the back lanes where the pigs lived: which, although not a magnificent or even savoury approach, was, as is usual in such cases, the legitimate highway.

The first thing they saw on entering the town was the skeleton of Sleary’s Circus. The company had departed for another town more than twenty miles off, and had opened there last night. The connection between the two places was by a hilly turnpike-road, and the travelling on that road was very slow. Though they took but a hasty breakfast, and no rest (which it would have been in vain to seek under such anxious circumstances), it was noon before they began to find the bills of Sleary’s Horse-riding on barns and walls, and one o’clock when they stopped in the market-place.

A Grand Morning Performance by the Riders, commencing at that very hour, was in course of announcement by the bellman as they set their feet upon the stones of the street. Sissy recommended that, to avoid making inquiries and attracting attention in the town, they should present themselves to pay at the door. If Mr. Sleary were taking the money, he would be sure to know her, and would proceed with discretion. If he were not, he would be sure to see them inside; and, knowing what he had done with the fugitive, would proceed with discretion still.

Therefore, they repaired, with fluttering hearts, to the well-remembered booth. The flag with the inscription SLEARY’S HORSE–RIDING was there; and the Gothic niche was there; but Mr. Sleary was not there. Master Kidderminster, grown too maturely turfy to be received by the wildest credulity as Cupid any more, had yielded to the invincible force of circumstances (and his beard), and, in the capacity of a man who made himself generally useful, presided on this occasion over the exchequer — having also a drum in reserve, on which to expend his leisure moments and superfluous forces. In the extreme sharpness of his look out for base coin, Mr. Kidderminster, as at present situated, never saw anything but money; so Sissy passed him unrecognised, and they went in.

The Emperor of Japan, on a steady old white horse stencilled with black spots, was twirling five wash-hand basins at once, as it is the favourite recreation of that monarch to do. Sissy, though well acquainted with his Royal line, had no personal knowledge of the present Emperor, and his reign was peaceful. Miss Josephine Sleary, in her celebrated graceful Equestrian Tyrolean Flower Act, was then announced by a new clown (who humorously said Cauliflower Act), and Mr. Sleary appeared, leading her in.

Mr. Sleary had only made one cut at the Clown with his long whip-lash, and the Clown had only said, ‘If you do it again, I’ll throw the horse at you!’ when Sissy was recognised both by father and daughter. But they got through the Act with great self-possession; and Mr. Sleary, saving for the first instant, conveyed no more expression into his locomotive eye than into his fixed one. The performance seemed a little long to Sissy and Louisa, particularly when it stopped to afford the Clown an opportunity of telling Mr. Sleary (who said ‘Indeed, sir!’ to all his observations in the calmest way, and with his eye on the house) about two legs sitting on three legs looking at one leg, when in came four legs, and laid hold of one leg, and up got two legs, caught hold of three legs, and threw ’em at four legs, who ran away with one leg. For, although an ingenious Allegory relating to a butcher, a three-legged stool, a dog, and a leg of mutton, this narrative consumed time; and they were in great suspense. At last, however, little fair-haired Josephine made her curtsey amid great applause; and the Clown, left alone in the ring, had just warmed himself, and said, ‘Now I’ll have a turn!’ when Sissy was touched on the shoulder, and beckoned out.

She took Louisa with her; and they were received by Mr. Sleary in a very little private apartment, with canvas sides, a grass floor, and a wooden ceiling all aslant, on which the box company stamped their approbation, as if they were coming through. ‘Thethilia,’ said Mr. Sleary, who had brandy and water at hand, ‘it doth me good to thee you. You wath alwayth a favourite with uth, and you’ve done uth credith thinth the old timeth I’m thure. You mutht thee our people, my dear, afore we thpeak of bithnith, or they’ll break their hearth — ethpethially the women. Here’th Jothphine hath been and got married to E. W. B. Childerth, and thee hath got a boy, and though he’th only three yearth old, he thtickth on to any pony you can bring againtht him. He’th named The Little Wonder of Thcolathtic Equitation; and if you don’t hear of that boy at Athley’th, you’ll hear of him at Parith. And you recollect Kidderminthter, that wath thought to be rather thweet upon yourthelf? Well. He’th married too. Married a widder. Old enough to be hith mother. Thee wath Tightrope, thee wath, and now thee’th nothing — on accounth of fat. They’ve got two children, tho we’re thtrong in the Fairy bithnith and the Nurthery dodge. If you wath to thee our Children in the Wood, with their father and mother both a dyin’ on a horthe — their uncle a retheiving of ’em ath hith wardth, upon a horthe — themthelvth both a goin’ a black-berryin’ on a horthe — and the Robinth a coming in to cover ’em with leavth, upon a horthe — you’d thay it wath the completetht thing ath ever you thet your eyeth on! And you remember Emma Gordon, my dear, ath wath a’motht a mother to you? Of courthe you do; I needn’t athk. Well! Emma, thee lotht her huthband. He wath throw’d a heavy back-fall off a Elephant in a thort of a Pagoda thing ath the Thultan of the Indieth, and he never got the better of it; and thee married a thecond time — married a Cheethemonger ath fell in love with her from the front — and he’th a Overtheer and makin’ a fortun.’

These various changes, Mr. Sleary, very short of breath now, related with great heartiness, and with a wonderful kind of innocence, considering what a bleary and brandy-and-watery old veteran he was. Afterwards he brought in Josephine, and E. W. B. Childers (rather deeply lined in the jaws by daylight), and the Little Wonder of Scholastic Equitation, and in a word, all the company. Amazing creatures they were in Louisa’s eyes, so white and pink of complexion, so scant of dress, and so demonstrative of leg; but it was very agreeable to see them crowding about Sissy, and very natural in Sissy to be unable to refrain from tears.

‘There! Now Thethilia hath kithd all the children, and hugged all the women, and thaken handth all round with all the men, clear, every one of you, and ring in the band for the thecond part!’

As soon as they were gone, he continued in a low tone. ‘Now, Thethilia, I don’t athk to know any thecreth, but I thuppothe I may conthider thith to be Mith Thquire.’

‘This is his sister. Yes.’

‘And t’other on’th daughter. That’h what I mean. Hope I thee you well, mith. And I hope the Thquire’th well?’

‘My father will be here soon,’ said Louisa, anxious to bring him to the point. ‘Is my brother safe?’

‘Thafe and thound!’ he replied. ‘I want you jutht to take a peep at the Ring, mith, through here. Thethilia, you know the dodgeth; find a thpy-hole for yourthelf.’

They each looked through a chink in the boards.

‘That’h Jack the Giant Killer — piethe of comic infant bithnith,’ said Sleary. ‘There’th a property-houthe, you thee, for Jack to hide in; there’th my Clown with a thauthepan-lid and a thpit, for Jack’th thervant; there’th little Jack himthelf in a thplendid thoot of armour; there’th two comic black thervanth twithe ath big ath the houthe, to thtand by it and to bring it in and clear it; and the Giant (a very ecthpenthive bathket one), he an’t on yet. Now, do you thee ’em all?’

‘Yes,’ they both said.

‘Look at ’em again,’ said Sleary, ‘look at ’em well. You thee em all? Very good. Now, mith;’ he put a form for them to sit on; ‘I have my opinionth, and the Thquire your father hath hith. I don’t want to know what your brother’th been up to; ith better for me not to know. All I thay ith, the Thquire hath thtood by Thethilia, and I’ll thtand by the Thquire. Your brother ith one them black thervanth.’

Louisa uttered an exclamation, partly of distress, partly of satisfaction.

‘Ith a fact,’ said Sleary, ‘and even knowin’ it, you couldn’t put your finger on him. Let the Thquire come. I thall keep your brother here after the performanth. I thant undreth him, nor yet wath hith paint off. Let the Thquire come here after the performanth, or come here yourthelf after the performanth, and you thall find your brother, and have the whole plathe to talk to him in. Never mind the lookth of him, ath long ath he’th well hid.’

Louisa, with many thanks and with a lightened load, detained Mr. Sleary no longer then. She left her love for her brother, with her eyes full of tears; and she and Sissy went away until later in the afternoon.

Mr. Gradgrind arrived within an hour afterwards. He too had encountered no one whom he knew; and was now sanguine with Sleary’s assistance, of getting his disgraced son to Liverpool in the night. As neither of the three could be his companion without almost identifying him under any disguise, he prepared a letter to a correspondent whom he could trust, beseeching him to ship the bearer off at any cost, to North or South America, or any distant part of the world to which he could be the most speedily and privately dispatched.

This done, they walked about, waiting for the Circus to be quite vacated; not only by the audience, but by the company and by the horses. After watching it a long time, they saw Mr. Sleary bring out a chair and sit down by the side-door, smoking; as if that were his signal that they might approach.

‘Your thervant, Thquire,’ was his cautious salutation as they passed in. ‘If you want me you’ll find me here. You muthn’t mind your thon having a comic livery on.’

They all three went in; and Mr. Gradgrind sat down forlorn, on the Clown’s performing chair in the middle of the ring. On one of the back benches, remote in the subdued light and the strangeness of the place, sat the villainous whelp, sulky to the last, whom he had the misery to call his son.

In a preposterous coat, like a beadle’s, with cuffs and flaps exaggerated to an unspeakable extent; in an immense waistcoat, knee-breeches, buckled shoes, and a mad cocked hat; with nothing fitting him, and everything of coarse material, moth-eaten and full of holes; with seams in his black face, where fear and heat had started through the greasy composition daubed all over it; anything so grimly, detestably, ridiculously shameful as the whelp in his comic livery, Mr. Gradgrind never could by any other means have believed in, weighable and measurable fact though it was. And one of his model children had come to this!

At first the whelp would not draw any nearer, but persisted in remaining up there by himself. Yielding at length, if any concession so sullenly made can be called yielding, to the entreaties of Sissy — for Louisa he disowned altogether — he came down, bench by bench, until he stood in the sawdust, on the verge of the circle, as far as possible, within its limits from where his father sat.

‘How was this done?’ asked the father.

‘How was what done?’ moodily answered the son.

‘This robbery,’ said the father, raising his voice upon the word.

‘I forced the safe myself over night, and shut it up ajar before I went away. I had had the key that was found, made long before. I dropped it that morning, that it might be supposed to have been used. I didn’t take the money all at once. I pretended to put my balance away every night, but I didn’t. Now you know all about it.’

‘If a thunderbolt had fallen on me,’ said the father, ‘it would have shocked me less than this!’

‘I don’t see why,’ grumbled the son. ‘So many people are employed in situations of trust; so many people, out of so many, will be dishonest. I have heard you talk, a hundred times, of its being a law. How can I help laws? You have comforted others with such things, father. Comfort yourself!’

The father buried his face in his hands, and the son stood in his disgraceful grotesqueness, biting straw: his hands, with the black partly worn away inside, looking like the hands of a monkey. The evening was fast closing in; and from time to time, he turned the whites of his eyes restlessly and impatiently towards his father. They were the only parts of his face that showed any life or expression, the pigment upon it was so thick.

‘You must be got to Liverpool, and sent abroad.’

‘I suppose I must. I can’t be more miserable anywhere,’ whimpered the whelp, ‘than I have been here, ever since I can remember. That’s one thing.’

Mr. Gradgrind went to the door, and returned with Sleary, to whom he submitted the question, How to get this deplorable object away?

‘Why, I’ve been thinking of it, Thquire. There’th not muth time to lothe, tho you muth thay yeth or no. Ith over twenty mileth to the rail. There’th a coath in half an hour, that goeth to the rail, ‘purpothe to cath the mail train. That train will take him right to Liverpool.’

‘But look at him,’ groaned Mr. Gradgrind. ‘Will any coach — ’

‘I don’t mean that he thould go in the comic livery,’ said Sleary. ‘Thay the word, and I’ll make a Jothkin of him, out of the wardrobe, in five minutes.’

‘I don’t understand,’ said Mr. Gradgrind.

‘A Jothkin — a Carter. Make up your mind quick, Thquire. There’ll be beer to feth. I’ve never met with nothing but beer ath’ll ever clean a comic blackamoor.’

Mr. Gradgrind rapidly assented; Mr. Sleary rapidly turned out from a box, a smock frock, a felt hat, and other essentials; the whelp rapidly changed clothes behind a screen of baize; Mr. Sleary rapidly brought beer, and washed him white again.

‘Now,’ said Sleary, ‘come along to the coath, and jump up behind; I’ll go with you there, and they’ll thuppothe you one of my people. Thay farewell to your family, and tharp’th the word.’ With which he delicately retired.

‘Here is your letter,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘All necessary means will be provided for you. Atone, by repentance and better conduct, for the shocking action you have committed, and the dreadful consequences to which it has led. Give me your hand, my poor boy, and may God forgive you as I do!’

The culprit was moved to a few abject tears by these words and their pathetic tone. But, when Louisa opened her arms, he repulsed her afresh.

‘Not you. I don’t want to have anything to say to you!’

‘O Tom, Tom, do we end so, after all my love!’

‘After all your love!’ he returned, obdurately. ‘Pretty love! Leaving old Bounderby to himself, and packing my best friend Mr. Harthouse off, and going home just when I was in the greatest danger. Pretty love that! Coming out with every word about our having gone to that place, when you saw the net was gathering round me. Pretty love that! You have regularly given me up. You never cared for me.’

‘Tharp’th the word!’ said Sleary, at the door.

They all confusedly went out: Louisa crying to him that she forgave him, and loved him still, and that he would one day be sorry to have left her so, and glad to think of these her last words, far away: when some one ran against them. Mr. Gradgrind and Sissy, who were both before him while his sister yet clung to his shoulder, stopped and recoiled.

For, there was Bitzer, out of breath, his thin lips parted, his thin nostrils distended, his white eyelashes quivering, his colourless face more colourless than ever, as if he ran himself into a white heat, when other people ran themselves into a glow. There he stood, panting and heaving, as if he had never stopped since the night, now long ago, when he had run them down before.

‘I’m sorry to interfere with your plans,’ said Bitzer, shaking his head, ‘but I can’t allow myself to be done by horse-riders. I must have young Mr. Tom; he mustn’t be got away by horse-riders; here he is in a smock frock, and I must have him!’

By the collar, too, it seemed. For, so he took possession of him.

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