Hard Times, by Charles Dickens

Chapter IX— Final

IT is a dangerous thing to see anything in the sphere of a vain blusterer, before the vain blusterer sees it himself. Mr. Bounderby felt that Mrs. Sparsit had audaciously anticipated him, and presumed to be wiser than he. Inappeasably indignant with her for her triumphant discovery of Mrs. Pegler, he turned this presumption, on the part of a woman in her dependent position, over and over in his mind, until it accumulated with turning like a great snowball. At last he made the discovery that to discharge this highly connected female — to have it in his power to say, ‘She was a woman of family, and wanted to stick to me, but I wouldn’t have it, and got rid of her’ — would be to get the utmost possible amount of crowning glory out of the connection, and at the same time to punish Mrs. Sparsit according to her deserts.

Filled fuller than ever, with this great idea, Mr. Bounderby came in to lunch, and sat himself down in the dining-room of former days, where his portrait was. Mrs. Sparsit sat by the fire, with her foot in her cotton stirrup, little thinking whither she was posting.

Since the Pegler affair, this gentlewoman had covered her pity for Mr. Bounderby with a veil of quiet melancholy and contrition. In virtue thereof, it had become her habit to assume a woful look, which woful look she now bestowed upon her patron.

‘What’s the matter now, ma’am?’ said Mr. Bounderby, in a very short, rough way.

‘Pray, sir,’ returned Mrs. Sparsit, ‘do not bite my nose off.’

‘Bite your nose off, ma’am?’ repeated Mr. Bounderby. ‘Your nose!’ meaning, as Mrs. Sparsit conceived, that it was too developed a nose for the purpose. After which offensive implication, he cut himself a crust of bread, and threw the knife down with a noise.

Mrs. Sparsit took her foot out of her stirrup, and said, ‘Mr. Bounderby, sir!’

‘Well, ma’am?’ retorted Mr. Bounderby. ‘What are you staring at?’

‘May I ask, sir,’ said Mrs. Sparsit, ‘have you been ruffled this morning?’

‘Yes, ma’am.’

‘May I inquire, sir,’ pursued the injured woman, ‘whether I am the unfortunate cause of your having lost your temper?’

‘Now, I’ll tell you what, ma’am,’ said Bounderby, ‘I am not come here to be bullied. A female may be highly connected, but she can’t be permitted to bother and badger a man in my position, and I am not going to put up with it.’ (Mr. Bounderby felt it necessary to get on: foreseeing that if he allowed of details, he would be beaten.)

Mrs. Sparsit first elevated, then knitted, her Coriolanian eyebrows; gathered up her work into its proper basket; and rose.

‘Sir,’ said she, majestically. ‘It is apparent to me that I am in your way at present. I will retire to my own apartment.’

‘Allow me to open the door, ma’am.’

‘Thank you, sir; I can do it for myself.’

‘You had better allow me, ma’am,’ said Bounderby, passing her, and getting his hand upon the lock; ‘because I can take the opportunity of saying a word to you, before you go. Mrs. Sparsit, ma’am, I rather think you are cramped here, do you know? It appears to me, that, under my humble roof, there’s hardly opening enough for a lady of your genius in other people’s affairs.’

Mrs. Sparsit gave him a look of the darkest scorn, and said with great politeness, ‘Really, sir?’

‘I have been thinking it over, you see, since the late affairs have happened, ma’am,’ said Bounderby; ‘and it appears to my poor judgment — ’

‘Oh! Pray, sir,’ Mrs. Sparsit interposed, with sprightly cheerfulness, ‘don’t disparage your judgment. Everybody knows how unerring Mr. Bounderby’s judgment is. Everybody has had proofs of it. It must be the theme of general conversation. Disparage anything in yourself but your judgment, sir,’ said Mrs. Sparsit, laughing.

Mr. Bounderby, very red and uncomfortable, resumed:

‘It appears to me, ma’am, I say, that a different sort of establishment altogether would bring out a lady of your powers. Such an establishment as your relation, Lady Scadgers’s, now. Don’t you think you might find some affairs there, ma’am, to interfere with?’

‘It never occurred to me before, sir,’ returned Mrs. Sparsit; ‘but now you mention it, should think it highly probable.’

‘Then suppose you try, ma’am,’ said Bounderby, laying an envelope with a cheque in it in her little basket. ‘You can take your own time for going, ma’am; but perhaps in the meanwhile, it will be more agreeable to a lady of your powers of mind, to eat her meals by herself, and not to be intruded upon. I really ought to apologise to you — being only Josiah Bounderby of Coketown — for having stood in your light so long.’

‘Pray don’t name it, sir,’ returned Mrs. Sparsit. ‘If that portrait could speak, sir — but it has the advantage over the original of not possessing the power of committing itself and disgusting others, — it would testify, that a long period has elapsed since I first habitually addressed it as the picture of a Noodle. Nothing that a Noodle does, can awaken surprise or indignation; the proceedings of a Noodle can only inspire contempt.’

Thus saying, Mrs. Sparsit, with her Roman features like a medal struck to commemorate her scorn of Mr. Bounderby, surveyed him fixedly from head to foot, swept disdainfully past him, and ascended the staircase. Mr. Bounderby closed the door, and stood before the fire; projecting himself after his old explosive manner into his portrait — and into futurity.

Into how much of futurity? He saw Mrs. Sparsit fighting out a daily fight at the points of all the weapons in the female armoury, with the grudging, smarting, peevish, tormenting Lady Scadgers, still laid up in bed with her mysterious leg, and gobbling her insufficient income down by about the middle of every quarter, in a mean little airless lodging, a mere closet for one, a mere crib for two; but did he see more? Did he catch any glimpse of himself making a show of Bitzer to strangers, as the rising young man, so devoted to his master’s great merits, who had won young Tom’s place, and had almost captured young Tom himself, in the times when by various rascals he was spirited away? Did he see any faint reflection of his own image making a vain-glorious will, whereby five-and-twenty Humbugs, past five-and-fifty years of age, each taking upon himself the name, Josiah Bounderby of Coketown, should for ever dine in Bounderby Hall, for ever lodge in Bounderby buildings, for ever attend a Bounderby chapel, for ever go to sleep under a Bounderby chaplain, for ever be supported out of a Bounderby estate, and for ever nauseate all healthy stomachs, with a vast amount of Bounderby balderdash and bluster? Had he any prescience of the day, five years to come, when Josiah Bounderby of Coketown was to die of a fit in the Coketown street, and this same precious will was to begin its long career of quibble, plunder, false pretences, vile example, little service and much law? Probably not. Yet the portrait was to see it all out.

Here was Mr. Gradgrind on the same day, and in the same hour, sitting thoughtful in his own room. How much of futurity did he see? Did he see himself, a white-haired decrepit man, bending his hitherto inflexible theories to appointed circumstances; making his facts and figures subservient to Faith, Hope, and Charity; and no longer trying to grind that Heavenly trio in his dusty little mills? Did he catch sight of himself, therefore much despised by his late political associates? Did he see them, in the era of its being quite settled that the national dustmen have only to do with one another, and owe no duty to an abstraction called a People, ‘taunting the honourable gentleman’ with this and with that and with what not, five nights a-week, until the small hours of the morning? Probably he had that much foreknowledge, knowing his men.

Here was Louisa on the night of the same day, watching the fire as in days of yore, though with a gentler and a humbler face. How much of the future might arise before her vision? Broadsides in the streets, signed with her father’s name, exonerating the late Stephen Blackpool, weaver, from misplaced suspicion, and publishing the guilt of his own son, with such extenuation as his years and temptation (he could not bring himself to add, his education) might beseech; were of the Present. So, Stephen Blackpool’s tombstone, with her father’s record of his death, was almost of the Present, for she knew it was to be. These things she could plainly see. But, how much of the Future?

A working woman, christened Rachael, after a long illness once again appearing at the ringing of the Factory bell, and passing to and fro at the set hours, among the Coketown Hands; a woman of pensive beauty, always dressed in black, but sweet-tempered and serene, and even cheerful; who, of all the people in the place, alone appeared to have compassion on a degraded, drunken wretch of her own sex, who was sometimes seen in the town secretly begging of her, and crying to her; a woman working, ever working, but content to do it, and preferring to do it as her natural lot, until she should be too old to labour any more? Did Louisa see this? Such a thing was to be.

A lonely brother, many thousands of miles away, writing, on paper blotted with tears, that her words had too soon come true, and that all the treasures in the world would be cheaply bartered for a sight of her dear face? At length this brother coming nearer home, with hope of seeing her, and being delayed by illness; and then a letter, in a strange hand, saying ‘he died in hospital, of fever, such a day, and died in penitence and love of you: his last word being your name’? Did Louisa see these things? Such things were to be.

Herself again a wife — a mother — lovingly watchful of her children, ever careful that they should have a childhood of the mind no less than a childhood of the body, as knowing it to be even a more beautiful thing, and a possession, any hoarded scrap of which, is a blessing and happiness to the wisest? Did Louisa see this? Such a thing was never to be.

But, happy Sissy’s happy children loving her; all children loving her; she, grown learned in childish lore; thinking no innocent and pretty fancy ever to be despised; trying hard to know her humbler fellow-creatures, and to beautify their lives of machinery and reality with those imaginative graces and delights, without which the heart of infancy will wither up, the sturdiest physical manhood will be morally stark death, and the plainest national prosperity figures can show, will be the Writing on the Wall, — she holding this course as part of no fantastic vow, or bond, or brotherhood, or sisterhood, or pledge, or covenant, or fancy dress, or fancy fair; but simply as a duty to be done, — did Louisa see these things of herself? These things were to be.

Dear reader! It rests with you and me, whether, in our two fields of action, similar things shall be or not. Let them be! We shall sit with lighter bosoms on the hearth, to see the ashes of our fires turn gray and cold.

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