Hard Times, by Charles Dickens

Chapter IV— Mr. Bounderby

NOT being Mrs. Grundy, who was Mr. Bounderby?

Why, Mr. Bounderby was as near being Mr. Gradgrind’s bosom friend, as a man perfectly devoid of sentiment can approach that spiritual relationship towards another man perfectly devoid of sentiment. So near was Mr. Bounderby — or, if the reader should prefer it, so far off.

He was a rich man: banker, merchant, manufacturer, and what not. A big, loud man, with a stare, and a metallic laugh. A man made out of a coarse material, which seemed to have been stretched to make so much of him. A man with a great puffed head and forehead, swelled veins in his temples, and such a strained skin to his face that it seemed to hold his eyes open, and lift his eyebrows up. A man with a pervading appearance on him of being inflated like a balloon, and ready to start. A man who could never sufficiently vaunt himself a self-made man. A man who was always proclaiming, through that brassy speaking-trumpet of a voice of his, his old ignorance and his old poverty. A man who was the Bully of humility.

A year or two younger than his eminently practical friend, Mr. Bounderby looked older; his seven or eight and forty might have had the seven or eight added to it again, without surprising anybody. He had not much hair. One might have fancied he had talked it off; and that what was left, all standing up in disorder, was in that condition from being constantly blown about by his windy boastfulness.

In the formal drawing-room of Stone Lodge, standing on the hearthrug, warming himself before the fire, Mr. Bounderby delivered some observations to Mrs. Gradgrind on the circumstance of its being his birthday. He stood before the fire, partly because it was a cool spring afternoon, though the sun shone; partly because the shade of Stone Lodge was always haunted by the ghost of damp mortar; partly because he thus took up a commanding position, from which to subdue Mrs. Gradgrind.

‘I hadn’t a shoe to my foot. As to a stocking, I didn’t know such a thing by name. I passed the day in a ditch, and the night in a pigsty. That’s the way I spent my tenth birthday. Not that a ditch was new to me, for I was born in a ditch.’

Mrs. Gradgrind, a little, thin, white, pink-eyed bundle of shawls, of surpassing feebleness, mental and bodily; who was always taking physic without any effect, and who, whenever she showed a symptom of coming to life, was invariably stunned by some weighty piece of fact tumbling on her; Mrs. Gradgrind hoped it was a dry ditch?

‘No! As wet as a sop. A foot of water in it,’ said Mr. Bounderby.

‘Enough to give a baby cold,’ Mrs. Gradgrind considered.

‘Cold? I was born with inflammation of the lungs, and of everything else, I believe, that was capable of inflammation,’ returned Mr. Bounderby. ‘For years, ma’am, I was one of the most miserable little wretches ever seen. I was so sickly, that I was always moaning and groaning. I was so ragged and dirty, that you wouldn’t have touched me with a pair of tongs.’

Mrs. Gradgrind faintly looked at the tongs, as the most appropriate thing her imbecility could think of doing.

‘How I fought through it, I don’t know,’ said Bounderby. ‘I was determined, I suppose. I have been a determined character in later life, and I suppose I was then. Here I am, Mrs. Gradgrind, anyhow, and nobody to thank for my being here, but myself.’

Mrs. Gradgrind meekly and weakly hoped that his mother —

‘My mother? Bolted, ma’am!’ said Bounderby.

Mrs. Gradgrind, stunned as usual, collapsed and gave it up.

‘My mother left me to my grandmother,’ said Bounderby; ‘and, according to the best of my remembrance, my grandmother was the wickedest and the worst old woman that ever lived. If I got a little pair of shoes by any chance, she would take ’em off and sell ’em for drink. Why, I have known that grandmother of mine lie in her bed and drink her four-teen glasses of liquor before breakfast!’

Mrs. Gradgrind, weakly smiling, and giving no other sign of vitality, looked (as she always did) like an indifferently executed transparency of a small female figure, without enough light behind it.

‘She kept a chandler’s shop,’ pursued Bounderby, ‘and kept me in an egg-box. That was the cot of my infancy; an old egg-box. As soon as I was big enough to run away, of course I ran away. Then I became a young vagabond; and instead of one old woman knocking me about and starving me, everybody of all ages knocked me about and starved me. They were right; they had no business to do anything else. I was a nuisance, an incumbrance, and a pest. I know that very well.’

His pride in having at any time of his life achieved such a great social distinction as to be a nuisance, an incumbrance, and a pest, was only to be satisfied by three sonorous repetitions of the boast.

‘I was to pull through it, I suppose, Mrs. Gradgrind. Whether I was to do it or not, ma’am, I did it. I pulled through it, though nobody threw me out a rope. Vagabond, errand-boy, vagabond, labourer, porter, clerk, chief manager, small partner, Josiah Bounderby of Coketown. Those are the antecedents, and the culmination. Josiah Bounderby of Coketown learnt his letters from the outsides of the shops, Mrs. Gradgrind, and was first able to tell the time upon a dial-plate, from studying the steeple clock of St. Giles’s Church, London, under the direction of a drunken cripple, who was a convicted thief, and an incorrigible vagrant. Tell Josiah Bounderby of Coketown, of your district schools and your model schools, and your training schools, and your whole kettle-of-fish of schools; and Josiah Bounderby of Coketown, tells you plainly, all right, all correct — he hadn’t such advantages — but let us have hard-headed, solid-fisted people — the education that made him won’t do for everybody, he knows well — such and such his education was, however, and you may force him to swallow boiling fat, but you shall never force him to suppress the facts of his life.’

Being heated when he arrived at this climax, Josiah Bounderby of Coketown stopped. He stopped just as his eminently practical friend, still accompanied by the two young culprits, entered the room. His eminently practical friend, on seeing him, stopped also, and gave Louisa a reproachful look that plainly said, ‘Behold your Bounderby!’

‘Well!’ blustered Mr. Bounderby, ‘what’s the matter? What is young Thomas in the dumps about?’

He spoke of young Thomas, but he looked at Louisa.

‘We were peeping at the circus,’ muttered Louisa, haughtily, without lifting up her eyes, ‘and father caught us.’

‘And, Mrs. Gradgrind,’ said her husband in a lofty manner, ‘I should as soon have expected to find my children reading poetry.’

‘Dear me,’ whimpered Mrs. Gradgrind. ‘How can you, Louisa and Thomas! I wonder at you. I declare you’re enough to make one regret ever having had a family at all. I have a great mind to say I wish I hadn’t. Then what would you have done, I should like to know?’

Mr. Gradgrind did not seem favourably impressed by these cogent remarks. He frowned impatiently.

‘As if, with my head in its present throbbing state, you couldn’t go and look at the shells and minerals and things provided for you, instead of circuses!’ said Mrs. Gradgrind. ‘You know, as well as I do, no young people have circus masters, or keep circuses in cabinets, or attend lectures about circuses. What can you possibly want to know of circuses then? I am sure you have enough to do, if that’s what you want. With my head in its present state, I couldn’t remember the mere names of half the facts you have got to attend to.’

‘That’s the reason!’ pouted Louisa.

‘Don’t tell me that’s the reason, because it can’t be nothing of the sort,’ said Mrs. Gradgrind. ‘Go and be somethingological directly.’ Mrs. Gradgrind was not a scientific character, and usually dismissed her children to their studies with this general injunction to choose their pursuit.

In truth, Mrs. Gradgrind’s stock of facts in general was woefully defective; but Mr. Gradgrind in raising her to her high matrimonial position, had been influenced by two reasons. Firstly, she was most satisfactory as a question of figures; and, secondly, she had ‘no nonsense’ about her. By nonsense he meant fancy; and truly it is probable she was as free from any alloy of that nature, as any human being not arrived at the perfection of an absolute idiot, ever was.

The simple circumstance of being left alone with her husband and Mr. Bounderby, was sufficient to stun this admirable lady again without collision between herself and any other fact. So, she once more died away, and nobody minded her.

‘Bounderby,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, drawing a chair to the fireside, ‘you are always so interested in my young people — particularly in Louisa — that I make no apology for saying to you, I am very much vexed by this discovery. I have systematically devoted myself (as you know) to the education of the reason of my family. The reason is (as you know) the only faculty to which education should be addressed. ‘And yet, Bounderby, it would appear from this unexpected circumstance of to-day, though in itself a trifling one, as if something had crept into Thomas’s and Louisa’s minds which is — or rather, which is not — I don’t know that I can express myself better than by saying — which has never been intended to be developed, and in which their reason has no part.’

‘There certainly is no reason in looking with interest at a parcel of vagabonds,’ returned Bounderby. ‘When I was a vagabond myself, nobody looked with any interest at me; I know that.’

‘Then comes the question; said the eminently practical father, with his eyes on the fire, ‘in what has this vulgar curiosity its rise?’

‘I’ll tell you in what. In idle imagination.’

‘I hope not,’ said the eminently practical; ‘I confess, however, that the misgiving has crossed me on my way home.’

‘In idle imagination, Gradgrind,’ repeated Bounderby. ‘A very bad thing for anybody, but a cursed bad thing for a girl like Louisa. I should ask Mrs. Gradgrind’s pardon for strong expressions, but that she knows very well I am not a refined character. Whoever expects refinement in me will be disappointed. I hadn’t a refined bringing up.’

‘Whether,’ said Gradgrind, pondering with his hands in his pockets, and his cavernous eyes on the fire, ‘whether any instructor or servant can have suggested anything? Whether Louisa or Thomas can have been reading anything? Whether, in spite of all precautions, any idle story-book can have got into the house? Because, in minds that have been practically formed by rule and line, from the cradle upwards, this is so curious, so incomprehensible.’

‘Stop a bit!’ cried Bounderby, who all this time had been standing, as before, on the hearth, bursting at the very furniture of the room with explosive humility. ‘You have one of those strollers’ children in the school.’

‘Cecilia Jupe, by name,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, with something of a stricken look at his friend.

‘Now, stop a bit!’ cried Bounderby again. ‘How did she come there?’

‘Why, the fact is, I saw the girl myself, for the first time, only just now. She specially applied here at the house to be admitted, as not regularly belonging to our town, and — yes, you are right, Bounderby, you are right.’

‘Now, stop a bit!’ cried Bounderby, once more. ‘Louisa saw her when she came?’

‘Louisa certainly did see her, for she mentioned the application to me. But Louisa saw her, I have no doubt, in Mrs. Gradgrind’s presence.’

‘Pray, Mrs. Gradgrind,’ said Bounderby, ‘what passed?’

‘Oh, my poor health!’ returned Mrs. Gradgrind. ‘The girl wanted to come to the school, and Mr. Gradgrind wanted girls to come to the school, and Louisa and Thomas both said that the girl wanted to come, and that Mr. Gradgrind wanted girls to come, and how was it possible to contradict them when such was the fact!’

‘Now I tell you what, Gradgrind!’ said Mr. Bounderby. ‘Turn this girl to the right about, and there’s an end of it.’

‘I am much of your opinion.’

‘Do it at once,’ said Bounderby, ‘has always been my motto from a child. When I thought I would run away from my egg-box and my grandmother, I did it at once. Do you the same. Do this at once!’

‘Are you walking?’ asked his friend. ‘I have the father’s address. Perhaps you would not mind walking to town with me?’

‘Not the least in the world,’ said Mr. Bounderby, ‘as long as you do it at once!’

So, Mr. Bounderby threw on his hat — he always threw it on, as expressing a man who had been far too busily employed in making himself, to acquire any fashion of wearing his hat — and with his hands in his pockets, sauntered out into the hall. ‘I never wear gloves,’ it was his custom to say. ‘I didn’t climb up the ladder in them. — Shouldn’t be so high up, if I had.’

Being left to saunter in the hall a minute or two while Mr. Gradgrind went up-stairs for the address, he opened the door of the children’s study and looked into that serene floor-clothed apartment, which, notwithstanding its book-cases and its cabinets and its variety of learned and philosophical appliances, had much of the genial aspect of a room devoted to hair-cutting. Louisa languidly leaned upon the window looking out, without looking at anything, while young Thomas stood sniffing revengefully at the fire. Adam Smith and Malthus, two younger Gradgrinds, were out at lecture in custody; and little Jane, after manufacturing a good deal of moist pipe-clay on her face with slate-pencil and tears, had fallen asleep over vulgar fractions.

‘It’s all right now, Louisa: it’s all right, young Thomas,’ said Mr. Bounderby; ‘you won’t do so any more. I’ll answer for it’s being all over with father. Well, Louisa, that’s worth a kiss, isn’t it?’

‘You can take one, Mr. Bounderby,’ returned Louisa, when she had coldly paused, and slowly walked across the room, and ungraciously raised her cheek towards him, with her face turned away.

‘Always my pet; ain’t you, Louisa?’ said Mr. Bounderby. ‘Good-bye, Louisa!’

He went his way, but she stood on the same spot, rubbing the cheek he had kissed, with her handkerchief, until it was burning red. She was still doing this, five minutes afterwards.

‘What are you about, Loo?’ her brother sulkily remonstrated. ‘You’ll rub a hole in your face.’

‘You may cut the piece out with your penknife if you like, Tom. I wouldn’t cry!’

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