Hard Times, by Charles Dickens

Chapter VI— Sleary’s Horsemanship

THE name of the public-house was the Pegasus’s Arms. The Pegasus’s legs might have been more to the purpose; but, underneath the winged horse upon the sign-board, the Pegasus’s Arms was inscribed in Roman letters. Beneath that inscription again, in a flowing scroll, the painter had touched off the lines:

Good malt makes good beer, Walk in, and they’ll draw it here; Good wine makes good brandy, Give us a call, and you’ll find it handy.

Framed and glazed upon the wall behind the dingy little bar, was another Pegasus — a theatrical one — with real gauze let in for his wings, golden stars stuck on all over him, and his ethereal harness made of red silk.

As it had grown too dusky without, to see the sign, and as it had not grown light enough within to see the picture, Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby received no offence from these idealities. They followed the girl up some steep corner-stairs without meeting any one, and stopped in the dark while she went on for a candle. They expected every moment to hear Merrylegs give tongue, but the highly trained performing dog had not barked when the girl and the candle appeared together.

‘Father is not in our room, sir,’ she said, with a face of great surprise. ‘If you wouldn’t mind walking in, I’ll find him directly.’ They walked in; and Sissy, having set two chairs for them, sped away with a quick light step. It was a mean, shabbily furnished room, with a bed in it. The white night-cap, embellished with two peacock’s feathers and a pigtail bolt upright, in which Signor Jupe had that very afternoon enlivened the varied performances with his chaste Shaksperean quips and retorts, hung upon a nail; but no other portion of his wardrobe, or other token of himself or his pursuits, was to be seen anywhere. As to Merrylegs, that respectable ancestor of the highly trained animal who went aboard the ark, might have been accidentally shut out of it, for any sign of a dog that was manifest to eye or ear in the Pegasus’s Arms.

They heard the doors of rooms above, opening and shutting as Sissy went from one to another in quest of her father; and presently they heard voices expressing surprise. She came bounding down again in a great hurry, opened a battered and mangy old hair trunk, found it empty, and looked round with her hands clasped and her face full of terror.

‘Father must have gone down to the Booth, sir. I don’t know why he should go there, but he must be there; I’ll bring him in a minute!’ She was gone directly, without her bonnet; with her long, dark, childish hair streaming behind her.

‘What does she mean!’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘Back in a minute? It’s more than a mile off.’

Before Mr. Bounderby could reply, a young man appeared at the door, and introducing himself with the words, ‘By your leaves, gentlemen!’ walked in with his hands in his pockets. His face, close-shaven, thin, and sallow, was shaded by a great quantity of dark hair, brushed into a roll all round his head, and parted up the centre. His legs were very robust, but shorter than legs of good proportions should have been. His chest and back were as much too broad, as his legs were too short. He was dressed in a Newmarket coat and tight-fitting trousers; wore a shawl round his neck; smelt of lamp-oil, straw, orange-peel, horses’ provender, and sawdust; and looked a most remarkable sort of Centaur, compounded of the stable and the play-house. Where the one began, and the other ended, nobody could have told with any precision. This gentleman was mentioned in the bills of the day as Mr. E. W. B. Childers, so justly celebrated for his daring vaulting act as the Wild Huntsman of the North American Prairies; in which popular performance, a diminutive boy with an old face, who now accompanied him, assisted as his infant son: being carried upside down over his father’s shoulder, by one foot, and held by the crown of his head, heels upwards, in the palm of his father’s hand, according to the violent paternal manner in which wild huntsmen may be observed to fondle their offspring. Made up with curls, wreaths, wings, white bismuth, and carmine, this hopeful young person soared into so pleasing a Cupid as to constitute the chief delight of the maternal part of the spectators; but in private, where his characteristics were a precocious cutaway coat and an extremely gruff voice, he became of the Turf, turfy.

‘By your leaves, gentlemen,’ said Mr. E. W. B. Childers, glancing round the room. ‘It was you, I believe, that were wishing to see Jupe!’

‘It was,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘His daughter has gone to fetch him, but I can’t wait; therefore, if you please, I will leave a message for him with you.’

‘You see, my friend,’ Mr. Bounderby put in, ‘we are the kind of people who know the value of time, and you are the kind of people who don’t know the value of time.’

‘I have not,’ retorted Mr. Childers, after surveying him from head to foot, ‘the honour of knowing you, — but if you mean that you can make more money of your time than I can of mine, I should judge from your appearance, that you are about right.’

‘And when you have made it, you can keep it too, I should think,’ said Cupid.

‘Kidderminster, stow that!’ said Mr. Childers. (Master Kidderminster was Cupid’s mortal name.)

‘What does he come here cheeking us for, then?’ cried Master Kidderminster, showing a very irascible temperament. ‘If you want to cheek us, pay your ochre at the doors and take it out.’

‘Kidderminster,’ said Mr. Childers, raising his voice, ‘stow that! — Sir,’ to Mr. Gradgrind, ‘I was addressing myself to you. You may or you may not be aware (for perhaps you have not been much in the audience), that Jupe has missed his tip very often, lately.’

‘Has — what has he missed?’ asked Mr. Gradgrind, glancing at the potent Bounderby for assistance.

‘Missed his tip.’

‘Offered at the Garters four times last night, and never done ’em once,’ said Master Kidderminster. ‘Missed his tip at the banners, too, and was loose in his ponging.’

‘Didn’t do what he ought to do. Was short in his leaps and bad in his tumbling,’ Mr. Childers interpreted.

‘Oh!’ said Mr. Gradgrind, ‘that is tip, is it?’

‘In a general way that’s missing his tip,’ Mr. E. W. B. Childers answered.

‘Nine oils, Merrylegs, missing tips, garters, banners, and Ponging, eh!’ ejaculated Bounderby, with his laugh of laughs. ‘Queer sort of company, too, for a man who has raised himself!’

‘Lower yourself, then,’ retorted Cupid. ‘Oh Lord! if you’ve raised yourself so high as all that comes to, let yourself down a bit.’

‘This is a very obtrusive lad!’ said Mr. Gradgrind, turning, and knitting his brows on him.

‘We’d have had a young gentleman to meet you, if we had known you were coming,’ retorted Master Kidderminster, nothing abashed. ‘It’s a pity you don’t have a bespeak, being so particular. You’re on the Tight–Jeff, ain’t you?’

‘What does this unmannerly boy mean,’ asked Mr. Gradgrind, eyeing him in a sort of desperation, ‘by Tight–Jeff?’

‘There! Get out, get out!’ said Mr. Childers, thrusting his young friend from the room, rather in the prairie manner. ‘Tight–Jeff or Slack–Jeff, it don’t much signify: it’s only tight-rope and slack-rope. You were going to give me a message for Jupe?’

‘Yes, I was.’

‘Then,’ continued Mr. Childers, quickly, ‘my opinion is, he will never receive it. Do you know much of him?’

‘I never saw the man in my life.’

‘I doubt if you ever will see him now. It’s pretty plain to me, he’s off.’

‘Do you mean that he has deserted his daughter?’

‘Ay! I mean,’ said Mr. Childers, with a nod, ‘that he has cut. He was goosed last night, he was goosed the night before last, he was goosed to-day. He has lately got in the way of being always goosed, and he can’t stand it.’

‘Why has he been — so very much — Goosed?’ asked Mr. Gradgrind, forcing the word out of himself, with great solemnity and reluctance.

‘His joints are turning stiff, and he is getting used up,’ said Childers. ‘He has his points as a Cackler still, but he can’t get a living out of them.’

‘A Cackler!’ Bounderby repeated. ‘Here we go again!’

‘A speaker, if the gentleman likes it better,’ said Mr. E. W. B. Childers, superciliously throwing the interpretation over his shoulder, and accompanying it with a shake of his long hair — which all shook at once. ‘Now, it’s a remarkable fact, sir, that it cut that man deeper, to know that his daughter knew of his being goosed, than to go through with it.’

‘Good!’ interrupted Mr. Bounderby. ‘This is good, Gradgrind! A man so fond of his daughter, that he runs away from her! This is devilish good! Ha! ha! Now, I’ll tell you what, young man. I haven’t always occupied my present station of life. I know what these things are. You may be astonished to hear it, but my mother — ran away from me.’

E. W. B. Childers replied pointedly, that he was not at all astonished to hear it.

‘Very well,’ said Bounderby. ‘I was born in a ditch, and my mother ran away from me. Do I excuse her for it? No. Have I ever excused her for it? Not I. What do I call her for it? I call her probably the very worst woman that ever lived in the world, except my drunken grandmother. There’s no family pride about me, there’s no imaginative sentimental humbug about me. I call a spade a spade; and I call the mother of Josiah Bounderby of Coketown, without any fear or any favour, what I should call her if she had been the mother of Dick Jones of Wapping. So, with this man. He is a runaway rogue and a vagabond, that’s what he is, in English.’

‘It’s all the same to me what he is or what he is not, whether in English or whether in French,’ retorted Mr. E. W. B. Childers, facing about. ‘I am telling your friend what’s the fact; if you don’t like to hear it, you can avail yourself of the open air. You give it mouth enough, you do; but give it mouth in your own building at least,’ remonstrated E. W. B. with stern irony. ‘Don’t give it mouth in this building, till you’re called upon. You have got some building of your own I dare say, now?’

‘Perhaps so,’ replied Mr. Bounderby, rattling his money and laughing.

‘Then give it mouth in your own building, will you, if you please?’ said Childers. ‘Because this isn’t a strong building, and too much of you might bring it down!’

Eyeing Mr. Bounderby from head to foot again, he turned from him, as from a man finally disposed of, to Mr. Gradgrind.

‘Jupe sent his daughter out on an errand not an hour ago, and then was seen to slip out himself, with his hat over his eyes, and a bundle tied up in a handkerchief under his arm. She will never believe it of him, but he has cut away and left her.’

‘Pray,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, ‘why will she never believe it of him?’

‘Because those two were one. Because they were never asunder. Because, up to this time, he seemed to dote upon her,’ said Childers, taking a step or two to look into the empty trunk. Both Mr. Childers and Master Kidderminster walked in a curious manner; with their legs wider apart than the general run of men, and with a very knowing assumption of being stiff in the knees. This walk was common to all the male members of Sleary’s company, and was understood to express, that they were always on horseback.

‘Poor Sissy! He had better have apprenticed her,’ said Childers, giving his hair another shake, as he looked up from the empty box. ‘Now, he leaves her without anything to take to.’

‘It is creditable to you, who have never been apprenticed, to express that opinion,’ returned Mr. Gradgrind, approvingly.

‘I never apprenticed? I was apprenticed when I was seven year old.’

‘Oh! Indeed?’ said Mr. Gradgrind, rather resentfully, as having been defrauded of his good opinion. ‘I was not aware of its being the custom to apprentice young persons to — ’

‘Idleness,’ Mr. Bounderby put in with a loud laugh. ‘No, by the Lord Harry! Nor I!’

‘Her father always had it in his head,’ resumed Childers, feigning unconsciousness of Mr. Bounderby’s existence, ‘that she was to be taught the deuce-and-all of education. How it got into his head, I can’t say; I can only say that it never got out. He has been picking up a bit of reading for her, here — and a bit of writing for her, there — and a bit of ciphering for her, somewhere else — these seven years.’

Mr. E. W. B. Childers took one of his hands out of his pockets, stroked his face and chin, and looked, with a good deal of doubt and a little hope, at Mr. Gradgrind. From the first he had sought to conciliate that gentleman, for the sake of the deserted girl.

‘When Sissy got into the school here,’ he pursued, ‘her father was as pleased as Punch. I couldn’t altogether make out why, myself, as we were not stationary here, being but comers and goers anywhere. I suppose, however, he had this move in his mind — he was always half-cracked — and then considered her provided for. If you should happen to have looked in to-night, for the purpose of telling him that you were going to do her any little service,’ said Mr. Childers, stroking his face again, and repeating his look, ‘it would be very fortunate and well-timed; very fortunate and well-timed.’

‘On the contrary,’ returned Mr. Gradgrind. ‘I came to tell him that her connections made her not an object for the school, and that she must not attend any more. Still, if her father really has left her, without any connivance on her part — Bounderby, let me have a word with you.’

Upon this, Mr. Childers politely betook himself, with his equestrian walk, to the landing outside the door, and there stood stroking his face, and softly whistling. While thus engaged, he overheard such phrases in Mr. Bounderby’s voice as ‘No. I say no. I advise you not. I say by no means.’ While, from Mr. Gradgrind, he heard in his much lower tone the words, ‘But even as an example to Louisa, of what this pursuit which has been the subject of a vulgar curiosity, leads to and ends in. Think of it, Bounderby, in that point of view.’

Meanwhile, the various members of Sleary’s company gradually gathered together from the upper regions, where they were quartered, and, from standing about, talking in low voices to one another and to Mr. Childers, gradually insinuated themselves and him into the room. There were two or three handsome young women among them, with their two or three husbands, and their two or three mothers, and their eight or nine little children, who did the fairy business when required. The father of one of the families was in the habit of balancing the father of another of the families on the top of a great pole; the father of a third family often made a pyramid of both those fathers, with Master Kidderminster for the apex, and himself for the base; all the fathers could dance upon rolling casks, stand upon bottles, catch knives and balls, twirl hand-basins, ride upon anything, jump over everything, and stick at nothing. All the mothers could (and did) dance, upon the slack wire and the tight-rope, and perform rapid acts on bare-backed steeds; none of them were at all particular in respect of showing their legs; and one of them, alone in a Greek chariot, drove six in hand into every town they came to. They all assumed to be mighty rakish and knowing, they were not very tidy in their private dresses, they were not at all orderly in their domestic arrangements, and the combined literature of the whole company would have produced but a poor letter on any subject. Yet there was a remarkable gentleness and childishness about these people, a special inaptitude for any kind of sharp practice, and an untiring readiness to help and pity one another, deserving often of as much respect, and always of as much generous construction, as the every-day virtues of any class of people in the world.

Last of all appeared Mr. Sleary: a stout man as already mentioned, with one fixed eye, and one loose eye, a voice (if it can be called so) like the efforts of a broken old pair of bellows, a flabby surface, and a muddled head which was never sober and never drunk.

‘Thquire!’ said Mr. Sleary, who was troubled with asthma, and whose breath came far too thick and heavy for the letter s, ‘Your thervant! Thith ith a bad piethe of bithnith, thith ith. You’ve heard of my Clown and hith dog being thuppothed to have morrithed?’

He addressed Mr. Gradgrind, who answered ‘Yes.’

‘Well, Thquire,’ he returned, taking off his hat, and rubbing the lining with his pocket-handkerchief, which he kept inside for the purpose. ‘Ith it your intenthion to do anything for the poor girl, Thquire?’

‘I shall have something to propose to her when she comes back,’ said Mr. Gradgrind.

‘Glad to hear it, Thquire. Not that I want to get rid of the child, any more than I want to thtand in her way. I’m willing to take her prentith, though at her age ith late. My voithe ith a little huthky, Thquire, and not eathy heard by them ath don’t know me; but if you’d been chilled and heated, heated and chilled, chilled and heated in the ring when you wath young, ath often ath I have been, your voithe wouldn’t have lathted out, Thquire, no more than mine.’

‘I dare say not,’ said Mr. Gradgrind.

‘What thall it be, Thquire, while you wait? Thall it be Therry? Give it a name, Thquire!’ said Mr. Sleary, with hospitable ease.

‘Nothing for me, I thank you,’ said Mr. Gradgrind.

‘Don’t thay nothing, Thquire. What doth your friend thay? If you haven’t took your feed yet, have a glath of bitterth.’

Here his daughter Josephine — a pretty fair-haired girl of eighteen, who had been tied on a horse at two years old, and had made a will at twelve, which she always carried about with her, expressive of her dying desire to be drawn to the grave by the two piebald ponies — cried, ‘Father, hush! she has come back!’ Then came Sissy Jupe, running into the room as she had run out of it. And when she saw them all assembled, and saw their looks, and saw no father there, she broke into a most deplorable cry, and took refuge on the bosom of the most accomplished tight-rope lady (herself in the family-way), who knelt down on the floor to nurse her, and to weep over her.

‘Ith an internal thame, upon my thoul it ith,’ said Sleary.

‘O my dear father, my good kind father, where are you gone? You are gone to try to do me some good, I know! You are gone away for my sake, I am sure! And how miserable and helpless you will be without me, poor, poor father, until you come back!’ It was so pathetic to hear her saying many things of this kind, with her face turned upward, and her arms stretched out as if she were trying to stop his departing shadow and embrace it, that no one spoke a word until Mr. Bounderby (growing impatient) took the case in hand.

‘Now, good people all,’ said he, ‘this is wanton waste of time. Let the girl understand the fact. Let her take it from me, if you like, who have been run away from, myself. Here, what’s your name! Your father has absconded — deserted you — and you mustn’t expect to see him again as long as you live.’

They cared so little for plain Fact, these people, and were in that advanced state of degeneracy on the subject, that instead of being impressed by the speaker’s strong common sense, they took it in extraordinary dudgeon. The men muttered ‘Shame!’ and the women ‘Brute!’ and Sleary, in some haste, communicated the following hint, apart to Mr. Bounderby.

‘I tell you what, Thquire. To thpeak plain to you, my opinion ith that you had better cut it thort, and drop it. They’re a very good natur’d people, my people, but they’re accuthtomed to be quick in their movementh; and if you don’t act upon my advithe, I’m damned if I don’t believe they’ll pith you out o’ winder.’

Mr. Bounderby being restrained by this mild suggestion, Mr. Gradgrind found an opening for his eminently practical exposition of the subject.

‘It is of no moment,’ said he, ‘whether this person is to be expected back at any time, or the contrary. He is gone away, and there is no present expectation of his return. That, I believe, is agreed on all hands.’

‘Thath agreed, Thquire. Thick to that!’ From Sleary.

‘Well then. I, who came here to inform the father of the poor girl, Jupe, that she could not be received at the school any more, in consequence of there being practical objections, into which I need not enter, to the reception there of the children of persons so employed, am prepared in these altered circumstances to make a proposal. I am willing to take charge of you, Jupe, and to educate you, and provide for you. The only condition (over and above your good behaviour) I make is, that you decide now, at once, whether to accompany me or remain here. Also, that if you accompany me now, it is understood that you communicate no more with any of your friends who are here present. These observations comprise the whole of the case.’

‘At the thame time,’ said Sleary, ‘I mutht put in my word, Thquire, tho that both thides of the banner may be equally theen. If you like, Thethilia, to be prentitht, you know the natur of the work and you know your companionth. Emma Gordon, in whothe lap you’re a lying at prethent, would be a mother to you, and Joth’phine would be a thithter to you. I don’t pretend to be of the angel breed myself, and I don’t thay but what, when you mith’d your tip, you’d find me cut up rough, and thwear an oath or two at you. But what I thay, Thquire, ith, that good tempered or bad tempered, I never did a horthe a injury yet, no more than thwearing at him went, and that I don’t expect I thall begin otherwithe at my time of life, with a rider. I never wath much of a Cackler, Thquire, and I have thed my thay.’

The latter part of this speech was addressed to Mr. Gradgrind, who received it with a grave inclination of his head, and then remarked:

‘The only observation I will make to you, Jupe, in the way of influencing your decision, is, that it is highly desirable to have a sound practical education, and that even your father himself (from what I understand) appears, on your behalf, to have known and felt that much.’

The last words had a visible effect upon her. She stopped in her wild crying, a little detached herself from Emma Gordon, and turned her face full upon her patron. The whole company perceived the force of the change, and drew a long breath together, that plainly said, ‘she will go!’

‘Be sure you know your own mind, Jupe,’ Mr. Gradgrind cautioned her; ‘I say no more. Be sure you know your own mind!’

‘When father comes back,’ cried the girl, bursting into tears again after a minute’s silence, ‘how will he ever find me if I go away!’

‘You may be quite at ease,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, calmly; he worked out the whole matter like a sum: ‘you may be quite at ease, Jupe, on that score. In such a case, your father, I apprehend, must find out Mr. — ’

‘Thleary. Thath my name, Thquire. Not athamed of it. Known all over England, and alwayth paythe ith way.’

‘Must find out Mr. Sleary, who would then let him know where you went. I should have no power of keeping you against his wish, and he would have no difficulty, at any time, in finding Mr. Thomas Gradgrind of Coketown. I am well known.’

‘Well known,’ assented Mr. Sleary, rolling his loose eye. ‘You’re one of the thort, Thquire, that keepth a prethiouth thight of money out of the houthe. But never mind that at prethent.’

There was another silence; and then she exclaimed, sobbing with her hands before her face, ‘Oh, give me my clothes, give me my clothes, and let me go away before I break my heart!’

The women sadly bestirred themselves to get the clothes together — it was soon done, for they were not many — and to pack them in a basket which had often travelled with them. Sissy sat all the time upon the ground, still sobbing, and covering her eyes. Mr. Gradgrind and his friend Bounderby stood near the door, ready to take her away. Mr. Sleary stood in the middle of the room, with the male members of the company about him, exactly as he would have stood in the centre of the ring during his daughter Josephine’s performance. He wanted nothing but his whip.

The basket packed in silence, they brought her bonnet to her, and smoothed her disordered hair, and put it on. Then they pressed about her, and bent over her in very natural attitudes, kissing and embracing her: and brought the children to take leave of her; and were a tender-hearted, simple, foolish set of women altogether.

‘Now, Jupe,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘If you are quite determined, come!’

But she had to take her farewell of the male part of the company yet, and every one of them had to unfold his arms (for they all assumed the professional attitude when they found themselves near Sleary), and give her a parting kiss — Master Kidderminster excepted, in whose young nature there was an original flavour of the misanthrope, who was also known to have harboured matrimonial views, and who moodily withdrew. Mr. Sleary was reserved until the last. Opening his arms wide he took her by both her hands, and would have sprung her up and down, after the riding-master manner of congratulating young ladies on their dismounting from a rapid act; but there was no rebound in Sissy, and she only stood before him crying.

‘Good-bye, my dear!’ said Sleary. ‘You’ll make your fortun, I hope, and none of our poor folkth will ever trouble you, I’ll pound it. I with your father hadn’t taken hith dog with him; ith a ill-conwenienth to have the dog out of the billth. But on thecond thoughth, he wouldn’t have performed without hith mathter, tho ith ath broad ath ith long!’

With that he regarded her attentively with his fixed eye, surveyed his company with his loose one, kissed her, shook his head, and handed her to Mr. Gradgrind as to a horse.

‘There the ith, Thquire,’ he said, sweeping her with a professional glance as if she were being adjusted in her seat, ‘and the’ll do you juthtithe. Good-bye, Thethilia!’

‘Good-bye, Cecilia!’ ‘Good-bye, Sissy!’ ‘God bless you, dear!’ In a variety of voices from all the room.

But the riding-master eye had observed the bottle of the nine oils in her bosom, and he now interposed with ‘Leave the bottle, my dear; ith large to carry; it will be of no uthe to you now. Give it to me!’

‘No, no!’ she said, in another burst of tears. ‘Oh, no! Pray let me keep it for father till he comes back! He will want it when he comes back. He had never thought of going away, when he sent me for it. I must keep it for him, if you please!’

‘Tho be it, my dear. (You thee how it ith, Thquire!) Farewell, Thethilia! My latht wordth to you ith thith, Thtick to the termth of your engagement, be obedient to the Thquire, and forget uth. But if, when you’re grown up and married and well off, you come upon any horthe-riding ever, don’t be hard upon it, don’t be croth with it, give it a Bethpeak if you can, and think you might do wurth. People mutht be amuthed, Thquire, thomehow,’ continued Sleary, rendered more pursy than ever, by so much talking; ‘they can’t be alwayth a working, nor yet they can’t be alwayth a learning. Make the betht of uth; not the wurtht. I’ve got my living out of the horthe-riding all my life, I know; but I conthider that I lay down the philothophy of the thubject when I thay to you, Thquire, make the betht of uth: not the wurtht!’

The Sleary philosophy was propounded as they went downstairs and the fixed eye of Philosophy — and its rolling eye, too — soon lost the three figures and the basket in the darkness of the street.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/dickens/charles/d54ht/chapter6.html

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