Hard Times, by Charles Dickens

Chapter IX— Sissy’s Progress

SISSY JUPE had not an easy time of it, between Mr. M’Choakumchild and Mrs. Gradgrind, and was not without strong impulses, in the first months of her probation, to run away. It hailed facts all day long so very hard, and life in general was opened to her as such a closely ruled ciphering-book, that assuredly she would have run away, but for only one restraint.

It is lamentable to think of; but this restraint was the result of no arithmetical process, was self-imposed in defiance of all calculation, and went dead against any table of probabilities that any Actuary would have drawn up from the premises. The girl believed that her father had not deserted her; she lived in the hope that he would come back, and in the faith that he would be made the happier by her remaining where she was.

The wretched ignorance with which Jupe clung to this consolation, rejecting the superior comfort of knowing, on a sound arithmetical basis, that her father was an unnatural vagabond, filled Mr. Gradgrind with pity. Yet, what was to be done? M’Choakumchild reported that she had a very dense head for figures; that, once possessed with a general idea of the globe, she took the smallest conceivable interest in its exact measurements; that she was extremely slow in the acquisition of dates, unless some pitiful incident happened to be connected therewith; that she would burst into tears on being required (by the mental process) immediately to name the cost of two hundred and forty-seven muslin caps at fourteen-pence halfpenny; that she was as low down, in the school, as low could be; that after eight weeks of induction into the elements of Political Economy, she had only yesterday been set right by a prattler three feet high, for returning to the question, ‘What is the first principle of this science?’ the absurd answer, ‘To do unto others as I would that they should do unto me.’

Mr. Gradgrind observed, shaking his head, that all this was very bad; that it showed the necessity of infinite grinding at the mill of knowledge, as per system, schedule, blue book, report, and tabular statements A to Z; and that Jupe ‘must be kept to it.’ So Jupe was kept to it, and became low-spirited, but no wiser.

‘It would be a fine thing to be you, Miss Louisa!’ she said, one night, when Louisa had endeavoured to make her perplexities for next day something clearer to her.

‘Do you think so?’

‘I should know so much, Miss Louisa. All that is difficult to me now, would be so easy then.’

‘You might not be the better for it, Sissy.’

Sissy submitted, after a little hesitation, ‘I should not be the worse, Miss Louisa.’ To which Miss Louisa answered, ‘I don’t know that.’

There had been so little communication between these two — both because life at Stone Lodge went monotonously round like a piece of machinery which discouraged human interference, and because of the prohibition relative to Sissy’s past career — that they were still almost strangers. Sissy, with her dark eyes wonderingly directed to Louisa’s face, was uncertain whether to say more or to remain silent.

‘You are more useful to my mother, and more pleasant with her than I can ever be,’ Louisa resumed. ‘You are pleasanter to yourself, than I am to myself.’

‘But, if you please, Miss Louisa,’ Sissy pleaded, ‘I am — O so stupid!’

Louisa, with a brighter laugh than usual, told her she would be wiser by-and-by.

‘You don’t know,’ said Sissy, half crying, ‘what a stupid girl I am. All through school hours I make mistakes. Mr. and Mrs. M’Choakumchild call me up, over and over again, regularly to make mistakes. I can’t help them. They seem to come natural to me.’

‘Mr. and Mrs. M’Choakumchild never make any mistakes themselves, I suppose, Sissy?’

‘O no!’ she eagerly returned. ‘They know everything.’

‘Tell me some of your mistakes.’

‘I am almost ashamed,’ said Sissy, with reluctance. ‘But to-day, for instance, Mr. M’Choakumchild was explaining to us about Natural Prosperity.’

‘National, I think it must have been,’ observed Louisa.

‘Yes, it was. — But isn’t it the same?’ she timidly asked.

‘You had better say, National, as he said so,’ returned Louisa, with her dry reserve.

‘National Prosperity. And he said, Now, this schoolroom is a Nation. And in this nation, there are fifty millions of money. Isn’t this a prosperous nation? Girl number twenty, isn’t this a prosperous nation, and a’n’t you in a thriving state?’

‘What did you say?’ asked Louisa.

‘Miss Louisa, I said I didn’t know. I thought I couldn’t know whether it was a prosperous nation or not, and whether I was in a thriving state or not, unless I knew who had got the money, and whether any of it was mine. But that had nothing to do with it. It was not in the figures at all,’ said Sissy, wiping her eyes.

‘That was a great mistake of yours,’ observed Louisa.

‘Yes, Miss Louisa, I know it was, now. Then Mr. M’Choakumchild said he would try me again. And he said, This schoolroom is an immense town, and in it there are a million of inhabitants, and only five-and-twenty are starved to death in the streets, in the course of a year. What is your remark on that proportion? And my remark was — for I couldn’t think of a better one — that I thought it must be just as hard upon those who were starved, whether the others were a million, or a million million. And that was wrong, too.’

‘Of course it was.’

‘Then Mr. M’Choakumchild said he would try me once more. And he said, Here are the stutterings — ’

‘Statistics,’ said Louisa.

‘Yes, Miss Louisa — they always remind me of stutterings, and that’s another of my mistakes — of accidents upon the sea. And I find (Mr. M’Choakumchild said) that in a given time a hundred thousand persons went to sea on long voyages, and only five hundred of them were drowned or burnt to death. What is the percentage? And I said, Miss;’ here Sissy fairly sobbed as confessing with extreme contrition to her greatest error; ‘I said it was nothing.’

‘Nothing, Sissy?’

‘Nothing, Miss — to the relations and friends of the people who were killed. I shall never learn,’ said Sissy. ‘And the worst of all is, that although my poor father wished me so much to learn, and although I am so anxious to learn, because he wished me to, I am afraid I don’t like it.’

Louisa stood looking at the pretty modest head, as it drooped abashed before her, until it was raised again to glance at her face. Then she asked:

‘Did your father know so much himself, that he wished you to be well taught too, Sissy?’

Sissy hesitated before replying, and so plainly showed her sense that they were entering on forbidden ground, that Louisa added, ‘No one hears us; and if any one did, I am sure no harm could be found in such an innocent question.’

‘No, Miss Louisa,’ answered Sissy, upon this encouragement, shaking her head; ‘father knows very little indeed. It’s as much as he can do to write; and it’s more than people in general can do to read his writing. Though it’s plain to me.’

‘Your mother!’

‘Father says she was quite a scholar. She died when I was born. She was;’ Sissy made the terrible communication nervously; ‘she was a dancer.’

‘Did your father love her?’ Louisa asked these questions with a strong, wild, wandering interest peculiar to her; an interest gone astray like a banished creature, and hiding in solitary places.

‘O yes! As dearly as he loves me. Father loved me, first, for her sake. He carried me about with him when I was quite a baby. We have never been asunder from that time.’

‘Yet he leaves you now, Sissy?’

‘Only for my good. Nobody understands him as I do; nobody knows him as I do. When he left me for my good — he never would have left me for his own — I know he was almost broken-hearted with the trial. He will not be happy for a single minute, till he comes back.’

‘Tell me more about him,’ said Louisa, ‘I will never ask you again. Where did you live?’

‘We travelled about the country, and had no fixed place to live in. Father’s a;’ Sissy whispered the awful word, ‘a clown.’

‘To make the people laugh?’ said Louisa, with a nod of intelligence.

‘Yes. But they wouldn’t laugh sometimes, and then father cried. Lately, they very often wouldn’t laugh, and he used to come home despairing. Father’s not like most. Those who didn’t know him as well as I do, and didn’t love him as dearly as I do, might believe he was not quite right. Sometimes they played tricks upon him; but they never knew how he felt them, and shrunk up, when he was alone with me. He was far, far timider than they thought!’

‘And you were his comfort through everything?’

She nodded, with the tears rolling down her face. ‘I hope so, and father said I was. It was because he grew so scared and trembling, and because he felt himself to be a poor, weak, ignorant, helpless man (those used to be his words), that he wanted me so much to know a great deal, and be different from him. I used to read to him to cheer his courage, and he was very fond of that. They were wrong books — I am never to speak of them here — but we didn’t know there was any harm in them.’

‘And he liked them?’ said Louisa, with a searching gaze on Sissy all this time.

‘O very much! They kept him, many times, from what did him real harm. And often and often of a night, he used to forget all his troubles in wondering whether the Sultan would let the lady go on with the story, or would have her head cut off before it was finished.’

‘And your father was always kind? To the last?’ asked Louisa contravening the great principle, and wondering very much.

‘Always, always!’ returned Sissy, clasping her hands. ‘Kinder and kinder than I can tell. He was angry only one night, and that was not to me, but Merrylegs. Merrylegs;’ she whispered the awful fact; ‘is his performing dog.’

‘Why was he angry with the dog?’ Louisa demanded.

‘Father, soon after they came home from performing, told Merrylegs to jump up on the backs of the two chairs and stand across them — which is one of his tricks. He looked at father, and didn’t do it at once. Everything of father’s had gone wrong that night, and he hadn’t pleased the public at all. He cried out that the very dog knew he was failing, and had no compassion on him. Then he beat the dog, and I was frightened, and said, “Father, father! Pray don’t hurt the creature who is so fond of you! O Heaven forgive you, father, stop!” And he stopped, and the dog was bloody, and father lay down crying on the floor with the dog in his arms, and the dog licked his face.’

Louisa saw that she was sobbing; and going to her, kissed her, took her hand, and sat down beside her.

‘Finish by telling me how your father left you, Sissy. Now that I have asked you so much, tell me the end. The blame, if there is any blame, is mine, not yours.’

‘Dear Miss Louisa,’ said Sissy, covering her eyes, and sobbing yet; ‘I came home from the school that afternoon, and found poor father just come home too, from the booth. And he sat rocking himself over the fire, as if he was in pain. And I said, “Have you hurt yourself, father?” (as he did sometimes, like they all did), and he said, “A little, my darling.” And when I came to stoop down and look up at his face, I saw that he was crying. The more I spoke to him, the more he hid his face; and at first he shook all over, and said nothing but “My darling;” and “My love!”’

Here Tom came lounging in, and stared at the two with a coolness not particularly savouring of interest in anything but himself, and not much of that at present.

‘I am asking Sissy a few questions, Tom,’ observed his sister. ‘You have no occasion to go away; but don’t interrupt us for a moment, Tom dear.’

‘Oh! very well!’ returned Tom. ‘Only father has brought old Bounderby home, and I want you to come into the drawing-room. Because if you come, there’s a good chance of old Bounderby’s asking me to dinner; and if you don’t, there’s none.’

‘I’ll come directly.’

‘I’ll wait for you,’ said Tom, ‘to make sure.’

Sissy resumed in a lower voice. ‘At last poor father said that he had given no satisfaction again, and never did give any satisfaction now, and that he was a shame and disgrace, and I should have done better without him all along. I said all the affectionate things to him that came into my heart, and presently he was quiet and I sat down by him, and told him all about the school and everything that had been said and done there. When I had no more left to tell, he put his arms round my neck, and kissed me a great many times. Then he asked me to fetch some of the stuff he used, for the little hurt he had had, and to get it at the best place, which was at the other end of town from there; and then, after kissing me again, he let me go. When I had gone down-stairs, I turned back that I might be a little bit more company to him yet, and looked in at the door, and said, “Father dear, shall I take Merrylegs?” Father shook his head and said, “No, Sissy, no; take nothing that’s known to be mine, my darling;” and I left him sitting by the fire. Then the thought must have come upon him, poor, poor father! of going away to try something for my sake; for when I came back, he was gone.’

‘I say! Look sharp for old Bounderby, Loo!’ Tom remonstrated.

‘There’s no more to tell, Miss Louisa. I keep the nine oils ready for him, and I know he will come back. Every letter that I see in Mr. Gradgrind’s hand takes my breath away and blinds my eyes, for I think it comes from father, or from Mr. Sleary about father. Mr. Sleary promised to write as soon as ever father should be heard of, and I trust to him to keep his word.’

‘Do look sharp for old Bounderby, Loo!’ said Tom, with an impatient whistle. ‘He’ll be off if you don’t look sharp!’

After this, whenever Sissy dropped a curtsey to Mr. Gradgrind in the presence of his family, and said in a faltering way, ‘I beg your pardon, sir, for being troublesome — but — have you had any letter yet about me?’ Louisa would suspend the occupation of the moment, whatever it was, and look for the reply as earnestly as Sissy did. And when Mr. Gradgrind regularly answered, ‘No, Jupe, nothing of the sort,’ the trembling of Sissy’s lip would be repeated in Louisa’s face, and her eyes would follow Sissy with compassion to the door. Mr. Gradgrind usually improved these occasions by remarking, when she was gone, that if Jupe had been properly trained from an early age she would have remonstrated to herself on sound principles the baselessness of these fantastic hopes. Yet it did seem (though not to him, for he saw nothing of it) as if fantastic hope could take as strong a hold as Fact.

This observation must be limited exclusively to his daughter. As to Tom, he was becoming that not unprecedented triumph of calculation which is usually at work on number one. As to Mrs. Gradgrind, if she said anything on the subject, she would come a little way out of her wrappers, like a feminine dormouse, and say:

‘Good gracious bless me, how my poor head is vexed and worried by that girl Jupe’s so perseveringly asking, over and over again, about her tiresome letters! Upon my word and honour I seem to be fated, and destined, and ordained, to live in the midst of things that I am never to hear the last of. It really is a most extraordinary circumstance that it appears as if I never was to hear the last of anything!’

At about this point, Mr. Gradgrind’s eye would fall upon her; and under the influence of that wintry piece of fact, she would become torpid again.

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