Day and night again, day and night again. No Stephen Blackpool. Where was the man, and why did he not come back?
Every night, Sissy went to Rachael’s lodging, and sat with her in her small neat room. All day, Rachael toiled as such people must toil, whatever their anxieties. The smoke-serpents were indifferent who was lost or found, who turned out bad or good; the melancholy mad elephants, like the Hard Fact men, abated nothing of their set routine, whatever happened. Day and night again, day and night again. The monotony was unbroken. Even Stephen Blackpool’s disappearance was falling into the general way, and becoming as monotonous a wonder as any piece of machinery in Coketown.
‘I misdoubt,’ said Rachael, ‘if there is as many as twenty left in all this place, who have any trust in the poor dear lad now.’
She said it to Sissy, as they sat in her lodging, lighted only by the lamp at the street corner. Sissy had come there when it was already dark, to await her return from work; and they had since sat at the window where Rachael had found her, wanting no brighter light to shine on their sorrowful talk.
‘If it hadn’t been mercifully brought about, that I was to have you to speak to,’ pursued Rachael, ‘times are, when I think my mind would not have kept right. But I get hope and strength through you; and you believe that though appearances may rise against him, he will be proved clear?’
‘I do believe so,’ returned Sissy, ‘with my whole heart. I feel so certain, Rachael, that the confidence you hold in yours against all discouragement, is not like to be wrong, that I have no more doubt of him than if I had known him through as many years of trial as you have.’
‘And I, my dear,’ said Rachel, with a tremble in her voice, ‘have known him through them all, to be, according to his quiet ways, so faithful to everything honest and good, that if he was never to be heard of more, and I was to live to be a hundred years old, I could say with my last breath, God knows my heart. I have never once left trusting Stephen Blackpool!’
‘We all believe, up at the Lodge, Rachael, that he will be freed from suspicion, sooner or later.’
‘The better I know it to be so believed there, my dear,’ said Rachael, ‘and the kinder I feel it that you come away from there, purposely to comfort me, and keep me company, and be seen wi’ me when I am not yet free from all suspicion myself, the more grieved I am that I should ever have spoken those mistrusting words to the young lady. And yet I—’
‘You don’t mistrust her now, Rachael?’
‘Now that you have brought us more together, no. But I can’t at all times keep out of my mind—’
Her voice so sunk into a low and slow communing with herself, that Sissy, sitting by her side, was obliged to listen with attention.
‘I can’t at all times keep out of my mind, mistrustings of some one. I can’t think who ’tis, I can’t think how or why it may be done, but I mistrust that some one has put Stephen out of the way. I mistrust that by his coming back of his own accord, and showing himself innocent before them all, some one would be confounded, who—to prevent that—has stopped him, and put him out of the way.’
‘That is a dreadful thought,’ said Sissy, turning pale.
‘It is a dreadful thought to think he may be murdered.’
Sissy shuddered, and turned paler yet.
‘When it makes its way into my mind, dear,’ said Rachael, ‘and it will come sometimes, though I do all I can to keep it out, wi’ counting on to high numbers as I work, and saying over and over again pieces that I knew when I were a child—I fall into such a wild, hot hurry, that, however tired I am, I want to walk fast, miles and miles. I must get the better of this before bed-time. I’ll walk home wi’ you.’
‘He might fall ill upon the journey back,’ said Sissy, faintly offering a worn-out scrap of hope; ‘and in such a case, there are many places on the road where he might stop.’
‘But he is in none of them. He has been sought for in all, and he’s not there.’
‘True,’ was Sissy’s reluctant admission.
‘He’d walk the journey in two days. If he was footsore and couldn’t walk, I sent him, in the letter he got, the money to ride, lest he should have none of his own to spare.’
‘Let us hope that to-morrow will bring something better, Rachael. Come into the air!’
Her gentle hand adjusted Rachael’s shawl upon her shining black hair in the usual manner of her wearing it, and they went out. The night being fine, little knots of Hands were here and there lingering at street corners; but it was supper-time with the greater part of them, and there were but few people in the streets.
‘You’re not so hurried now, Rachael, and your hand is cooler.’
‘I get better, dear, if I can only walk, and breathe a little fresh. ‘Times when I can’t, I turn weak and confused.’
‘But you must not begin to fail, Rachael, for you may be wanted at any time to stand by Stephen. To-morrow is Saturday. If no news comes to-morrow, let us walk in the country on Sunday morning, and strengthen you for another week. Will you go?’
They were by this time in the street where Mr. Bounderby’s house stood. The way to Sissy’s destination led them past the door, and they were going straight towards it. Some train had newly arrived in Coketown, which had put a number of vehicles in motion, and scattered a considerable bustle about the town. Several coaches were rattling before them and behind them as they approached Mr. Bounderby’s, and one of the latter drew up with such briskness as they were in the act of passing the house, that they looked round involuntarily. The bright gaslight over Mr. Bounderby’s steps showed them Mrs. Sparsit in the coach, in an ecstasy of excitement, struggling to open the door; Mrs. Sparsit seeing them at the same moment, called to them to stop.
‘It’s a coincidence,’ exclaimed Mrs. Sparsit, as she was released by the coachman. ‘It’s a Providence! Come out, ma’am!’ then said Mrs. Sparsit, to some one inside, ‘come out, or we’ll have you dragged out!’
Hereupon, no other than the mysterious old woman descended. Whom Mrs. Sparsit incontinently collared.
‘Leave her alone, everybody!’ cried Mrs. Sparsit, with great energy. ‘Let nobody touch her. She belongs to me. Come in, ma’am!’ then said Mrs. Sparsit, reversing her former word of command. ‘Come in, ma’am, or we’ll have you dragged in!’
The spectacle of a matron of classical deportment, seizing an ancient woman by the throat, and hauling her into a dwelling-house, would have been under any circumstances, sufficient temptation to all true English stragglers so blest as to witness it, to force a way into that dwelling-house and see the matter out. But when the phenomenon was enhanced by the notoriety and mystery by this time associated all over the town with the Bank robbery, it would have lured the stragglers in, with an irresistible attraction, though the roof had been expected to fall upon their heads. Accordingly, the chance witnesses on the ground, consisting of the busiest of the neighbours to the number of some five-and-twenty, closed in after Sissy and Rachael, as they closed in after Mrs. Sparsit and her prize; and the whole body made a disorderly irruption into Mr. Bounderby’s dining-room, where the people behind lost not a moment’s time in mounting on the chairs, to get the better of the people in front.
‘Fetch Mr. Bounderby down!’ cried Mrs. Sparsit. ‘Rachael, young woman; you know who this is?’
‘It’s Mrs. Pegler,’ said Rachael.
‘I should think it is!’ cried Mrs. Sparsit, exulting. ‘Fetch Mr. Bounderby. Stand away, everybody!’ Here old Mrs. Pegler, muffling herself up, and shrinking from observation, whispered a word of entreaty. ‘Don’t tell me,’ said Mrs. Sparsit, aloud. ‘I have told you twenty times, coming along, that I will not leave you till I have handed you over to him myself.’
Mr. Bounderby now appeared, accompanied by Mr. Gradgrind and the whelp, with whom he had been holding conference up-stairs. Mr. Bounderby looked more astonished than hospitable, at sight of this uninvited party in his dining-room.
‘Why, what’s the matter now!’ said he. ‘Mrs. Sparsit, ma’am?’
‘Sir,’ explained that worthy woman, ‘I trust it is my good fortune to produce a person you have much desired to find. Stimulated by my wish to relieve your mind, sir, and connecting together such imperfect clues to the part of the country in which that person might be supposed to reside, as have been afforded by the young woman, Rachael, fortunately now present to identify, I have had the happiness to succeed, and to bring that person with me—I need not say most unwillingly on her part. It has not been, sir, without some trouble that I have effected this; but trouble in your service is to me a pleasure, and hunger, thirst, and cold a real gratification.’
Here Mrs. Sparsit ceased; for Mr. Bounderby’s visage exhibited an extraordinary combination of all possible colours and expressions of discomfiture, as old Mrs. Pegler was disclosed to his view.
‘Why, what do you mean by this?’ was his highly unexpected demand, in great warmth. ‘I ask you, what do you mean by this, Mrs. Sparsit, ma’am?’
‘Sir!’ exclaimed Mrs. Sparsit, faintly.
‘Why don’t you mind your own business, ma’am?’ roared Bounderby. ‘How dare you go and poke your officious nose into my family affairs?’
This allusion to her favourite feature overpowered Mrs. Sparsit. She sat down stiffly in a chair, as if she were frozen; and with a fixed stare at Mr. Bounderby, slowly grated her mittens against one another, as if they were frozen too.
‘My dear Josiah!’ cried Mrs. Pegler, trembling. ‘My darling boy! I am not to blame. It’s not my fault, Josiah. I told this lady over and over again, that I knew she was doing what would not be agreeable to you, but she would do it.’
‘What did you let her bring you for? Couldn’t you knock her cap off, or her tooth out, or scratch her, or do something or other to her?’ asked Bounderby.
‘My own boy! She threatened me that if I resisted her, I should be brought by constables, and it was better to come quietly than make that stir in such a’—Mrs. Pegler glanced timidly but proudly round the walls—‘such a fine house as this. Indeed, indeed, it is not my fault! My dear, noble, stately boy! I have always lived quiet, and secret, Josiah, my dear. I have never broken the condition once. I have never said I was your mother. I have admired you at a distance; and if I have come to town sometimes, with long times between, to take a proud peep at you, I have done it unbeknown, my love, and gone away again.’
Mr. Bounderby, with his hands in his pockets, walked in impatient mortification up and down at the side of the long dining-table, while the spectators greedily took in every syllable of Mrs. Pegler’s appeal, and at each succeeding syllable became more and more round-eyed. Mr. Bounderby still walking up and down when Mrs. Pegler had done, Mr. Gradgrind addressed that maligned old lady:
‘I am surprised, madam,’ he observed with severity, ‘that in your old age you have the face to claim Mr. Bounderby for your son, after your unnatural and inhuman treatment of him.’
‘Me unnatural!’ cried poor old Mrs. Pegler. ‘Me inhuman! To my dear boy?’
‘Dear!’ repeated Mr. Gradgrind. ‘Yes; dear in his self-made prosperity, madam, I dare say. Not very dear, however, when you deserted him in his infancy, and left him to the brutality of a drunken grandmother.’
‘I deserted my Josiah!’ cried Mrs. Pegler, clasping her hands. ‘Now, Lord forgive you, sir, for your wicked imaginations, and for your scandal against the memory of my poor mother, who died in my arms before Josiah was born. May you repent of it, sir, and live to know better!’
She was so very earnest and injured, that Mr. Gradgrind, shocked by the possibility which dawned upon him, said in a gentler tone:
‘Do you deny, then, madam, that you left your son to—to be brought up in the gutter?’
‘Josiah in the gutter!’ exclaimed Mrs. Pegler. ‘No such a thing, sir. Never! For shame on you! My dear boy knows, and will give you to know, that though he come of humble parents, he come of parents that loved him as dear as the best could, and never thought it hardship on themselves to pinch a bit that he might write and cipher beautiful, and I’ve his books at home to show it! Aye, have I!’ said Mrs. Pegler, with indignant pride. ‘And my dear boy knows, and will give you to know, sir, that after his beloved father died, when he was eight years old, his mother, too, could pinch a bit, as it was her duty and her pleasure and her pride to do it, to help him out in life, and put him ’prentice. And a steady lad he was, and a kind master he had to lend him a hand, and well he worked his own way forward to be rich and thriving. And I’ll give you to know, sir—for this my dear boy won’t—that though his mother kept but a little village shop, he never forgot her, but pensioned me on thirty pound a year—more than I want, for I put by out of it—only making the condition that I was to keep down in my own part, and make no boasts about him, and not trouble him. And I never have, except with looking at him once a year, when he has never knowed it. And it’s right,’ said poor old Mrs. Pegler, in affectionate championship, ‘that I should keep down in my own part, and I have no doubts that if I was here I should do a many unbefitting things, and I am well contented, and I can keep my pride in my Josiah to myself, and I can love for love’s own sake! And I am ashamed of you, sir,’ said Mrs. Pegler, lastly, ‘for your slanders and suspicions. And I never stood here before, nor never wanted to stand here when my dear son said no. And I shouldn’t be here now, if it hadn’t been for being brought here. And for shame upon you, Oh, for shame, to accuse me of being a bad mother to my son, with my son standing here to tell you so different!’
The bystanders, on and off the dining-room chairs, raised a murmur of sympathy with Mrs. Pegler, and Mr. Gradgrind felt himself innocently placed in a very distressing predicament, when Mr. Bounderby, who had never ceased walking up and down, and had every moment swelled larger and larger, and grown redder and redder, stopped short.
‘I don’t exactly know,’ said Mr. Bounderby, ‘how I come to be favoured with the attendance of the present company, but I don’t inquire. When they’re quite satisfied, perhaps they’ll be so good as to disperse; whether they’re satisfied or not, perhaps they’ll be so good as to disperse. I’m not bound to deliver a lecture on my family affairs, I have not undertaken to do it, and I’m not a going to do it. Therefore those who expect any explanation whatever upon that branch of the subject, will be disappointed—particularly Tom Gradgrind, and he can’t know it too soon. In reference to the Bank robbery, there has been a mistake made, concerning my mother. If there hadn’t been over-officiousness it wouldn’t have been made, and I hate over-officiousness at all times, whether or no. Good evening!’
Although Mr. Bounderby carried it off in these terms, holding the door open for the company to depart, there was a blustering sheepishness upon him, at once extremely crestfallen and superlatively absurd. Detected as the Bully of humility, who had built his windy reputation upon lies, and in his boastfulness had put the honest truth as far away from him as if he had advanced the mean claim (there is no meaner) to tack himself on to a pedigree, he cut a most ridiculous figure. With the people filing off at the door he held, who he knew would carry what had passed to the whole town, to be given to the four winds, he could not have looked a Bully more shorn and forlorn, if he had had his ears cropped. Even that unlucky female, Mrs. Sparsit, fallen from her pinnacle of exultation into the Slough of Despond, was not in so bad a plight as that remarkable man and self-made Humbug, Josiah Bounderby of Coketown.
Rachael and Sissy, leaving Mrs. Pegler to occupy a bed at her son’s for that night, walked together to the gate of Stone Lodge and there parted. Mr. Gradgrind joined them before they had gone very far, and spoke with much interest of Stephen Blackpool; for whom he thought this signal failure of the suspicions against Mrs. Pegler was likely to work well.
As to the whelp; throughout this scene as on all other late occasions, he had stuck close to Bounderby. He seemed to feel that as long as Bounderby could make no discovery without his knowledge, he was so far safe. He never visited his sister, and had only seen her once since she went home: that is to say on the night when he still stuck close to Bounderby, as already related.
There was one dim unformed fear lingering about his sister’s mind, to which she never gave utterance, which surrounded the graceless and ungrateful boy with a dreadful mystery. The same dark possibility had presented itself in the same shapeless guise, this very day, to Sissy, when Rachael spoke of some one who would be confounded by Stephen’s return, having put him out of the way. Louisa had never spoken of harbouring any suspicion of her brother in connexion with the robbery, she and Sissy had held no confidence on the subject, save in that one interchange of looks when the unconscious father rested his grey head on his hand; but it was understood between them, and they both knew it. This other fear was so awful, that it hovered about each of them like a ghostly shadow; neither daring to think of its being near herself, far less of its being near the other.
And still the forced spirit which the whelp had plucked up, throve with him. If Stephen Blackpool was not the thief, let him show himself. Why didn’t he?
Another night. Another day and night. No Stephen Blackpool. Where was the man, and why did he not come back?
Use the menu bar to access further chapters and additional content for Hard Times.