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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesHard Times - BOOK THE FIRST - SOWING - Chapter X - STEPHEN BLACKPOOL
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Hard Times - BOOK THE FIRST - SOWING - Chapter X - STEPHEN BLACKPOOL Post by :dantefiore Category :Long Stories Author :Charles Dickens Date :February 2011 Read :738

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Hard Times - BOOK THE FIRST - SOWING - Chapter X - STEPHEN BLACKPOOL

I ENTERTAIN a weak idea that the English people are as hard-worked
as any people upon whom the sun shines. I acknowledge to this
ridiculous idiosyncrasy, as a reason why I would give them a little
more play.

In the hardest working part of Coketown; in the innermost
fortifications of that ugly citadel, where Nature was as strongly
bricked out as killing airs and gases were bricked in; at the heart
of the labyrinth of narrow courts upon courts, and close streets
upon streets, which had come into existence piecemeal, every piece
in a violent hurry for some one man's purpose, and the whole an
unnatural family, shouldering, and trampling, and pressing one
another to death; in the last close nook of this great exhausted
receiver, where the chimneys, for want of air to make a draught,
were built in an immense variety of stunted and crooked shapes, as
though every house put out a sign of the kind of people who might
be expected to be born in it; among the multitude of Coketown,
generically called 'the Hands,' - a race who would have found more
favour with some people, if Providence had seen fit to make them
only hands, or, like the lower creatures of the seashore, only
hands and stomachs - lived a certain Stephen Blackpool, forty years
of age.

Stephen looked older, but he had had a hard life. It is said that
every life has its roses and thorns; there seemed, however, to have
been a misadventure or mistake in Stephen's case, whereby somebody
else had become possessed of his roses, and he had become possessed
of the same somebody else's thorns in addition to his own. He had
known, to use his words, a peck of trouble. He was usually called
Old Stephen, in a kind of rough homage to the fact.

A rather stooping man, with a knitted brow, a pondering expression
of face, and a hard-looking head sufficiently capacious, on which
his iron-grey hair lay long and thin, Old Stephen might have passed
for a particularly intelligent man in his condition. Yet he was
not. He took no place among those remarkable 'Hands,' who, piecing
together their broken intervals of leisure through many years, had
mastered difficult sciences, and acquired a knowledge of most
unlikely things. He held no station among the Hands who could make
speeches and carry on debates. Thousands of his compeers could
talk much better than he, at any time. He was a good power-loom
weaver, and a man of perfect integrity. What more he was, or what
else he had in him, if anything, let him show for himself.

The lights in the great factories, which looked, when they were
illuminated, like Fairy palaces - or the travellers by express-
train said so - were all extinguished; and the bells had rung for
knocking off for the night, and had ceased again; and the Hands,
men and women, boy and girl, were clattering home. Old Stephen was
standing in the street, with the old sensation upon him which the
stoppage of the machinery always produced - the sensation of its
having worked and stopped in his own head.

'Yet I don't see Rachael, still!' said he.

It was a wet night, and many groups of young women passed him, with
their shawls drawn over their bare heads and held close under their
chins to keep the rain out. He knew Rachael well, for a glance at
any one of these groups was sufficient to show him that she was not
there. At last, there were no more to come; and then he turned
away, saying in a tone of disappointment, 'Why, then, ha' missed
her!'

But, he had not gone the length of three streets, when he saw
another of the shawled figures in advance of him, at which he
looked so keenly that perhaps its mere shadow indistinctly
reflected on the wet pavement - if he could have seen it without
the figure itself moving along from lamp to lamp, brightening and
fading as it went - would have been enough to tell him who was
there. Making his pace at once much quicker and much softer, he
darted on until he was very near this figure, then fell into his
former walk, and called 'Rachael!'

She turned, being then in the brightness of a lamp; and raising her
hood a little, showed a quiet oval face, dark and rather delicate,
irradiated by a pair of very gentle eyes, and further set off by
the perfect order of her shining black hair. It was not a face in
its first bloom; she was a woman five and thirty years of age.

'Ah, lad! 'Tis thou?' When she had said this, with a smile which
would have been quite expressed, though nothing of her had been
seen but her pleasant eyes, she replaced her hood again, and they
went on together.

'I thought thou wast ahind me, Rachael?'

'No.'

'Early t'night, lass?'

''Times I'm a little early, Stephen! 'times a little late. I'm
never to be counted on, going home.'

'Nor going t'other way, neither, 't seems to me, Rachael?'

'No, Stephen.'

He looked at her with some disappointment in his face, but with a
respectful and patient conviction that she must be right in
whatever she did. The expression was not lost upon her; she laid
her hand lightly on his arm a moment as if to thank him for it.

'We are such true friends, lad, and such old friends, and getting
to be such old folk, now.'

'No, Rachael, thou'rt as young as ever thou wast.'

'One of us would be puzzled how to get old, Stephen, without 't
other getting so too, both being alive,' she answered, laughing;
'but, anyways, we're such old friends, and t' hide a word of honest
truth fro' one another would be a sin and a pity. 'Tis better not
to walk too much together. 'Times, yes! 'Twould be hard, indeed,
if 'twas not to be at all,' she said, with a cheerfulness she
sought to communicate to him.

''Tis hard, anyways, Rachael.'

'Try to think not; and 'twill seem better.'

'I've tried a long time, and 'ta'nt got better. But thou'rt right;
't might mak fok talk, even of thee. Thou hast been that to me,
Rachael, through so many year: thou hast done me so much good, and
heartened of me in that cheering way, that thy word is a law to me.
Ah, lass, and a bright good law! Better than some real ones.'

'Never fret about them, Stephen,' she answered quickly, and not
without an anxious glance at his face. 'Let the laws be.'

'Yes,' he said, with a slow nod or two. 'Let 'em be. Let
everything be. Let all sorts alone. 'Tis a muddle, and that's
aw.'

'Always a muddle?' said Rachael, with another gentle touch upon his
arm, as if to recall him out of the thoughtfulness, in which he was
biting the long ends of his loose neckerchief as he walked along.
The touch had its instantaneous effect. He let them fall, turned a
smiling face upon her, and said, as he broke into a good-humoured
laugh, 'Ay, Rachael, lass, awlus a muddle. That's where I stick.
I come to the muddle many times and agen, and I never get beyond
it.'

They had walked some distance, and were near their own homes. The
woman's was the first reached. It was in one of the many small
streets for which the favourite undertaker (who turned a handsome
sum out of the one poor ghastly pomp of the neighbourhood) kept a
black ladder, in order that those who had done their daily groping
up and down the narrow stairs might slide out of this working world
by the windows. She stopped at the corner, and putting her hand in
his, wished him good night.

'Good night, dear lass; good night!'

She went, with her neat figure and her sober womanly step, down the
dark street, and he stood looking after her until she turned into
one of the small houses. There was not a flutter of her coarse
shawl, perhaps, but had its interest in this man's eyes; not a tone
of her voice but had its echo in his innermost heart.

When she was lost to his view, he pursued his homeward way,
glancing up sometimes at the sky, where the clouds were sailing
fast and wildly. But, they were broken now, and the rain had
ceased, and the moon shone, - looking down the high chimneys of
Coketown on the deep furnaces below, and casting Titanic shadows of
the steam-engines at rest, upon the walls where they were lodged.
The man seemed to have brightened with the night, as he went on.

His home, in such another street as the first, saving that it was
narrower, was over a little shop. How it came to pass that any
people found it worth their while to sell or buy the wretched
little toys, mixed up in its window with cheap newspapers and pork
(there was a leg to be raffled for to-morrow-night), matters not
here. He took his end of candle from a shelf, lighted it at
another end of candle on the counter, without disturbing the
mistress of the shop who was asleep in her little room, and went
upstairs into his lodging.

It was a room, not unacquainted with the black ladder under various
tenants; but as neat, at present, as such a room could be. A few
books and writings were on an old bureau in a corner, the furniture
was decent and sufficient, and, though the atmosphere was tainted,
the room was clean.

Going to the hearth to set the candle down upon a round three-
legged table standing there, he stumbled against something. As he
recoiled, looking down at it, it raised itself up into the form of
a woman in a sitting attitude.

'Heaven's mercy, woman!' he cried, falling farther off from the
figure. 'Hast thou come back again!'

Such a woman! A disabled, drunken creature, barely able to
preserve her sitting posture by steadying herself with one begrimed
hand on the floor, while the other was so purposeless in trying to
push away her tangled hair from her face, that it only blinded her
the more with the dirt upon it. A creature so foul to look at, in
her tatters, stains and splashes, but so much fouler than that in
her moral infamy, that it was a shameful thing even to see her.

After an impatient oath or two, and some stupid clawing of herself
with the hand not necessary to her support, she got her hair away
from her eyes sufficiently to obtain a sight of him. Then she sat
swaying her body to and fro, and making gestures with her unnerved
arm, which seemed intended as the accompaniment to a fit of
laughter, though her face was stolid and drowsy.

'Eigh, lad? What, yo'r there?' Some hoarse sounds meant for this,
came mockingly out of her at last; and her head dropped forward on
her breast.

'Back agen?' she screeched, after some minutes, as if he had that
moment said it. 'Yes! And back agen. Back agen ever and ever so
often. Back? Yes, back. Why not?'

Roused by the unmeaning violence with which she cried it out, she
scrambled up, and stood supporting herself with her shoulders
against the wall; dangling in one hand by the string, a dunghill-
fragment of a bonnet, and trying to look scornfully at him.

'I'll sell thee off again, and I'll sell thee off again, and I'll
sell thee off a score of times!' she cried, with something between
a furious menace and an effort at a defiant dance. 'Come awa' from
th' bed!' He was sitting on the side of it, with his face hidden
in his hands. 'Come awa! from 't. 'Tis mine, and I've a right to
t'!'

As she staggered to it, he avoided her with a shudder, and passed -
his face still hidden - to the opposite end of the room. She threw
herself upon the bed heavily, and soon was snoring hard. He sunk
into a chair, and moved but once all that night. It was to throw a
covering over her; as if his hands were not enough to hide her,
even in the darkness.

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