|Scene:||Coketown (an English factory town) and the Country.|
|Mr. Gradgrind||A believer in "facts"|
|Mrs. Gradgrind||His wife|
|Josiah Bounderby||A pompous mill owner and banker|
|Later, Louisa's husband|
|"Mrs. Pegler"||His mother|
|Mrs. Sparsit||His housekeeper|
|Mr. M'Choakumchild||A schoolmaster|
|Sleary||The proprietor of a circus|
|"Signor" Jupe||The clown|
|Cecelia Jupe||His daughter. Known as "Sissy"|
|Stephen Blackpool |
| ||Mill workers|
|James Harthouse||A man of the world|
|"Merrylegs"||Signor Jupe's performing dog|
In a cheerless house called Stone Lodge, in Coketown, a factory town in England, where great weaving mills made the sky a blur of soot and smoke, lived a man named Gradgrind. He was an obstinate, stubborn man, with a square wall of a forehead and a wide, thin, set mouth. His head was bald and shining, covered with knobs like the crust of a plum pie, and skirted with bristling hair. He had grown rich in the hardware business, and was a school director of the town.
He believed in nothing but "facts." Everything in the world to him was good only to weigh and measure, and wherever he went one would have thought he carried in his pocket a rule and scales and the multiplication table. He seemed a kind of human cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts.
"Now, what I want is facts!" he used to say to Mr. M'Choakumchild, the schoolmaster. "Teach boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Nothing else is of any service to anybody. Stick to facts, sir."
He had several children whom he had brought[Pg 414] up according to this system of his, and they led wretched lives. No little Gradgrind child had ever seen a face in the moon, or learned Mother Goose or listened to fairy stories, or read The Arabian Nights. They all hated Coketown, always rattling and throbbing with machinery; they hated its houses all built of brick as red as an Indian's face, and its black canal and river purple with dyes. And most of all they hated facts.
Louisa, the eldest daughter, looked jaded, for her imagination was quite starved under their teachings. Tom, her younger brother, was defiant and sullen. "I wish," he used to say, "that I could collect all the facts and all the figures in the world, and all the people who found them out, and I wish I could put a thousand pounds of gunpowder under them and blow them all up together!"
Louisa was generous, and the only love she knew was for her selfish, worthless brother, who repaid her with very little affection. Of their mother they saw very little; she was a thin, white, pink-eyed bundle of shawls, feeble and ailing, and had too little mind to oppose her husband in anything.
Strangely enough, Mr. Gradgrind had once had a tender heart, and down beneath the facts of his system he had it still, though it had been covered up so long that nobody would have guessed it. Least of all, perhaps, his own children.
Mr. Gradgrind's intimate friend,—one whom he was foolish enough to admire,—was Josiah Bounderby,[Pg 415] a big, loud, staring man with a puffed head whose skin was stretched so tight it seemed to hold his eyes open. He owned the Coketown mills and a bank besides, and was very rich and pompous.
Bounderby was a precious hypocrite, of an odd sort. His greatest pride was to talk continually of his former poverty and wretchedness, and he delighted to tell everybody that he had been born in a ditch, deserted by his wicked mother, and brought up a vagabond by a drunken grandmother—from which low state he had made himself wealthy and respected by his own unaided efforts.
Now, this was not in the least true. As a matter of fact, his grandmother had been a respectable, honest soul, and his mother had pinched and saved to bring him up decently, had given him some schooling, and finally apprenticed him in a good trade. But Bounderby was so ungrateful and so anxious to have people think he himself deserved all the credit, that after he became rich he forbade his mother even to tell any one who she was, and made her live in a little shop in the country forty miles from Coketown.
But in her good and simple heart the old woman was so proud of her son that she used to spend all her little savings to come into town, sometimes walking a good part of the way, cleanly and plainly dressed, and with her spare shawl and umbrella, just to watch him go into his fine house or to look in admiration at the mills or the fine bank he[Pg 416] owned. On such occasions she called herself "Mrs. Pegler," and thought no one else would be the wiser.
The house in which Bounderby lived had no ornaments. It was cold and lonely and rich. He made his mill-hands more than earn their wages, and when any of them complained, he sneered that they wanted to be fed on turtle-soup and venison with a golden spoon.
Bounderby had for housekeeper a Mrs. Sparsit, who talked a great deal of her genteel birth, rich relatives and of the better days she had once seen. She was a busybody, and when she sat of an evening cutting out embroidery with sharp scissors, her bushy eyebrows and Roman nose made her look like a hawk picking out the eyes of a very tough little bird. In her own mind she had set her cap at Bounderby.
So firmly had Mr. Gradgrind put his trust in the gospel of facts which he had taught Louisa and Tom that he was greatly shocked one day to catch them (instead of studying any one of the dry sciences ending in "ology" which he made them learn) peeping through the knot holes in a wooden pavilion along the road at the performance of a traveling circus.
The circus, which was run by a man named Sleary, had settled itself in the neighborhood for some time to come, and all the performers meanwhile boarded in a near-by public house, The[Pg 417] Pegasus's Arms. The show was given every day, and at the moment of Mr. Gradgrind's appearance one "Signor" Jupe, the clown, was showing the tricks of his trained dog, Merrylegs, and entertaining the audience with his choicest jokes.
Mr. Gradgrind, dumb with amazement, seized both Louisa and Tom and led them home, repeating at intervals, with indignation: "What would Mr. Bounderby say!"
This question was soon answered, for the latter was at Stone Lodge when they arrived. He reminded Mr. Gradgrind that there was an evil influence in the school the children attended, which no doubt had led them to such idle pursuits—this evil influence being the little daughter of Jupe, the circus clown. And Bounderby advised Mr. Gradgrind to have the child put out of the school at once.
The name of the clown's little daughter was Cecelia, but every one called her Sissy. She was a dark-eyed, dark-haired, appealing child, frowned upon by Mr. M'Choakumchild, the schoolmaster, because somehow many figures would not stay in her head at one time.
When the circus first came, her father, who loved her very much, had brought her to the Gradgrind house and begged that she be allowed to attend school. Mr. Gradgrind had consented. Now, however, at Bounderby's advice, he wished he had not done so, and started off with the other to The[Pg 418] Pegasus's Arms to find Signor Jupe and deny to little Sissy the right of any more schooling.
Poor Jupe had been in great trouble that day. For a long time he had felt that he was growing too old for the circus business. His joints were getting stiff, he missed in his tumbling, and he could no longer make the people laugh as he had once done. He knew that before long Sleary would be obliged to discharge him, and this he thought he could not bear to have Sissy see.
He had therefore made up his mind to leave the company and disappear. He was too poor to take Sissy with him, so, loving her as he did, he decided to leave her there where at least she had some friends. He had come to this melancholy conclusion this very day, and had sent Sissy out on an errand so that he might slip away, accompanied only by his dog, Merrylegs, while she was absent.
Sissy was returning when she met Mr. Gradgrind and Bounderby, and came with them to find her father. But at the public house she met only sympathizing looks, for all of the performers had guessed what her father had done. They told her as gently as they could, but poor Sissy was at first broken-hearted in her grief and was comforted only by the assurance that her father would certainly come back to her before long.
While Sissy wept Mr. Gradgrind had been pondering. He saw here an excellent chance to put his "system" to the test. To take this untaught girl and[Pg 419] bring her up from the start entirely on facts would be a good experiment. With this in view, then, he proposed to take Sissy to his house and to care for and teach her, provided she promised to have nothing further to do with the circus or its members.
Sissy knew how anxious her father had been to have her learn, so she agreed, and was taken at once to Stone Lodge and set to work upon facts.
But alas! Mr. Gradgrind's education seemed to make Sissy low-spirited, but no wiser. Every day she watched and longed for some message from her father, but none came. She was loving and lovable, and Louisa liked her and comforted her as well as she could. But Louisa was far too unhappy herself to be of much help to any one else.
Several years went by. Sissy's father had never returned. She had grown into a quiet, lovely girl, the only ray of light in that gloomy home. Mr. Gradgrind had realized one of his ambitions, had been elected to Parliament and now spent much time in London. Mrs. Gradgrind was yet feebler and more ailing. Tom had grown to be a young man, a selfish and idle one, and Bounderby had made him a clerk in his bank. Louisa, not blind to her brother's faults, but loving him devotedly, had become, in this time, an especial object of Bounderby's notice.
Indeed, the mill owner had determined to marry her. Louisa had always been repelled by his coarseness and rough ways, and when he proposed[Pg 420] for her hand she shrank from the thought. If her father had ever encouraged her confidence she might then have thrown herself on his breast and told him all that she felt, but to Mr. Gradgrind marriage was only a cold fact with no romance in it, and his manner chilled her. Tom, in his utter selfishness, thought only of what a good thing it would be for him if his sister married his employer, and urged it on her with no regard whatever for her own liking.
At length, thinking, as long as she had never been allowed to have a sentiment that could not be put down in black and white, that it did not much matter whom she married after all, and believing that at least it would help Tom, she consented.
She married Bounderby, the richest man in Coketown, and went to live in his fine house, while Mrs. Sparsit, the housekeeper, angry and revengeful, found herself compelled to move into small rooms over Bounderby's bank.
Merci pour la lecture!