The Fragility of Civilization
“Familiar in their Mouths as HOUSEHOLD WORDS.”
H O U S E H O L D W O R D S.
A WEEKLY JOURNAL.
CONDUCTED BY CHARLES DICKENS.
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 13, 1854.
[PRICE 2d. N० 341.]
H A R D T I M E S.
BY CHARLES DICKENS
CHAPTER 6 ½.
It was a cold, damp day as a weathered woman examined her weathered shoes. She was an elderly woman, though not frail; she held her shoulders, back, and neck straight, refusing to give in to the burden of time, though time tried hard. Her smoke-grey hair was pulled back and clasped at the nape of her neck, revealing the etched lines that the years had drawn on her face, telling stories of past expressions. Her tall, straight torso was firmly wrapped in a threadbare shawl, one that she wore only for this occasion.
She sat upon the cushioned seat of the train, tracing the worn-out upholstered fabric with her boney fingers. She had taken off her gloves which had belonged to her mother and placed them in her basket; her slender hands were no match for the large, wider fingers of the gloves’ original owner. Of course, she had her own pair, many pairs, but they would not do for this occasion.
He was often a fastidious child, wearisome to his mother, very difficult to amuse. He enjoyed being attended to, regularly concocting tales that would attract more of said attention. Keeping her beloved son on his pedestal was a taxing occupation that did not leave an abundance of time to sew him a new pair of stockings. Being a humble family, they could not afford elaborate gifts, but she managed as well as she could to provide him with something special, spending a month’s worth of nights sewing by candlelight. When her son opened her gift, he let out a small huff of indignation and muttered his gratitude. When later asked, he claimed it was not what he had been hoping, but he wore them nonetheless.
She now missed his complaints, which would seem a rather confounding thought to the common mind, but one must understand that she had since lost him — not to the hands of Death, but to the hands of Money. Money and Success: the two driving forces of men. Any important man must have both of these assets, and no one understood this fact as well as her dear boy.
The old woman watched as the raindrops ran down the window like miniature streams, colliding with one another and creating larger rivers, flowing diagonally across the glass. This made her think of that dreadful afternoon, eight years after her son’s tenth birthday.
It had been a sunny day, perfect for gardening. She was outside their humble stone house, tending to her modest box of flowers when he came marching up to her, bringing with him an air of purpose. On her knees, she noticed him when his shadow fell across her roses. She glanced over her shoulder.
“Will you fetch me more water? It seems I haven’t brought enough,”
|she asked, still weeding the garden.
“Not now, Mother,” he said, “I’ve come here to say goodbye.”
“Goodbye? What —”
“I’m leaving. I’ve been thinking and I’ve come to the conclusion that if I want to make a name for myself, I must go to the city. Unlike you, Mother, I do not strive for a simple life; I’ve grown tired of it. I wish not to lead such an unrewarding existence, never leaving the confines of this small town, never having any opportunities to better myself. No, I am to leave for Coketown tomorrow!”
She was beside herself with shock, unable to form any coherent thought or argument against her son’s leaving. “But… you mustn’t!” she cried. “How shall I go on without my son? Oh, what would your father say, bless his soul?”
“You must, Mother, for my sake. I imagine he’d be happy that his son is getting a new start on life, don’t you?” She nodded feebly in response.
“Now, I have one favour to ask of you before I depart: you ought not to visit me when I am in Coketown; you mustn’t see me in public or inform the city folk of our relation. I wish for the world to see me as a self-made man, coming from nothing and pulling myself up by my own bootstraps! Fighting against Fate itself to succeed! A tale of perseverance will make me more employable, I say, and that’s all that matters in the city: Employment and Reputation. So, Mother, will you do this for your son?”
The woman did not want to give up her son to the Competition of Coketown, but with the sacrificing heart of a mother, she agreed, promising never to visit him.
The sadness of that memory washed over the old woman now, her straight neck and spine slouching slightly. She thought of all the years that had passed without speaking to her son, living on the hope that one day he would come home to her. She had kept her promise year after year; it had been thirty.
She looked out the window at the grey, dismal landscape of Coketown which was approaching. She wondered how any joy could reside in such a colourless place, though she could not help but be in awe of the innumerable, gigantic factories that stood before her. The number of people who worked in those factories, producing whatever needed to be produced, day and night, she could not fathom.
The train’s whistle blew as it neared the station and she slipped her gloves back on, wriggling her fingers in the uncomfortable spaciousness of the extra fabric. The train slowed to a stop and she collected her things, tucking her basket into her elbow and grasping her umbrella with the opposite hand. She heard the train doors open and stepped out into the hallway amongst the other travellers, everyone anxious to get off after their long journey.
She stepped down onto the colourless station platform and into the black-cloaked, bustling crowd, the smell of burning coal filling the air. The old woman took a deep breath and let it out, exhaling any old grief that had risen in her remembrance this afternoon. The straightness returned to her neck and spine, and she smiled.
She was going to see her son today.