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Hard Times

BOOK I: 10. 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.
 
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