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Hard Times

BOOK I: 12. The Old Woman
OLD STEPHEN descended the two white steps, shutting the black door with the brazen
door-plate, by the aid of the brazen full-stop, to which he gave a parting polish with the
sleeve of his coat, observing that his hot hand clouded it. He crossed the street with his
eyes bent upon the ground, and thus was walking sorrowfully away, when he felt a
touch upon his arm.
It was not the touch he needed most at such a moment - the touch that could calm the
wild waters of his soul, as the uplifted hand of the sublimest love and patience could
abate the raging of the sea - yet it was a woman's hand too. It was an old woman, tall
and shapely still, though withered by time, on whom his eyes fell when he stopped and
turned. She was very cleanly and plainly dressed, had country mud upon her shoes,
and was newly come from a journey. The flutter of her manner, in the unwonted noise of
the streets; the spare shawl, carried unfolded on her arm; the heavy umbrella, and little
basket; the loose long-fingered gloves, to which her hands were unused; all bespoke an
old woman from the country, in her plain holiday clothes, come into Coketown on an
expedition of rare occurrence. Remarking this at a glance, with the quick observation of
his class, Stephen Blackpool bent his attentive face - his face, which, like the faces of
many of his order, by dint of long working with eyes and hands in the midst of a
prodigious noise, had acquired the concentrated look with which we are familiar in the
countenances of the deaf - the better to hear what she asked him.
'Pray, sir,' said the old woman, 'didn't I see you come out of that gentleman's house?'
pointing back to Mr. Bounderby's. 'I believe it was you, unless I have had the bad luck to
mistake the person in following?'
'Yes, missus,' returned Stephen, 'it were me.'
'Have you - you'll excuse an old woman's curiosity - have you seen the gentleman?'
'Yes, missus.'
'And how did he look, sir? Was he portly, bold, outspoken, and hearty?' As she
straightened her own figure, and held up her head in adapting her action to her words,
the idea crossed Stephen that he had seen this old woman before, and had not quite
liked her.
'O yes,' he returned, observing her more attentively, 'he were all that.'
'And healthy,' said the old woman, 'as the fresh wind?'
'Yes,' returned Stephen. 'He were ett'n and drinking - as large and as loud as a