Thus Slackbridge; gnashing and perspiring after a prodigious sort. A few stern voices called out 'No!' and a score or two hailed, with assenting cries of 'Hear, hear!' the caution from one man, 'Slackbridge, y'or over hetter in't; y'or a goen too fast!' But these were pigmies against an army; the general assemblage subscribed to the gospel according to Slackbridge, and gave three cheers for him, as he sat demonstratively panting at them.
These men and women were yet in the streets, passing quietly to their homes, when Sissy, who had been called away from Louisa some minutes before, returned.
'Who is it?' asked Louisa.
'It is Mr. Bounderby,' said Sissy, timid of the name, 'and your brother Mr. Tom, and a young woman who says her name is Rachael, and that you know her.'
'What do they want, Sissy dear?'
'They want to see you. Rachael has been crying, and seems angry.'
'Father,' said Louisa, for he was present, 'I cannot refuse to see them, for a reason that will explain itself. Shall they come in here?'
As he answered in the affirmative, Sissy went away to bring them. She reappeared with them directly. Tom was last; and remained standing in the obscurest part of the room, near the door.
'Mrs. Bounderby,' said her husband, entering with a cool nod, 'I don't disturb you, I hope. This is an unseasonable hour, but here is a young woman who has been making statements which render my visit necessary. Tom Gradgrind, as your son, young Tom, refuses for some obstinate reason or other to say anything at all about those statements, good or bad, I am obliged to confront her with your daughter.'
'You have seen me once before, young lady,' said Rachael, standing in front of Louisa.
'You have seen me, young lady,' repeated Rachael, as she did not answer, 'once before.'
Tom coughed again.
Rachael cast her eyes proudly towards Mr. Bounderby, and said, 'Will you make it known, young lady, where, and who was there?'
'I went to the house where Stephen Blackpool lodged, on the night of his discharge from his work, and I saw you there. He was there too; and an old woman who did not speak, and whom I could scarcely see, stood in a dark corner. My brother was with me.'
'Why couldn't you say so, young Tom?' demanded Bounderby.
'I promised my sister I wouldn't.' Which Louisa hastily confirmed. 'And besides,' said the whelp bitterly, 'she tells her own story so precious well — and so full — that what business had I to take it out of her mouth!'
'Say, young lady, if you please,' pursued Rachael, 'why, in an evil hour, you ever came to Stephen's that night.'
'I felt compassion for him,' said Louisa, her colour deepening, 'and I wished to know what he was going to do, and wished to offer him assistance.'
'Thank you, ma'am,' said Bounderby. 'Much flattered and obliged.'
'Did you offer him,' asked Rachael, 'a bank-note?'
'Yes; but he refused it, and would only take two pounds in gold.'
Rachael cast her eyes towards Mr. Bounderby again.
'Oh, certainly!' said Bounderby. 'If you put the question whether your ridiculous and improbable account was true or not, I am bound to say it's confirmed.'
'Young lady,' said Rachael, 'Stephen Blackpool is now named as a thief in public print all over this town, and where else! There have been a meeting to-night where he have been spoken of in the same shameful way. Stephen! The honestest lad, the truest lad, the best!' Her indignation failed her, and she broke off sobbing.
'I am very, very sorry,' said Louisa.
'Oh, young lady, young lady,' returned Rachael, 'I hope you may be, but I don't know! I can't say what you may ha' done! The like of you don't know us, don't care for us, don't belong to us. I am not sure why you may ha' come that night. I can't tell but what you may ha' come wi' some aim of your own, not mindin to what trouble you brought such as the poor lad. I said then, Bless you for coming; and I said it of my heart, you seemed to take so pitifully to him; but I don't know now, I don't know!'
Louisa could not reproach her for her unjust suspicions; she was so faithful to her idea of the man, and so afflicted.
'And when I think,' said Rachael through her sobs, 'that the poor lad was so grateful, thinkin you so good to him — when I mind that he put his hand over his hard-worken face to hide the tears that you brought up there — Oh, I hope you may be sorry, and ha' no bad cause to be it; but I don't know, I don't know!'