By Charles Matthews

Monday, June 20, 2011

12. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, pp. 406-445

Chapter 25: Mrs Snagsby Sees It All through Chapter 27: More Old Soldiers Than One

Mr Snagsby has so far been on the periphery of something momentous, and Mrs Snagsby wants to know what it is, which gives him "much of the air of air of a dog who has a reservation from his master, and will look anywhere rather than meet his eye." And so Mrs Snagsby has enlisted Mr Chadband in uncovering her husband's secret. Having located Jo again, Chadband hauls him before an assembly that includes Mrs Chadband, the Snagsbys, Mr Snagsby's apprentices, and Guster. And observing the glances that pass between Snagsby and Jo, Mrs Snagsby suddenly has a revelation: "It is as clear as crystal that Mr Snagsby is that boy's father."

But Chadband takes charge of the meeting, and having wrestled into submission Jo, who is under the impression that the preacher wants to cut his hair, Chadband launches into a sermon about what he pronounces "Terewth."
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), Mr Chadband "Improving" a Tough Subject (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)
Jo, quite fittingly, falls asleep as Chadband maunders on, but when the preacher speaks of "the unnatural parents of this slumbering Heathen -- for parents he had ... beyond a doubt," it's too much for Mrs Snagsby, who shrieks and then, "becoming cataleptic, she has to be carried up the narrow staircase like a grand piano." In the commotion Jo makes his escape, only to be stopped by Guster, who gives him her supper of bread and cheese and "patted him on the shoulder; and it is the first time in his life that any decent hand has been so laid upon him." Mr Snagsby appears as well and gives him another half-crown with thanks for not telling his wife about the others. But from now on, "into whatsoever atmosphere of secrecy his own shadow may pass, ... the watchful Mrs Snagsby is there too -- bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh, shadow of his shadow."

At the Shooting Gallery, Mr George performs his morning ablutions and exercises and is conversing with Phil Squod when they are interrupted by the entrance of "a limp and ugly figure carried in a chair by two bearers, and attended by a lean female with a face like a pinched mask." It is Smallweed and his granddaughter, Judy.
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), Visitors at the Shooting Gallery (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)
Smallweed reveals that George's pupil, Richard, has also been in debt to his "friend in the city," but his debts were settled before he left for the army. Smallweed is certain, however, that this isn't the end of it: "He has good friends, and he is good for his pay, and he is good for the selling price of his commission, and he is good for his chance in a lawsuit, and he is good for his chance in a wife, and .... I think my friend would consider the young gentleman good for something yet!"

But what Smallweed has really come for is a sample of the handwriting of George's friend Captain Hawdon. Tulkinghorn has commissioned him to produce it: "He wants to see some fragment in Captain Hawdon's writing. He don't want to keep it. He only wants to see it, and compare it with a writing in his possession." George professes to have no such sample, "But if I had bushels of it, I would not show as much as would make a cartridge, without knowing why." He agrees, however, to accompany Smallweed to Tulkinghorn's offices to discuss the request.

In the office, George notes the names of the clients on the file boxes: "Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet" and "Manor of Chesney Wold." Tulkinghorn makes his entrance and bids George be seated, which he does, "bolt upright and profoundly silent -- very forward in his chair." Tulkinghorn asks, "You served under Captain Hawdon at one time, and were his attendant in illness, and rendered him many little services, and were rather in his confidence, I am told." George agrees that this is so. And Tulkinghorn proceeds to ask George three questions: Whether he has any of Hawdon's writing, what he would take in compensation for producing it, and whether it resembles the writing on an affidavit that Tulkinghorn hands him. George repeats the three questions as each is asked, but doesn't even glance at the affidavit.

He stands up, "looking immense," and tells Tulkinghorn, "I would rather, if you'll excuse me, have nothing to do with this." Tulkinghorn asks why. "'Why, sir,' returns the trooper. 'Except on military compulsion, I am not a man of business. Among civilians I am what they call in Scotland a ne'er-do-weel. I have no head for papers, sir. I can stand any fire better than a fire of cross questions." He puts the affidavit back on Tulkinghorn's desk and puts "his hands behind him as if to prevent himself from accepting any other document whatever."

Smallweed is furious, but Tulkinghorn retains "an appearance of perfect indifference." Then George asks why Tulkinghorn wants the sample of Hawdon's writing, and Tulkinghorn declines to answer. So George asks if he may consult with "a friend of mine, who has a better head for business than I have, and who is an old soldier." He will talk with the friend and give Tulkinghorn an answer by the end of the day.

Smallweed requests a conference with Tulkinghorn, and George withdraws. Whereupon Smallweed furiously whispers to the lawyer that George has the writing buttoned up in his tunic. "Judy saw him put it there. Speak up, you crabbed image for the sign of a walking-stick shop, and say you saw him put it there!" Tulkinghorn "coolly" says, "Violence will not do for me, my friend," as Smallweed threatens to commit it. But Smallweed is put back in the carriage with some difficulty, and George departs to see his friend.

He is met by his friend's wife, Mrs Bagnet, who tells him, "I never ... consider Matthew Bagnet safe a minute when you're near him. You are that restless and that roving --." George admits that he is, but she allows him to wait until Mr Bagnet and his son come home. They are theatrical musicians: The father plays the bassoon and the son a fife. George accepts an invitation to stay for dinner, and Bagnet tells him that he'll consider what George wants to ask him, but the decision will have to be Mrs Bagnet's.

So after dinner, George lays out the case, and Bagnet asks his wife to "give him my opinion. You know it. Tell him what it is."
It is, that he cannot have too little to do with people who are too deep for him, and cannot be too careful of interference with matters he does not understand; that the plain rule is, to do nothing in the dark, to be a party to nothing under-handed or mysterious, and never to put his foot where he cannot see the ground. This, in effect, is Mr Bagnet's opinion as delivered through the old girl; and it so relieves Mr George's mind, by confirming his own opinion and banishing his doubts, that he composes himself to smoke another pipe on that exceptional occasion, and to have a talk over old times with the whole Bagnet family, according to their various ranges of experience. 
It is late when he returns to Tulkinghorn's to tell him of his decision, which Tulkinghorn already knows. But Tulkinghorn asks if he was the man who gave Gridley a hiding-place. George says he was, and Tulkinghorn says, "I don't like your associates. You should not have seen the inside of my door this morning, if I had thought of your being that man. Gridley? A threatening, murderous, dangerous fellow." Tulkinghorn "goes into his rooms, and shuts the door with a thundering noise."

George leaves "in great dudgeon; the greater, because a clerk coming up the stars had heard the last words of all, and evidently applies them to him." So "for five minutes he is in an ill humour. But he whistles that off, like the rest of it; and marches home to the Shooting Gallery."
The 2005 BBC/Masterpiece Theatre dramatization features Hugo Speer as Mr George, Phil Davis as Smallweed, Charles Dance as Tulkinghorn, Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, Timothy West as Sir Leicester Dedlock, Emma Williams as Rosa, Tim Dantay as Mr Rouncewell, Michael Smiley as Phil Squod, Johnny Vegas as Krook, Burn Gorman as Guppy.

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