By Charles Matthews

Thursday, June 23, 2011

14. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, pp. 486-519

Chapter 31: Nurse and Patient through Chapter 32: The Appointed Time

The brickmaker's family that Mrs Pardiggle belabored with charity early in the novel has returned to the vicinity of Bleak House, and Charley, Esther's maid, tells her that they need her help. As they leave for their visit to the brickmaker's hovel, Esther has a moment of heightened consciousness:
I had no thought, that night -- none, I am quite sure -- of what was soon to happen to me. But I have always remembered since, that when we had stopped at the garden gate to look up at the sky, and when we went upon our way, I had for a moment an undefinable impression of myself as being something different from what I then was. I know it was then, and there, that I had it. I have every since connected the feeling with that spot and time, and with everything associated with that spot and time, to the distant voices in the town, the barking of a dog, and the sound of wheels coming down the miry hill.
Not quite a Proustian moment or a Joycean epiphany, but also something more than a conventional Victorian novel premonition.

They enter the cottage, which "was closer than before, and had an unhealthy, and a very peculiar smell." In it, in addition to the women we met earlier (and have seen since in London) is Jo, who "staggered up instantly, and stared at me with a remarkable expression of surprise and terror." He has mistaken her for Lady Dedlock, of course, and can hardly be persuaded that it isn't she.

The women explain that they had known Jo in London, in Tom-all-Alone's, and that he had ust turned up that morning in the town. Evidently, he has been hounded out of London by Mrs Snagsby, who's "always a watching, and a driving of me." He is clearly quite ill, but the women can't give him lodging because their husbands will disapprove of it. So Esther and Charley take him to Bleak House. Along the way, Jo whispers to Charley: "If she ain't the t'other one, she ain't the forrenner. Is there three of 'em then?"

They leave Jo in the hall and fetch Mr Jarndyce, who is accompanied by Skimpole, a recent arrival. Skimpole, who once studied medicine, says, "You had better turn him out.... He's not safe, you know. There's a bad sort of fever about him." Esther protests that "he is getting worse," and Skimpole argues that this is all the more reason for turning him out. Jarndyce comes up with a solution: "There is a bed in the wholesome loft-room in the stable; we had better keep him there till morning, when he can be wrapped up and removed."

But in the morning Jo is gone. Skimpole suggests "that it had occurred to our young friend that he was not a safe inmate, having a bad kind of fever upon him; and that he had, with great natural politeness, taken himself off." They search for him, but after five days Charley becomes sick too. Esther has her moved to her own room, and quarantines the two of them there.

Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), Nurse and Patient (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)
But when Charley recovers, Esther herself falls ill, and nurse and patient exchange roles. Esther asks Charley to sit beside her, "and touch me with your hand. For I cannot see you, Charley; I am blind."

Cliffhangers come thick and fast now. We are back in the hands of the omniscient narrator, who is hanging about Krook's, where Jobling has taken Nemo's (i.e., Captain Hawdon's) room under the pseudonym Weevle. He is particularly on edge tonight, and Mr Snagsby finds him at the door of Krook's shop. He asks if Jobling is taking the air before going to bed, and Jobling observes, "Why, there's not much air to be got here; and what there is, is not very freshening." Snagsby agrees "that you're -- not to put too fine a point on it -- that you're rather greasy here." Jobling blames it on the "chops at the Sol's Arms," and Snagsby says the cook must have burnt them, and that they must not have been fresh to start with.

After some rather gloomy conversation, Snagsby moves on, leaving Jobling impatiently waiting for someone. That someone is Guppy, to whom he complains, "here have I been stewing and fuming in this jolly old crib, till I have had the horrors falling on me as thick as hail." Guppy goes to Jobling's room, where he admires the portrait of Lady Dedlock that Jobling has cut from "the Galaxy gallery of British beauty." And now we realize the reason for Guppy's visit and Jobling's impatience: At midnight, Krook has promised to give Jobling the bundle of letters that he filched from the portmanteau in Nemo/Hawdon's room.

Jobling says he last saw Krook about eight, when he helped shut up the shop, and "He has been as quiet, since, as an old rat asleep in his hole." They discuss the letters, and whether Krook has read them -- Jobling insisting that Krook can't read -- and whether they came from a man or a woman. It is Jobling's opinion, from what he has seen of the letters, that they are in a woman's hand.

And then Guppy ";happens to look at his coat-sleeve. It takes his attention. He stares at it, aghast." It is covered in soot. "Confound the stuff, it won't blow off -- smears, like black fat." Jobling repeats what he told Snagsby about the chops at the Sol's Arms, and they try to change the subject. Guppy says, "You are to bring the letters to your room to read and compare, and to get yourself into a position to tell him all about them. That's the arrangement, isn't it, Tony?" Guppy proposes that they make a packet of dummy letters and swap them for the originals, but Jobling argues that Krook is too smart to fall for that. So then Guppy says they'll tell Krook that the letters aren't legally his anyway and that he put them in the hands of his "legal friend" -- i.e. Guppy.

The bell of Saint Paul's strikes eleven, and the other bells in the city follow suit. Then Jobling complains about the soot also, and opens the window. They go and sit on the window-sill and talk some more about Krook and the letters.
Mr Guppy sitting on the window-sill ... continues thoughtfully to tap it, and clasp it, and measure it with his hand, until he hastily draws his hand away.
"What, in the Devil's name," he says, "is this! Look at my fingers!"
A thick, yellow liquor defiles them, which is offensive to the touch and sight, and more offensive to the smell. A stagnant, sickening oil, with some natural repulsion in it that makes them both shudder.
And yet look here -- and look here! When he brings the candle, here, from the corner of the window-sill, it slowly drips and creeps away down the bricks; here, likes in a little thick nauseous pool
"This is a horrible house," says Mr Guppy, shutting down the window. "Give me some water, or I shall cut my hand off."
It is one of Dickens's most memorable and horrifying scenes. The ghastly residue of the spontaneously combusted Krook, defiling everything.

When Guppy's equanimity is restored by scrubbing and brandy, the bells strike midnight, and it is time for Jobling to go down and retrieve the letters. But he returns, terrified, only a minute or two later: "I couldn't make him hear, and I softly opened the door and looked in. And the burning smell is there -- and the soot is there, and the oil is there -- and he is not there!"

Guppy goes down with him to see, and they find Krook's cat "snarling -- not at them; at something on the ground, before the fire." Jobling remembers that when he last saw Krook, at eight that evening, "I left him turning the letters over in his hand, standing just where that crumpled black thing is upon the floor." The cat is snarling at the something on the floor.
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), The Appointed Time (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)
Here is a small burnt patch of flooring; here is the tinder from a little bundle of burnt paper, but not so light as usual, seeming to be steeped in something; and here it is -- is it the cinder of a small charred and broken log of wood sprinkled with white ashes, or is it coal? O Horror, he is here! and this, from which we run away, striking out the light and overturning one another into the street, is all that represents him.... Call the death by any name Your Higness will, attribute it to whom you will, or say that it might have been prevented how you will, it is the same death eternally -- inborn, inbred, engendered in the corrupted humours of the vicious body itself, and that only -- Spontaneous Combustion, and none other of all the deaths that can be died.
The 2005 BBC/Masterpiece Theatre dramatization features Carey Mulligan as Ada Clare, Denis Lawson as John Jarndyce, Anne Reid as Mrs Rouncewell, Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, Johnny Vegas as Krook, Pauline Collins as Miss Flite, Sean McGinley as Mr Snagsby, Burn Gorman as Guppy, Peter Guinness as the Coroner.

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