By Charles Matthews

Thursday, June 23, 2011

15. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, pp. 520-554

Chapter 33: Interlopers through Chapter 34: A Turn of the Screw

Another coroner's inquest concerning a death at Krook's takes place at the Sol's Arms, with the usual gawping neighbors. Miss Flite, we learn "has been bravely rescued from her chamber, as if it were in flames, and accommodated with a bed at the Sol's Arms." Mr Guppy and Weevle/Jobling are there, too, and are joined by Snagsby with Mrs Snagsby in close pursuit. She has become so watchful of her husband's every move that Snagsby asks her, "Good lord, you don't suppose that I would go spontaneously combusting any person, my dear?" She replies, "I can't say." Finally, she takes him off home: "I think you may be safer there, Mr Snagsby, than anywhere else."

Guppy tries to persuade Jobling not to give up his room at "that place" -- meaning Krook's -- but Jobling vows, "I wouldn't pass another night there, for any consideration that you could offer me." Guppy is persuaded that although the secrets that went up in flames with Krook may have been lost, there are others that can be found among the papers that are left.

Then a hackney-coach arrives bearing Mr and Mrs Smallweed and their grandchildren. They reveal that Krook was Mrs Smallweed's brother. Mr Smallweed proclaims, "Unless he has left a will (which is not at all likely) I shall take our letters of administration. I have come down to look after the property; it must be sealed up; it must be protected." Tulkinghorn holds the title to the property.

The inquest is addressed by "men of science and philosophy," who affirm that it is a verifiable case of spontaneous combustion. Afterward, Guppy "can only haunt the secret house on the outside; where he has the mortification of seeing Mr Smallweed padlocking the door, and of bitterly knowing himself to be shut out." And then he has to deliver the news to Lady Dedlock that he has failed to obtain the letters he promised her. She is dressed to go out, and receives him impatiently.

"And the letters are destroyed with the person?" she asks him. And he is forced to say that he believes they were. "If he could see the least sparkle of relief in her face now? No, he could see no such thing, even if that brave outside did not utterly put him away, and if he were not looking beyond it and about it." She dismisses him with "You had better be sure that you wish to say nothing more to me; this being the last time you will have the opportunity."

As he is going out, Guppy encounters Tulkinghorn on the way in.
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), The Old Man of the Name of Tulkinghorn (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)
"Mr Guppy sneaks away. Mr Tulkinghorn, such a foil in his old-fashioned rusty black to Lady Dedlock's brightness, hands her down the staircase to her carriage. He returns rubbing his chin, and rubs it a good deal in the course of the evening."

Mr George has received a letter from Smallweed informing him that his debt, of "ninety-seven pounds four shillings and ninepence," has been called in, and if he fails to pay, the debt will fall on his guarantor, Matthew Bagnet. George tells Phil, "Do you know what would become of the Bagnets in that case? Do you know they would be ruined to pay off my old scores?" And just then the Bagnets themselves appear. When she learns of the letter, Mrs Bagnet urges George, "on account of the children," not to let the debt fall on them.

George is crushed by the situation, but he holds out hope that something can be done. "Give the word," he says, and he'll sell everything he has. Unfortunately, "If I could have hoped it would have brought in nearly the sum wanted, I'd have sold all long ago." Mr Bagnet proposes "that George and he should immediately wait on Mr Smallweed in person; and that the primary object is to save and hold harmless Mr Bagnet, who had none of the money." But as the narrator observes, "Whether there are two people in England less likely to come satisfactorily out of any negotiation with Mr Smallweed than Mr George and Mr Matthew Bagnet, may be very reasonably questioned."

Sure enough, Smallweed greets them with "an Ogreish kind of jocularity," and threatens, "I'll smash you. I'll crumble you. I'll powder you. Go to the devil!"
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), Mr Smallweed Breaks the Pipe of Peace (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)
So George decides to try a last resort: He goes to Tulkinghorn. He and Bagnet are told that "Mr Tulkinghorn is engaged, and not to be seen." They wait an hour and are told "that Mr Tulkinghorn has nothing to say to them, and they had better not wait." But they continue to wait, and finally the client comes out of Tulkinghorn's office: It is Mrs Rouncewell. Seeing them, she inquires if they are military men, and tells them that she "had a son once who went for a soldier."

Finally, Tulkinghorn agrees to see them. He disavows any involvement in the Smallweed debt, but George tells him that his chief concern is with the Bagnets, "And if I could bring them through this matter, I should have no help for it but to give up without any other consideration, what you wanted of me the other day" -- that is, his sample of Captain Hawdon's handwriting.

Tulkinghorn keeps up his façade of indifference, but tells George "In case you choose to leave it here, I can do this for you -- I can replace this matter on its old footing, and I can go so far besides as to give you a written undertaking that this man Bagnet shall never be troubled in any way until you have been proceeded against to the utmost -- that your means shall be exhausted before the creditor looks to him."

George agrees to these terms, and hands over the paper with Hawdon's writing. Tulkinghorn betrays no change of emotion as he reads it. "He re-folds it, and lays it in his desk, with a countenance as imperturbable as Death." They are dismissed, and George returns to the Bagnets for dinner.
The 2005 BBC/Masterpiece Theatre dramatization features Phil Davis as Smallweed, Peter Guinness as the Coroner, Burn Gorman as Guppy, Katie Angelou as Charley Neckett, Anna Maxwell Martin as Ether Summerson, Denis Lawson as John Jarndyce, Carey Mulligan as Ada Clare, Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, Charles Dance as Tulkinghorn, Pauline Collins as Miss Flite, Tom Georgeson as Clamb.

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