By Charles Matthews

Thursday, June 30, 2011

22. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, pp. 791-816

Chapter 52: Obstinacy through Chapter 53: The Track

Woodcourt brings the news to Esther and Jarndyce that Tulkinghorn has been murdered. Esther immediately recalls Lady Dedlock's fear of him, but the real shock is George's arrest for the murder. Jarndyce is unable to believe him guilty, but Woodcourt carefully lays out the evidence: George is known to have expressed "animosity" toward Tulkinghorn, and to have done so in violent terms, and has admitted that he was at the scene of the crime at about the time it was committed. Jarndyce insists that murder is not what he expects of a man who gave shelter to both Gridley and Jo. They all agree to go visit George in the jail.

George is resigned to his fate: "a man who has been knocking about the world in a vagabond kind of a way as long as I have, gets on well enough in a place like the present, so far as that goes." He insists that his defense is that he's telling the truth, and adamantly refuses to hire a lawyer: "I don't take kindly to the breed."
"Say, I am innocent, and I get a lawyer. He would be as likely to believe me guilty as not; perhaps more. What would he do, whether of not? Act as if I was; -- shut my mouth up, tell me not to commit myself, keep circumstances back, chop the evidence small, quibble, and get me off perhaps! But, Miss Summerson, do I care for getting off in that way; or would I rather be hanged in my own way -- if you'll excuse my mentioning anything so disagreeable to a lady?"

The group is joined by the Bagnets, who are introduced to them, and Mrs Bagnet speaks for her husband in scolding George for his passivity with regard to fighting his case: "I never was so ashamed in my life to hear a man talk folly, as I have been to hear you talk this day to the present company." George clings stubbornly to his permission, however, and Mrs Bagnet signals to Esther that she would like to talk with them outside. As Esther leaves, George tells Jarndyce that on "the dead man's staircase on the night of his murder, I saw a shape so like Miss Summerson's go by me in the dark, that I had half a mind to speak to it." Hearing this, Esther feels "such a shudder as I never felt before or since, and hope I shall never feel again." The figure, George goes on, "crossed the moonlighted window with a loose black mantle on; I noticed a deep fringe to it."

Outside, Mrs Bagnet tells them that George is so stubborn that none of them will be able to persuade him to fight for his release, but that George has relatives that he hasn't mentioned: "They don't know of him, but he does know of them." His mother, she says, is "alive, and must be brought here straight!" She intends to go to Lincolnshire and bring her back, and she sets off on this mission.

Meanwhile, Bucket is still on the case, and he is there for Tulkinghorn's funeral, riding in one of the carriages that follow the procession. Afterward, he goes to the Dedlocks', where the footman tells him another letter has arrived for him: "he has received a round half dozen, within the last twenty-four hours," all containing the same two words: "LADY DEDLOCK." Surreptitiously he takes a look at the letters to Sir Leicester on the library table, but none of them has a handwriting that matches the one on the envelope sent to him.

Bucket puts on his best ingratiating manner, even flirting with Volumnia Dedlock, and persistently referring to the master of the house by full title: "Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet." Sir Leicester remains outraged by Tulkinghorn's murder, and proclaims of the murderer -- whom everyone present assumes to have been George -- "If it were my brother who had committed it, I would not spare him." At this, Bucket "looks very grave." He addresses the gathering:
"Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet, I have no objections to telling this lady," -- meaning Volumnia -- "with our leave and among ourselves, that I look upon the case as pretty well complete. It is a beautiful case -- a beautiful case -- and what little is wanting to complete it, I expect to be able to supply in a few hours." 
Sir Leicester is glad to hear it, but Bucket continues, "Very strange things comes to our knowledge in families." Sir Leicester dismisses him, "with a wave of his hand, implying not only that there is an end of the discourse, but that if high families fall into low habits they must take the consequences." Bucket takes his leave but returns quickly to ask "who posted the Reward-bill on the staircase." Sir Leicester says he ordered it done, and when Bucket asks why, says that "it cannot be too prominently kept before the whole establishment."

In the hall, Bucket encounters the footman, and begins to flatter him by commenting on his height and suggesting that he should pose for "a friend of mine that you'll hear of one day as a Royal Academy Sculptor." He begins to talk about Lady Dedlock, who is out to dinner, and has the footman confirm that she goes out frequently -- which, Bucket says, doesn't surprise him as she is "so handsome and so graceful and so elegant" that she "is like a fresh lemon on a dinner-table, ornamental wherever she goes." But he changes the subject to ask the footman whether his father was in service, too. Bucket says that his was, and "Said with his last breath that he considered service the most honourable part of his career." His brother, Bucket says, is in service, and so is his brother-in-law. And then he switches back to the topic of Lady Dedlock, asking, "a little spoilt? A little capricious?"

Just then, as Bucket has gained the confidence of the footman, the lady herself enters, and the footman attending her identifies him to her. She asks if he is waiting to see Sir Leicester, and he says he has seen him already, and that he has nothing "at present" to ask her. He watches her ascend the stairs.
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), Shadow (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)
Bucket observes to the footman that Lady Dedlock "Doesn't look quite healthy," and the footman agrees: She suffers from headaches, he says. And she walks sometimes for two hours, even at night. Bucket slyly changes the subject again to the footman's height, and then back to Lady Dedlock's walks at night. Then Bucket observes, "she went out walking, the very night of this business." The footman takes the bait: "To be sure she did! I let her into the garden over the way." Bucket says, of course he did: "I saw you doing it." He claims that he was in a hurry, going to see an aunt of his in Chelsea, and "chanced to be passing at the time. Let's see. What time might it be? It wasn't ten." The footman falls for it: "Half-past nine." That's right, Bucket says, "And if I don't deceive myself, my Lady was muffled in a loose black mantle, with a deep fringe to it?" So she was, says the footman.

And Bucket takes his leave of the footman, urging him, when he has time to spare, to think of getting in touch with "that Royal Academy sculptor, for the advantage of both parties."

The 2005 BBC/Masterpiece Theatre dramatization features Hugo Speer as Mr George, Denis Lawson as John Jarndyce, Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther Summerson, Richard Harrington as Allan Woodcourt, Michael Smiley as Phil Squod, Alun Armstrong as Mr Bucket, Tom Georgeson as Clamb, Anne Reid as Mrs Rouncewell, Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock.

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