By Charles Matthews

Friday, July 1, 2011

23. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, pp. 816-865

Chapter 54: Springing a Mine through Chapter 56: Pursuit

Sir Leicester agrees to meet with Bucket in the library, excusing himself because he is "not well.... I am subject to -- gout." Sir Leicester hesitates about specifying the illness but realizes that "Mr Bucket palpably knows all about it." He suggests that Volumnia wishes to join them, too, but Bucket quickly puts an end to that idea. After checking that the door is locked, and that the key prevents anyone from peeking in, Bucket gets to the point: "I wanted but a very little to complete this case. I have now completed it, and collected proof against the person who did this crime." And it wasn't George: "It was a woman." Then he ceases to be so direct, preparing Sir Leicester for the revelations to come. But when he mentions Lady Dedlock, "Sir Leicester raises himself in his seat, and stares at him fiercely."

Bucket presses on, however, telling Sir Leicester, "She is the pivot it all turns on." Sir Leicester's anger continues: "My Lady's name is not a name for common persons to trifle with!" Still Bucket proceeds, telling Sir Leicester that Tulkinghorn "long entertained mistrusts and suspicions of Lady Dedlock." Sir Leicester says he would have killed Tulkinghorn himself if he had "dared to breathe them to me." But Bucket continues, telling him that Tulkinghorn's suspicions grew from Lady Dedlock's awareness of "the existence, in great poverty, of a certain person, who had been her lover before you courted her, and who ought to have been her husband." The man subsequently died, Bucket continued, and Tulkinghorn "suspected Lady Dedlock of visiting his wretched lodging, and his wretcheder grave, alone and in secret."

He then tells of the trick played on Jo in Tulkinghorn's office, in which Hortense appeared in the clothes that Lady Dedlock had borrowed from her, confirming Tulkinghorn's suspicions. He then suggests that Sir Leicester ask his wife whether, after Tulkinghorn left their house on the night of his murder, "she didn't go down to his chambers with the intention of saying something further to him, dressed in a loose black mantle with a deep fringe to it." If she denies it, he tells the baronet, "tell her that it's no use; that Inspector Bucket knows it, and knows that she passed the soldier as you called him (though he's not in the army now) , and knows that she knows she passed him, on the staircase."

Sir Leicester has turned pale, "and Mr Bucket soon detects an unusual slowness in his speech, with now and then a curious trouble in beginning, which occasions him to utter inarticulate sounds." He informs Sir Leicester of his suspicion that Tulkinghorn was holding this information over Lady Dedlock, threatening to reveal it to her husband.

But then Bucket is interrupted by the sound of a commotion in the hall. He listens, and recognizing what it's all about, suggests that they "let in these people now in a wrangle with your footmen," urging him to remain silent while he deals with them. Sir Leicester agrees, and admits two footmen carrying a man in a chair, accompanied by another man and two women. Bucket identifies the man in the chair as Smallweed, who identifies the others as Mr and Mrs Chadband and Mrs Snagsby. Smallweed proceeds to tell Sir Leicester that he found letters at Krook's "from the lodger's sweetheart, and she signed Honoria" -- the implication being that that's Lady Dedlock's name. Smallweed is there because he wants the letters, and asks if Sir Leicester isn't concerned about them, "Not with Captain Hawdon and his ever affectionate Honoria, and their child into the bargain?" And he implies that Lady Dedlock murdered Tulkinghorn for them.

But Bucket is a match for Smallweed, and produces the letters "from a mysterious part of his coat." Smallweed lays claim to them, and says he wants five hundred pounds for them. "'No you don't; you mean fifty,' says Mr Bucket, humorously." They proceed to bargain a little, until Bucket turns his attention to Chadband, who launches into one of his perorations until Bucket makes him come to the point and introduce his wife, who tells them, "I helped to bring up Miss Hawdon, her Ladyship's daughter. I was in the service of her Ladyship's sister, who was very sensitive to the disgrace her Ladyship brought upon her" -- Mrs Chadband lays "a bitter stress on the word 'Ladyship.'"

Then Bucket turns to Mrs Snagsby, whose presence there is at best tangential, except that she is convinced that the whole affair has something to do with her husband deceiving her and that he was the father of Jo. Bucket "has seen through the transparency of Mrs Snagsby's vinegar at a glance," so he ignores her and turns his attentions again to Smallweed and the Chadbands. He chides them for making a racket in the hall, rings for the footmen, and has them escorted out.

He turns to Sir Leicester and says that the letters in question can "be bought pretty cheap," if he wishes, but first there's the matter of apprehending the murderer, who "is now in this house." He rings for the footman who escorts Mademoiselle Hortense into the room. He informs Sir Leicester that Hortense has been a lodger in Bucket's for several weeks, and he informs her that he's taking her into custody for Tulkinghorn's murder. He then tells Sir Leicester about Hortense's hatred of Lady Dedlock for discharging her -- which Hortense disputes, as she does everything Bucket says, claiming, "I discharge myself." He cautions her to be silent, that anything she says can be used against her, but she's incapable of that. He continues to tell of her claim on Tulkinghorn for her participation in the masquerade in Tulkinghorn's chamber that revealed Lady Dedlock as the woman whom Jo showed to Hawdon's grave. And that while she was Bucket's lodger, she persisted in harassing Tulkinghorn and, to get to him, Snagsby.

After the murder, Bucket says, he arrested George because there was enough evidence for him to do so, but he was not convinced of the man's guilt. Then he went home, where Hortense was having supper with Mrs Bucket, and was persuaded by Hortense's exaggerated "respect, and all that, for the lamented memory of the deceased Mr Tulkinghorn" and when he "saw her with a knife in her hand, that she had done it!" Hortense claimed that she had been to the theater that night, and Bucket says that he has discovered that she was there "both before the deed and after it." So realizing that she was very calculating, he set a trap for her. Mrs Bucket was to continue to tell Hortense that he was convinced that George was the murderer.

But Hortense, he says, went too far. She began trying to manipulate the evidence to show that Lady Dedlock had killed Tulkinghorn. "Sir Leicester rises from his chair, and staggers down again." Hortense began writing letters to Bucket indicating that Lady Dedlock was the murderer, but Mrs Bucket was spying on her as she wrote them, and now has the letter paper and the ink as evidence.

Both Lady Dedlock and George were at Tulkinghorn's the night of the murder, and Bucket is certain that Hortense saw them from where she was waiting. "I found the wadding of the pistol with which the deceased Mr Tulkinghorn was shot. It was a bit of the printed description of your house at Chesney Wold." Mrs Bucket has the rest of the paper that Hortense tore up to make the wadding. Mrs Bucket had also accompanied Hortense to the funeral procession for Tulkinghorn, and afterward, Hortense suggested that they go to tea at a place on the edge of London. Near the tea house, there is a small body of water, and Hortense left Mrs Bucket for a short while on the pretense of finding her pocket-handkerchief; "she was rather a long time gone, and came back a little out of wind." Bucket had the pond dragged, and the gun was retrieved from it.

So Bucket puts the handcuffs on her, and although she struggles, raging all the while about Bucket and his wife, he manages to take her away. When they are gone, Sir Leicester collapses, his thoughts on his wife. "And, even to the point of his sinking on the ground, oblivious of his suffering, he can yet pronounce her name with something like distinctness in the midst of those intrusive sounds, and in a tone of mourning and compassion rather than reproach."

Meanwhile, Mrs Bagnet is returning by chaise from Lincolnshire with Mr George's mother. "Railroads shall soon traverse this country," Dickens observes, which the note tells us puts the date of the events in Bleak House somewhere in the late 1830s.  George's mother is Mrs Rouncewell, and he is the wayward son who left to join the army and hasn't been heard from since. George had seen Mrs Rouncewell at Tulkinghorn's office, and in talking about her has made Mrs Bagnet realize that she is his mother. Mrs Bagnet tells her that George is determined not to have a lawyer, but "'It won't do to have truth and justice on his side; he must have law and lawyers,' exclaims the old girl, apparently persuaded that the latter form a separate establishment, and have dissolved partnership with truth and justice for ever and a day." (Dickens can do irony when he puts his mind to it and has the right voice for it.)

When they reach London, they enter George's cell quietly. He "is writing at his table, supposing himself to be alone [and] does not raise his eyes, but remains absorbed."
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), Mrs Bagnet Returns From Her Expedition (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)
Finally, Mrs Rouncewell speaks: "George Rouncewell! O my dear child, turn and look at me!" And the usual reconciliation scene proceeds. George expresses his regret for not contacting her over the years, saying that he had put it off so long that it no longer seemed to matter, and that when he heard about his brother's success he was ashamed of his own lack of it. He was afraid that they would try to "set me up as a respectable civilian. But how could any of you feel sure of me, when I couldn't so much as feel sure of myself?" Mrs Rouncewell wants to send for his brother now, but he asks her not to: He wants to be the one to make contact with his brother and to see his reaction for himself.

Mrs Rouncewell takes her leave and goes to the Dedlocks' town house, where she proceeds to Lady Dedlock's room. She tells her that she has found her lost son in prison for murdering Tulkinghorn. "Her Lady's handsome eyes regard her with astonishment, almost with fear." Mrs Rouncewell also tells her that last night "the step upon the Ghost's Walk was so constant and so solemn that I never heard the like in all these years." And then, she says, "I got this letter." She gives it to Lady Dedlock with a plea to help free her son.

When she is gone, Lady Dedlock reads it: "a printed account of the discovery of the body, as it lay face downward on the floor, shot through the heart, and underneath is written her own name, with the word Murderess attached." She drops the letter. Then a servant announces that Mr Guppy is there to see her. She admits him. In his roundabout way, Guppy finally gets to the point that he is there to warn her that Smallweed and the Chadbands have been there this morning, and he is certain that "those letters I was to have brought to your Ladyship were not destroyed when I supposed they were.... That the visitors I have alluded to have been here this morning to make money of it. And that the money is made, or making."

After he leaves, she rings for a servant who confirms Guppy's story of the visitors. "So! All is broken down. Her name is in these many mouths, her husband knows his wrongs, her shame will be published -- may be spreading while she thinks about it -- and in addition to the thunderbolt so long foreseen by her, so unforeseen by him, she is denounced by an invisible accuser as the murderess of her enemy." Tulkinghorn's death was "the key-stone of a gloomy arch removed, and now the arch begins to fall in a thousand fragments, each crushing and mangling piecemeal!" She is convinced "there is no escape but in death," and she sits down and writes a letter to her husband in which she tells him she went to Tulkinghorn's that night to plead with him. "I found his house dark and silent. I rang twice at his door, but there was no reply, and I came home." She "writes this last adieu!" then dresses, leaving her jewels and her money and goes out "in the shrill frosty wind."

Volumnia is the one who discovers the unconscious Sir Leicester on the floor of the library. "He fell down, this morning, a handsome stately gentleman; somewhat infirm, but of a fine presence, and with a well-filled face. He lies upon his bed, an aged man with sunken cheeks, the decrepit shadow of himself." When he regains consciousness he is unable to speak, but Mrs Rouncewell realizes that he wants a slate to write on. He asks about Lady Dedlock and they tell him she has gone out. He wants to know where, and they bring him her letter, which causes him to fall unconscious again. When he awakes, he writes the letter B on the slate, which Mrs Rouncewell interprets as a summons for Bucket.

Sir Leicester gives the letter to Bucket to read, and then writes, "Full forgiveness. Find--." Bucket agrees, and Sir Leicester has him open a box and take out money for expenses. Before he leaves, Bucket tells Mrs Rouncewell that George has been freed, and urges her to turn her attention to Sir Leicester. He then goes to Lady Dedlock's room to search for clues, and finds Esther's handkerchief in the inner drawer of a little chest. He then goes to George's Shooting Gallery, where George gives him Esther's address in town. He is admitted there by Jarndyce, and tells him that Sir Leicester has suffered "apoplexy or paralysis" and that Lady Dedlock has disappeared: "It looks like suicide." He asks for Esther's help in following Lady Dedlock, thinking that "if I follow her in company with a young lady, answering to the description of a young lady that she has a tenderness for," it will be easier to find her.

As he waits for Esther to join him in the search, Bucket tries to imagine where she might go.
On the waste, where the brick-kilns are burning with a pale blue flare; where the straw-roofs of the wretched huts in which the bricks are made, are being scattered by the wind; where the clay and water are hard frozen, and the mill in which the gaunt blind horse goes round all day, looks like an instrument of human torture; -- traversing this deserted blighted spot, there is a lonely figure with the sad world to itself, pelted by the snow and driven by the wind, and cast out, it would seem, from all companionship. It is the figure of a woman, too; but it is miserably dressed, and no such clothes ever came through the hall, and out at the great door, of the Dedlock mansion.
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), The Lonely Figure (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)
The 2005 BBC/Masterpiece Theatre dramatization features Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, Anne Reid as Mrs Rouncewell, Nathalie Press as Caddy Jellyby, Richard Harrington as Allan Woodcourt, Matthew Kelly as Mr Turveydrop, Bryan Dick as Prince Turveydrop, Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther Summerson, Patrick Kennedy as Richard Carstone, Carey Mulligan as Ada Clare, Denis Lawson as John Jarndyce, Alun Armstrong as Mr Bucket, Richard Cant as Mercury, Tom Georgeson as Clamb, Lilo Baur as Hortense, Phil Davis as Smallweed, Loo Brealey as Judy Smallweed, Timothy West as Sir Leicester Dedlock, Hugo Speer as Mr George, Michael Smiley as Phil Squod, Nathaniel Parker as Harold Skimpole, Dermot Crowley as Mr Vholes, Burn Gorman as Guppy.

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